Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Bishop's Palace in Galveston, Texas

by Linda LaRoque

Postcard of the Bishop's Palace. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

On one of my many trips with cousins, we visited Galveston and toured the Bishop’s Palace, a castle like structure built by Galveston’s premier architect, Nicholas Clayton. Construction began on the Victorian building in 1887 and was finished in 1893. It stands proudly today, a survivor of the worst hurricane disaster in 1900 in this country’s history. The house cost $250,000 to build. 
Gresham's Castle stand proud and tall amid the wreckage
of Galveston's hurricane in 1900.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The home, first named Gresham’s Castle, was designed for Colonel Walter Gresham, a native Virginian, and his wife and cousin Josephine. Walter served in the Civil War earning the honorary title of Colonel. With the upheaval in Virginia during reconstruction, he moved to Galveston to begin anew.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

A lawyer and entrepreneur, Gresham founded the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad and was later instrumental in Galveston becoming the only deep water sea port west of the Mississippi. He served in the Texas Legislature and died in Washington in 1920 while serving in the United States Congress. Josephine remained in Washington and the house in Galveston remained vacant. She died in 1933.

In 1926 Josephine sold the house to the Catholic Diocese for $40,500 as a home for Bishop Christopher C. E. Byrne. At that time it became known as the Bishop’s Palace. Though run by Galveston’s Historical Society, the house is still owned by the Catholic Diocese.

The home was the first ever to boast recessed lighting, a Clayton design. At the far end of the entry hall, a fireplace, combination gas and coal, has a flue below the fireplace, an oddity that no one knows exactly how it works. A beautiful solid oak staircase curves up and over the fireplace and has a Bishop’s pulpit where the Gresham children often observed party festivities of Galveston’s elite. Above the staircase is a rotunda with cooling vents in the upper windows. The house was lit with gasoliers, combination gas and electric lights. Can you imagine the fire hazard they must have been?

Josephine was a great entertainer. She loved to travel and did so extensively. On her travels she mailed post cards home to add to her collection. Many ladies in her circle also had collections and gatherings gave hostesses the opportunity to boast of the places they’d been. On display in the parlor is the box Mrs. Gresham had made to display her cards. At one end of the parlor is an alcove where as guests danced on the pine floors, musicians played behind hand-painted screens and palms. The entertainers were to be heard, not seen. It is in this alcove where after his death, Bishop Byrne lay in state.

Mrs. Gresham was an accomplished artist and painted many of the murals on the ceilings. Some of her paintings remain on display. In the dining room, Lincrusta, a wall covering similar to linoleum is shaped to adhere to the curved area below the ceiling.

Fresh water was a commodity in Galveston. A drainage system allowed rain water to be collected and stored. In the master bathroom, the bathtub has three faucets—one for cold water, one for hot water, and one for rain water to wash the mistress’s hair.

When the house was built, the kitchen was located in the basement. There were three kitchens—one to cook breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner. During Bishop Byrne’s time, a modernized kitchen was installed in the warming room behind the butler’s pantry where the food was held until it was served. On display in the kitchen today is an old Crescent stove that used both wood and gas.

Many of the windows on the first and second floors open from the floor up to allow air flow and individuals to step out on the porch that surrounds the house. The house is filled with stained glass, Italian pink marble fireplaces, a hand carved mantle made of Santa Domingo mahogany that won first- place at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876, and another made of onyx, pewter, and silver that won first-prize at the New Orleans Exhibition. 

Hand carved woodwork abounds in the house—light mahogany in the music room, black burl walnut in the library, dark mahogany in the parlor. The lower floor rooms have massive sliding doors with different woods on each side so they’ll match the wood of each room. In the library, the glass doors on the books shelves slide rather than open out and all of the windows have folding inside shutters. Of the beautiful woods used in the house, the most valuable is located in the servant’s entry area and staircase. It is long leaf pine which is very rare and expensive today. The servant’s stairs go up to the third floor. There are ninety-three steps. Women servants of the era wore corsets and long dresses. Off of this area is a cloak room with pegs to hold coats of guests. Though the servants didn’t live on site, they had their own bathroom complete with bathtub just off this area.

Mr. and Mrs. Gresham’s rooms, along with those of their three daughters, are on the second floor. The rooms are elaborate, many containing half-canopy beds with painted murals. The girls had their own bathroom, but it’s half the size of the master. The boy’s rooms were on the third floor. Though we were not allowed on that level, the guide explained the rooms were spartan compared to those of the girls. Boys needed space to run and play, decoration wasn’t important. They had their own toilet, the girls most likely wouldn’t have approved of sharing, but bathed in the girl’s bathroom or downstairs in the servant’s bathroom.

Mr. Gresham’s bedroom was converted into a private chapel for Bishop Byrne and remains as such today. If you have time to only visit one of the historical homes in Galveston, The Bishop’s Palace is the one to see.

I took the picture above on the day we visited the castle. Alas, I was unable to get a shot without traffic. If you will Google Images of the Bishop's Palace you can see many of the rooms inside including the Preacher's Pulpit and the fireplace in the entry hall mentioned above. 

Thanks you for stopping by today. Please leave a comment.


Linda LaRoque


  1. Lovely, Linda. Thanks for reminding me about this historic site. I haven't been, and would love a tour.

  2. The history of houses is always so intriguing. If only walls could talk. I can't help but think of lives lived, words spoken, meals eaten and entertainments performed in a house, any house. It captivates my imagination. I so enjoyed reading your article. It's amazing what this house endured and survived. The gas/electric lights sure sounded dangerous. The pictures are fantastic. I have to say the house looks sort of spooky. Maybe it's just the Victorian architecture or the hugeness of it.
    I was so sorry to hear about your recent loss. I hope happiness and healing love is coming to you very soon.

  3. Wonderful post, Linda. I love architecture and historic homes. Bishop's Palace in Galveston is one of my favorites. In fact, it provided the inspiration for Bluebonnet Hill, the elegant home of the Worthington family in Whisper in the Wind. :)

  4. WOW I would so love to see the inside of this place. How wonderful they were able to live in such splendor. Thanks for sharing, Linda.

  5. You will love it, Caroline! There are several other mansions in Galveston that I'd love to tour.

  6. So true, Sarah. I'm the same way. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and yes, it does look spooky in some ways. I think all Victorian homes are somewhat, especially if they have dark wood and hallways. But, I love those with the gingerbread accents outside.

  7. How exciting, Ashley. I'll have to get a copy of Whisper in the Wind. I look forward to reading it.

  8. Paisley, google the Bishop's Palace in Galveston and click on images. There are oodles of pictures of the inside of the mansion. The curved staircase with the preachers pulpit is one of my favorites.


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