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Texas History: Building Galveston

“Muttonhead!” This was the worst name that internationally acclaimed architect Nicholas J. Clayton ever called anyone. He was known among his friends as a man of prayer who attended church daily, and he never worked on Sundays or Christmas Day.

Born in 1840 in Cork, Ireland, Nicholas immigrated to the United States as a young child. Following the accidental death of his father, Clayton eventually moved to Galveston with his mother. He became one of the first professional architects in Texas with his most noted accomplishments in Galveston between 1873 and 1900, now known as the Clayton Era.

Clayton designed many impressive buildings in Texas including St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Edward’s College (Old Main) in Austin; R. E. Stafford Bank and opera house in Columbus; and Sacred Heart Church in Palestine. He also designed the Walter Gresham House (Bishop’s Palace), Ashbel Smith Building (Old Red), W. L. Moody Building, and the Trueheart-Adriance Building all in Galveston.

But his most beloved effort was in designing and re-building Galveston’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, located at Thirty-fourth Street and Avenue K. The 1877 hurricane had severely damaged the original structure, so the church asked Clayton, a member and faithful attendee of the church, to renovate the building.

The Sept. 8, 1900 hurricane almost obliterated life on Galveston Island. As the storm hit, the water rose to almost 15 feet above sea level while winds of at least 120 miles per hour pummeled defenseless structures. It is believed that over 8,000 people died, with many being washed out to sea.

As a response to the devastation, and with an eye to the future, Galveston city leaders built a seawall 3 miles long, and 17 feet above low tide. The wall was 16 feet wide at the bottom and 5 feet wide at the top with a concave face to deflect storm driven waves.

Once the wall was finished, they raised the land behind the seawall to 17 feet, and gently graded the land downward at a rate of one foot for every 1,500 feet until it reached 8 feet at Avenue A. This was a massive undertaking and huge inconvenience for the city residents.

Clayton was again asked by the leadership at St. Patrick’s to help re-build the church and to assist in the raising of the facility an additional 5 feet! This was an enormous task considering that the church was made of stone and weighed approximately 300 tons! But the church has weathered many storms and still stands today.

Nicholas J. Clayton died Dec. 9, 1916, and due to financial reversals he was almost destitute. The only grave marker the family could afford was a broken sample of leftover marble. When Clayton’s wife lamented that she didn’t have a proper monument for his grave, Rabbi Henry Cohen said, “Oh, you don’t need one, my dear Mary. He’s got them all over town. Just go around and read some cornerstones.”

May we all leave such a legacy. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Peter 4:10 ESV)


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