Ashton Villa: 1859 Brick Mansion Stands Strong in Galveston, Texas
Ashton Villa was the first brick mansion in Galveston and one of the first brick homes to be built in the state of Texas. The brick walls are thirteen inches thick to keep out the Gulf Coast humidity and provide strength. There are coal burning fireplaces in every room, two indoor bathrooms, and in 1859 the home glowed at night with gas chandeliers. No expense was spared for this grand mansion in its grand town. Ashton Villa was the center of the Galveston social scene including the family’s annual New Year’s Eve Ball, where the wealthiest families walked from carriages to the front door along a red carpet that covered the dirt and oyster shale of Broadway. Ashton Villa was the heart of Galveston’s identity as one of the richest cities in the country at that time.
James Moreau Brown, the youngest of sixteen children, ran away from his family’s New York home, apprenticed with a brick mason, and began traveling South in 1838 at the age of seventeen. Arriving in Galveston, Texas in 1843 he was struck by the tremendous opportunity of this prosperous town. In the mid-1800s, Galveston’s economy in trade and shipping was booming because the city had the only natural, deep-water port on the Gulf of Mexico. James took the opportunity and opened a hardware store on the island in 1847 at the age of twenty-six.
By 1859, James had built a fortune in the hardware business and in banking. He was the third wealthiest man in Galveston and the fifth wealthiest in Texas. James purchased four lots on Broadway for $4,000 and, referencing architectural pattern books popular at the time, he modified a plan to design a Victorian Italianate house as a gift for his wife, Rebecca Ashton Stoddard. Ashton Villa was constructed using slave labor and the craftsmanship of a slave named Alek, whom James purchased specifically because Alek was a skilled brick mason.
During the Civil War, the home became the headquarters for the Confederate Army. It remained in Confederate control throughout the war except for a brief period in 1862 when Galveston surrendered to the Union Army only to be taken again by Confederates in January 1863.
On June 19, 1865, 2000 federal troops arrived in Galveston with the news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa, on what would become the first Juneteenth, Union General Gordon Granger read these words:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
June 19 became Juneteenth and is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had become official two and a half years before, Texas had resisted the freeing of slaves, and until 1865 there had not been enough Union troops to send to Texas to overcome their resistance. As the news spread through Galveston and throughout Texas, former slaves were both shocked and jubilant. The day soon became a celebration and highly revered day in Texas with former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage to Galveston.
Today, Juneteenth is primarily observed in local celebrations but, though there have been some efforts, has never been made an official state holiday in Texas. It is also celebrated throughout the country, primarily by African Americans, but has not yet been made a day of national observance in the United States.
On September 8, 1900 the brick walls of Ashton Villa were tested as a massive hurricane hit the island of Galveston, Texas. The storm is still the deadliest natural disaster on record in the United States. Between 6000-8000 people died in the city of Galveston and casualty estimates for the entire island are as high as 12,000. At Ashton Villa, family and friends rode out the storm on the second level where the winds shattered windows and water crept steadily up the grand staircase reaching the tenth step. The home stood strong amid leveled buildings and homes all around it.
There was so much earth carried away with the storm that when they raised the grade on the island, Ashton Villa needed three feet of landfill all around it to make it even again with the surrounding land. Rather than raise the house up, the basement was filled in, though you can still see the tops of the windows at the front steps, and half of the fence was buried instead of replaced, which is why the fence appears short if you visit today.
In 1970, under the threat of demolition, the Galveston Historical Foundation raised $125,000 to purchase Ashton Villa. The process of restoring and refurnishing home began. Much of the original furniture and art was able to be retrieved. This grand mansion stands today in Galveston where you can see the bricks Alek carefully laid, where socialites of Galveston once danced under the gas chandeliers, and where the news of freedom rang out from the iron balcony.