Nicholas Clayton, who would go on to become Galveston’s most influential 19th century architect, arrived on the island in 1872 at the end of a peripatetic journey that began in Cork County, Ireland, when the 8-year-old boy and his recently widowed mother left the Old World for the new.
Clayton, as a young man, found his way from Cincinnati to New Orleans, on to Louisville and St. Louis, and eventually to Memphis, where the journeyman — now a skilled plasterer, marble carver and draftsmen — hired on with the architectural firm of Jones and Baldwin.
The firm in 1872 dispatched him to Galveston to oversee the construction of two disparate buildings: the First Presbyterian Church and the Tremont Hotel, which he saw through.
The previously restless Clayton, the son of an island nation, found on Galveston Island a home, where he stayed and opened his own architectural practice. He soon earned a sterling reputation for his substantial and handsome buildings and houses.
In 1883, at the height of his powers, he came to the attention of Alfred Belo, publisher of The Galveston News, which had outgrown its antebellum home at 2217 Market Street.
Belo’s late partner, Willard Richardson, The News’ most prominent publisher in the first three decades following the paper’s April 11, 1842, launch, had commissioned that iron-faced, three-story building, which housed the paper’s editorial operations and press; its business offices had remained on Tremont Street.
Consolidation on Mechanic Street
Richardson, after the Civil War, had hired Belo, a former Confederate colonel, as a bookkeeper, and he soon became a trusted confidant. Both men were instrumental in building The News in circulation and in influence. Indeed, Adolph Ochs, who founded The New York Times nine years after The News’ debuted, often praised The News’ influence on his own newspapering philosophy.
With Richardson’s death in 1875, Belo, his designated successor, took over.
In reaching out to Clayton, eight years later, Belo was looking to physically imprint his stamp on The News.
Clayton’s design, at what today is 2108 Mechanic, accomplished the feat. When the building opened in 1884, it was the first facility west of the Mississippi River solely dedicated to producing a newspaper — offices, newsroom, production and printing plant in one.
It is a remarkable building, structurally sound and aesthetically taut.
“The News building was a very inventive piece of architecture, given the energy Clayton was able to compress into the building’s street front,” said Stephen Fox, an architectural historian and co-author with Ellen Beasley of the “Galveston Architecture Guidebook.”
“Clayton compacted so much visual energy into its design.”
Fans and clothespins
The magisterial, three-story edifice opened to great fanfare on April 19, 1884, and the first issue printed there — doubling its content from a simple folio to a full eight pages — rolled off the presses the following morning.
The first floor was given over to business offices and a counting room that led to a sizable vault, all of which fronted the steam-powered press.
The newsroom was on the floor above, and behind it lay a large store of enormous rolls of newsprint feeding the behemoth below.
In 1953, nearly three quarters of a century after The Galveston News building opened, a Ball High School student named Jimmy McGlathery, moonlighting as a sports reporter, would return to the newsroom to write up his accounts of local games.
He still recalls the efforts made by the building’s overseers to combat the summer heat and humidity — and their effect on producing copy.
“Back then, of course, they didn’t have air conditioning, and with the big fans oscillating throughout the newsroom, we would have to bring in clothespins and attach them to the top of our copy to keep it from blowing back into the typewriter keys,” recounted McGlathery, a subsequent Princeton and Yale graduate now retired from a career teaching German literature at the University of Illinois-Champagne. “When we were done, we walked our stories over to the sports editor, clutching them so they wouldn’t blow away.”
Aesthetics and stability
The building’s third floor was the domain of those responsible for typesetting the paper.
“The top floor of the structure is veritably a printers’ paradise, furnishing as it does one of the most elegant, best lighted and thoroughly ventilated composing rooms in America, if not in the world,” the paper gushed at the time. “The News building as it stands, with the new appliances that have been added, represents a cash outlay amounting in the aggregate to nearly $125,000” — the equivalent of $3 million today.
A later writer for The News was just as taken with the façade: “High on the front of the building was an emblematic design made up of the twin torches of science, encircled with an olive wreath and surmounted with the Lone Star of Texas, all of which sprang from a semicircular shield, displaying the Greek letters alpha and omega.”
As striking as the building’s appearance was, its durability was more significant.
The Galveston News building withstood the 1900 Storm, its main press idled only until the Wednesday after the Saturday hurricane, the winds of which were recorded at 100 mph before the gale blew away the anemometer and all other instruments the National Weather Service had placed on a downtown rooftop.
In those few intervening days, a hand press was put into service to print a two-sided sheet, essentially announcing the paper’s survival, which foretold the island’s.
The celebratory announcement of the 1884 building’s opening boasted of its iron skeleton of rolled I-beams and fluted, iron columns supporting its three floors.
Staircases, too, both spiral and platform, were fashioned from iron.
Moreover, its side and rear brick walls were a stout 2 feet thick.
“What people don’t typically recognize is that buildings usually are their most beautiful before the façade is put on,” said Gene Aubry, who was born on the island and later was the principal architect for The Daily News’ current offices and printing plant on Teichman Road. “It’s the bones of a building that are most interesting.
“The Mechanic Street building had very good bones.”
Yet, its skin still today demands attention.
The façade featured vaulted arches of a neo-Renaissance style with stain-glass windows in double-hung sashes, around which were laid pressed, red bricks imported from Philadelphia and augmented with locally manufactured molded bricks and tiles tinted cream and black and a buff gray in between.
“When you look at that building, it’s almost like a musical composition, all the sharps and flats perfectly placed, only written in masonry,” Aubry said. “That’s the magic of that building.”
Move to Teichman Road
In 1964, with the Hobby family’s purchase of The Daily News and its affiliated publications, construction began on joint offices and press facility, at 8522 Teichman Road, five miles across the island from the Mechanic Street building.
Oveta Hobby, the family matriarch and widow of former newspaperman and Texas Gov. William Hobby, commissioned the new building, turning to the Houston-based architectural firm Barnstone & Aubry, whose portfolio included the Houston Post’s recent headquarters in its hometown.
“We were both good friends with the Hobbys,” said Aubry, who now lives on the Gulf Coast island of Anna Maria, Fla. “When they were building a new building in Houston on the Southwest Freeway, Mrs. Hobby had asked me to do her executive offices. Through that, she and I became very good friends.”
The friendship, and the firm’s reputation, won it the Galveston assignment, which was to be designed with one consideration paramount: It was to be capable of withstanding the fury that hurricanes have repeatedly brought to the island.
“It wasn’t built to impress,” Aubry said. “It was built to serve its purpose.”
A practical design
Aubry’s plans called for a four-foot mound beneath the building, which stands on deep, concrete pilings.
“The floor level was predicated on historical flood data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “That’s where you start.”
The building’s concrete bones — the building in all is half concrete poured in place and half attached concrete panels — proved their worth when Hurricane Ike in September 2008 swept across the island, devastating many lesser buildings.
Yet, the purposeful design has not been immune to criticism.
“There is something tense and uneasy about the architecture of the News Building,” Fox wrote in his and Beasley’s guidebook to Galveston’s architecture. “Its gestural elements are overstated and under-detailed. Consequently, the building lacks the assurance characteristic of Barnstone & Aubry’s work.”
That assessment elicited Aubry’s umbrage; he argues that critics miss the point.
“First of all, we were designing a plant that has to produce a product,” he said. “It’s a very utilitarian building. The Galveston News building wasn’t designed to be exciting architecture. It was designed to withstand hurricanes and keep publishing. And it had to be done with a very tight budget, and it was.
“I think it’s an important building, one that makes a statement as to what journalism is. What that building says is, ‘this is who we are, this is what we do.’
“It’s blunt and honest. It’s not a building that gives the illusion that it’s something that it’s not. First of all, I recall thinking, ‘you’re building a building for the oldest newspaper in Texas; you want something solid.’
“Just because some pissant storm comes along, you don’t want to have to shut down, and Ike proved they didn’t have to shut down. The building performed the way it was designed to perform. It stood up to Ike. The name of the game is printing a newspaper, that’s the whole point.”
Aubry’s most poignant design feature, reinforcing that a newspaper is produced inside the building, has been lost to the actions of armed and reckless sorts.
The building, which stands just off the southern end of the causeway, once boasted a wall of towering plate-glass windows, which at night, with the pressroom illuminated, provided a view of the whirring press as newsprint wound its way through its muscular units and folder.
Yet, despite the presence of pressmen overseeing the nightly production, some trigger-happy motorists couldn’t resist opening fire on the glass wall.
“The beauty was that you could see the presses running as you came off the causeway,” Aubry said of his actualized design for the building’s rear wall. “But some idiots figured they could shoot out the windows, and they took shots.”
Hurricane shutters, intended only to be lowered in advance of an arriving storm, were ordered permanently closed, depriving the motoring public of an alluring look at the presses in motion.
“Those windows, the notion of transparency, emphasized the character of the building,” Fox said, admiringly. “They emphasized what goes on inside it.
“It’s a real shame that they had to be closed off.”