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The Galveston That Was (Sara and John Lindsey Series in the Arts and Humanities) Paperback – December 14, 2014
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About the Author
HOWARD BARNSTONE was a visiting critic at Yale University’s School of Architecture and a professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Houston. HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON is considered one of the major artists of the twentieth century, having covered many of the world’s biggest events, from the Spanish Civil War to the French uprisings in 1968. His photography has been featured in major exhibits around the world. EZRA STOLLER was a distinguished architectural photographer whose work is included in museum collections around the world.
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While I agree to a certain extent with reviewers of the book who say they were disappointed in the photography and expected better things from such greats as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ezra Stoller, I find memorable and enjoyable some of the photos which are evocative of that intriguingly decadent quality that used to be typical of the pre-restoration Galveston of the early 1960s. Cartier-Bresson seemingly loved and enjoyed Galveston but spent only a small amount of time--10 days--walking about the town and photographing it, and sometimes the sun was not right for pictures that he might have liked to take. Cartier-Bresson's work is supposed to be characterized by his studied attempts to capture "essences" in his photos, and I think he did sometimes capture the old city's essence, as of an exquisitely beautiful thing in a state of decay. He called Galveston a "strange and ephemeral butterfly of the 19th century."
A quote from no lesser light than Edna Ferber serves as a literary "gateway" to the book. (Who would ever have thought that the great novelist knew anything about Galveston?):
"Here in Galveston the humidity was like a clammy hand held over your face. Yet the city had a ghostly charm. The scent of the tangled gardens hung heavy on the muggy air. The houses, pockmarked by the salt mist and the sun and heat and mildew, seemed built of ashes. Here was a remnant of haunted beauty--gray, shrouded, crumbling. What did they resemble? Of what did this city remind me? Miss Havisham, of course. That was it. Miss Havisham the spectral bride in Great Expectations." ---From A Kind of Magic
Everyone notices a certain similarity between Galveston and the Old Quarter of New Orleans. I think that both cities, especially when both were havens of decay that made for cheap rental quarters, partake of the atmosphere that one finds in some of Tennessee Williams' plays set in perhaps the 1940s and 1950s. Cartier-Bresson's photos of the old lady in the hallway of the Washington Hotel, pictures of the Vernacular Greek Houses on Avenue I, the Voelcker Residence, and the bordello on Post Office Street, all of these remind me of places that one might expect to find in a Williams' play.
I like this book because I find the appearance of the old buildings of Galveston in decay to be somehow more interesting and affecting than the same buildings restored and nicely painted, a preference that I suppose could be labeled "romantic."
The text informs us that: "In Galveston, as everywhere else, cast iron was, by 1856, an approved material for everything from steam engines to customhouses. Its predominance as a building material in the nineteenth century was founded on its fire-resistant qualities, comparative cheapness, simplicity of manufacture and tensile strength. It did not decline in use until the 1880s, when the steel frame was developed in Chicago."
One can gaze upon some particularly beautiful exterior details of cast iron-work in this book. I especially love the pictures of the Block-Oppenheimer building, the Trueheart-Adriance building, the J. E. Wallis residence, and the Landes house. For me personally, some of these represent more beautiful examples of iron-work than one finds in New Orleans and there seems to be in Galveston a greater variety of iron-work creativity.
Another great plus is that this book offers the opportunity to study photos of some of the work by the outstanding architect Nicholas J. Clayton.
This is a high quality production of nearly 250 pages printed on glossy paper, footnoted and indexed.
Despite some minimal disappointments, if you take time with it, the book proves to be exciting and excellent, a source of knowledge and beautiful things to study and enjoy. A book collector's treasure, I'd say.
The city of Galveston was once a prosperous city port at the turn of the 20th century, and drew many prosperous merchants who set up imposing Victorian structures which served as their homes and places in which to entertain guests. Some of these homes were the Moody Mansion and Gresham Palace (now known as Bishop's Palace). These homes are truly beautiful and my family and I spent a good part of our visit exploring the wonders of these homes on well-conducted guided tours. "The Galveston That Was" captures the waning beauty of Galveston's Victorian buildings, many of which fell into disrepair or were obliterated after the great hurricane of 1900 which devastated the city and claimed thousands of lives (estimates range between 6,000 and 12,000). This is an important book because its first printing served as a catalyst that mobilized native Galvestonians to save some of these homes, resulting in some fine restored Victorian structures such as the Moody Mansion and Bishop's Palace. I am happy that we stopped by this city and am determined to make many more trips in the future to explore the other treasures that Galveston has to offer.