Sitting stately for the past century and a half on the corner of Market and 15th streets, The Austin House, with its double galleries and dual entries, pays homage to the at-one-time-equally important thoroughfares it faces. It is one of those iconic structures where tourists and residents alike stop to point and shoot every day. The home was already over 30 years old when Ida Smith Austin came to live in it and became its loving steward through the turn of the century and the Great Depression.
The Islander: Good afternoon Mrs. Austin. Thank you so much for meeting with me today. I’d like to start by asking you about your background. How did you come to Galveston?
Ida Smith Austin: I was born in 1858 in Lexington, Virginia, and educated at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. At 33, I came to Texas and began teaching Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church. Four years later, I married Valery E. Austin, a prominent real estate dealer and city commissioner.
The Islander: I take it you were quite a successful Sunday school teacher?
Mrs. Austin: I began Ida Austin Bible Class with five girls, and when the boys asked to join, there was some opposition in the minds of our church fathers as to the propriety of allowing the goats and the sheep to graze in the same spiritual pastures together. I took a firm stand in my quest for independence, realizing that if un-presbyterian, it was not unspiritual to do so.
The Islander: Perhaps we should call you an early feminist. How long did you teach?
Mrs. Austin: For 53 years I taught ministers and missionaries, deacons and elders, as many as 5,000 students altogether, and outlasted seven pastors. I also served as president of the YWCA and president of the United Daughters for the Confederacy.
The Islander: It sounds as if you had an impressive influence on your church, despite being a woman amidst a patriarchy. What can you tell us about The Austin House?
Mrs. Austin: The home, which we called Oak Lawn because of the many live oaks on the property, was built by D. Moffat for my husband’s ancestor, Edward Tailor Austin, who was a cousin of Stephen F. Austin. It incorporated an older home that some say dates back to 1859, and was completed September 5, 1868. It has been written that the home reflects the architectural meeting place of Greek revival and jigsaw, and the birth of Victorian scrolls.
: The home was built around the time of the Civil War. How were such extravagances afforded?
Mrs. Austin: When it was built, the Civil War was a new and savage memory. The South was broke, but cotton was worth a dollar a pound. It was the beginning of Galveston’s greatness as a port, and the incoming wealth is certainly reflected in its houses. Practically all the building materials used in my home were shipped from Maine – white pine, and imported mahogany and walnut. The walls of the drawing room were frescoed with classic scenes and painted cornices broke the ceiling angle after the Pompeian manner. It has always been a rich and hospitable home.
The Islander: In fact, you had guests at your home on the evening of September 7, 1900, isn’t that right?
Mrs. Austin: Yes it is. A storm had been predicted for Friday night the Seventh of September, but so little impression did it make on my mind that a most beautiful and well attended moonlight fete was given at our home Oak Lawn that night.
The Islander: When did you realize a storm really was coming?
Mrs. Austin: I was busy about my domestic affairs Saturday, rearranging my house, when I heard a man who ran up the street, exclaim, “My God! The waters of the bay and gulf have met on 15th Street.” I went on the gallery to realize that what he said was only too true.
The Islander: Where you frightened?
Mrs. Austin: No, I felt no uneasiness and remarked to my niece, “We have nothing to fear, the water has never been over our place,” and I just felt that it could not come. In a few minutes we heard the lapping of the salt water against the side-walk, and then it slowly crept into the yard.
The Islander: When did you understand how severe the situation was?
Mrs. Austin: In an incredibly short time the water surged over the gallery driven by a furiously blowing wind. Trees began to fall, slate shingles, planks and debris of every imaginable kind were being hurled through the air. We brought our cow on the gallery to save her life, but soon had to take her in the dining room where she spent the night. Ten very large trees were soon uprooted and fell crashing, banging and scraping against our house. We opened all downstairs windows and let the water flow through. Soon it stood three feet in all the rooms.
The Islander: Did it stop there, with just three feet on the ground floor?
Mrs. Austin: The wind seemed to grow more furious, reaching the incredible velocity of 120 miles an hour. Blinds were torn off windows, frames, sash and all blown in, and the rain water stood an inch and a half on upstairs floors. Then slowly dripped through, taking paper and plastering from ceilings in the rooms below.
The Islander: What were your impressions when the storm had passed?
Mrs. Austin: Galveston! The beautiful island city was hardly recognizable the next day. Yet, with God everything, without God nothing.
The Islander: Thank you for sharing your memories.
Mrs. Austin: It has been my pleasure.
One hundred and eight years later, on September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike washed another four feet of water through The Austin House’s frescoed dining room. The plaster walls and Maine white pine floors dried and remain today.
Mrs. Austin died in 1936.
This interview is a fictional conversation with Ida Smith Austin, but most of the words are hers, as captured in her own story, written November 6, 1900, and published in Through a Night of Horrors, edited by Casey Edward Greene & Shelly Henley Kelly; and Women, culture, and community: religion and reform in Galveston, 1880-1920 by Elizabeth Hayes Turner. Details about the construction and architecture of the house were taken from Library of Congress records.
Alice Melott is a Galveston essayist, real estate broker and trainer and a social media consultant. You can read her musings on real estate, island politics, and other sundry fodder at http://amelott.wordpress.com or call/text her at 713.443.5432. If you have a great house with an even greater story, please e-mail email@example.com to be considered for this column.