Bishop’s Palace Galveston’s Grandest Home

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Intricate carvings, moldings and curved details exude richness
Josephine Gresham painted the cherubs on the ceiling in the paneled dining room.
Bishop’s Palace on Galveston Island is considered one of the most significant Victorian residences in the country.
Stained glass surrounds an octagonal mahogany stairwell.
Coffered ceiling in the music room.
Josephine Gresham’s bathtub has three spigots – hot water, cold water and rain water.

Bishop’s Palace
Galveston’s Grandest Home

Bishop’s Palace stands tall on a corner on Galveston Island, beckoning visitors away from the beach – just for a while – and inside to learn its storied history and what life was like there more than 100 years ago.

Formerly known as the Gresham House, the stately home was built from 1887 to 1892 for Walter Gresham, a lawyer and colonel who left Virginia following the Civil War, and his wife Josephine.

The Greshams and six of their seven children lived a grand life in a grand home, all 17,420 square feet of it. Nothing but the best found its way into the house.

Keep in mind, during that time Galveston was one of the wealthiest cities in Texas and the principal city in south Texas. Impressive homes were popping up all over the island as the wealthy tried to out build each other.

Gresham also was district attorney for Galveston and Brazoria counties and was one of the original founders of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. He served in the Texas Legislature from 1886 to 1891.

Designed by architect Nicholas Clayton, considered Galveston’s premier architect, the house is special both inside and out. Three stories over a raised basement are encased in rare woods and intricate carved ornaments.

Impressive fireplaces were brought in from around the world. One fireplace is lined with silver. Sienna marble columns grace the entrance hall. Coffered ceilings rise to 14 feet on the first floor. Stained glass surrounds five sides of an octagonal mahogany stairwell that’s 40 feet tall. A large octagonal skylight illuminates the staircase. Walls are 23 inches thick.

Josephine, a talented painter, left her artistic touch throughout the house, including the ceiling in the dining room.

The home’s design is Victorian, but the combination of materials, cast iron galleries and complex roof system ties it to Chateauesque, a style based on French Revival. Clayton, an inventive and forward-thinking architect, put his own twist on the style with irregularly shaped stone in multiple colors, steeply peaked rooflines, sculptural chimneys, Tudor arches, and carvings of animals, people and creatures.

While the family lived there, lavish furnishings filled the rooms and the latest technology of the times found its way into the house. A bathtub, still on display in Mrs. Gresham’s bathroom, had three spigots – one each for hot and cold water, and one for rainwater, which left the grand dame’s hair especially soft.

The house was cited by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America. The home is estimated to have cost $250,000 when it was built. In today’s dollars, it would cost more than $8 million. Bishop’s Palace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1900, it became a shelter for dozens of people when the Great Storm killed an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people in Galveston. The house stood strong against the storm surge and brutal winds that exceeded 140 miles per hour.

After her husband’s death in 1920, Josephine moved to Washington, D.C., and three years later the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese purchased the home for Bishop Christopher E. Byrne, thus the name. He was bishop of Sacred Heart Church across from the Gresham House and was well known at the time for opposing the Galveston beauty pageant that evolved into the Miss Universe pageant, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle.

The archdiocese eventually moved to Houston and the house became a museum, later managed by the Galveston Historical Foundation. In 2013, the foundation purchased the historic Bishop’s Palace from the archdiocese.
Some 65,000 visitors tour the home each year.

While the house is not lavishly furnished like it was when the Greshams resided there, its distinct architecture, stained glass windows, opulent woodwork and beautiful appointments make up for its somewhat minimally decorated interior. Much of the furniture will be moved back in after its current stage of restoration.

So escape the beach for a couple of hours and immerse yourself in the rich history of Bishop’s Palace, the island and the personal lives of the people who lived in this magnificent home.

For tours and more information about Bishop’s Palace, go to galveston.com, galvestonhistory.org or call (409) 762-2475

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