1847 Powhatan House

The 1847 Powhatan House

This historically important structure became the property of the Galveston Garden Club in 1965. Since then it has been the club's headquarters and meeting facility. Today, the Powhatan House is undergoing a variety of renovation projects but is still home to club activities. Follow @1847Powhatan on Facebook, where we'll share history of the house, stories of past residents, restoration progress, and interesting discoveries.

The narratives below are taken from our 1975 application for entry in the National Register of Historic Places.

Historical Narrative and Cultural Significance

The Powhatan House, located in Galveston, Texas, was built as the home of John S. Sydnor, a prominent cotton merchant, early mayor of Galveston, financier, and slave dealer. The Powhatan House is one of the oldest existing structures in Galveston and is an unusually sophisticated example of Greek Revival architecture in Texas. The construction of the Powhatan House and its change in use over many years of occupancy mirrors the history of Galveston’s development and eventual decline as Texas’ leading mercantile and cultural center.

The house's builder, Col. John Seabrook Sydnor, was an early exponent of the importation of the “cotton culture” to Texas. Many Southerners regarded Texas as the South’s frontier, where rich lands were ripe for exploitation of cotton cultivation and the consequential institution of the slave system. Col. Sydnor migrated to Galveston from his native Hanover County, Virginia in 1838. Recognizing that Galveston was the major port of entry for all of Texas’ trade and immigration, he invested extensively in real estate and formed the J.S. Sydnor & Co. cotton merchants, one of Galveston’s leading cotton wholesalers until 1866. By 1840 Sydnor had been elected to the city board of aldermen and had brought his family from Virginia.

Sydnor found that Galveston’s burgeoning growth as Texas’ principal port offered ample opportunities for business diversification. In 1843 he built two steamboats to haul cotton from Brazos River plantations to Galveston. In 1845 he constructed the “Brick Wharf,” a 380-foot-long paved dockage and warehouse where cotton was stored for shipment on vessels consigned to Sydnor. He became the first man to commercially exploit the oyster beds of Galveston Bay, and he was involved with the manufacture of crushed lime and mortar from the discarded shells.

Sydnor was elected Mayor of Galveston in 1846 and he was instrumental in constructing a city market and organizing a chamber of commerce, to foster trade with other Gulf ports. Sydnor promoted a railroad causeway to link the island city to mainland trading centers, organized the city’s first police force and set up its original fire department. Under Sydnor’s mayoralty, the city’s first free public schools were opened, and comparatively liberal laws guaranteeing island slaves a percentage of hourly wages for “hired out” work and minor legal rights were drafted. Sydnor’s wife was active in the establishment of the city’s first Baptist church, and she persuaded Sydnor to donate money for its construction.

In 1847 Sydnor set about building his own home which was intended as a showplace for his recently acquired wealth. Sydnor dubbed the 24-room, Doric Greek Revival house “Powhatan,” after the Indian tribes in his native Virginia. The original Powhatan house had a six column portico, a characteristically Galvestonian raised basement or ground floor, and five acres of gardens planted with oleanders which were to become a feature of the island's gardens. The house itself was largely the result of Sydnor’s trading ventures. It was built of lumber, windows, sectional columns, hardware and well-crafted cyma recta mouldings shipped from Maine in the otherwise empty holds of cotton vessels returning from the northern ports. The fabrication of houses for Texans, in the seaports of Maine, was one of the dominant elements of trade balance between Galveston and the North. Two other houses still standing in Galveston, the Menard House and the Williams-Tucker House (see National Register submission “Samuel May Williams House” July 14, 1971) were also built of parts fabricated in Maine.

Col. Sydnor experimented with the operation of the Powhatan House as a hotel, but his efforts were thwarted by the house’s distance from the wharves and main business center. Sydnor resorted to offering a free surrey-taxi service to and from the hotel, but travelers continued to avoid the hostelry. Sydnor eventually abandoned the hotel project and returned the house to use as his residence. Sydnor remained in Galveston only until the close of the Civil War.

Sydnor’s slave market was said to have been the largest auction block west of New Orleans. Despite the demand for slaves on the newly-cleared Texas plantations, most Texas farmers didn’t have funds to buy slaves, and prices had inflated since the ban on importation from Africa. The Galveston slave auctions likely occurred occasionally, rather than as a daily enterprise. Sydnor and other dealers realized that without cheap labor the boom in Texas cotton, and the resultant prosperity of Galveston, would collapse. Sydnor, among other prominent Texans, is mentioned in an 1856 letter as having supported a scheme by filibusterer “General” William Walker to invade Nicaragua and found a colony which would import African slaves for Texas and the southwest. The effort was unsuccessful.

A defender of secession, Sydnor and a committee of fellow merchants attempted to intercept Governor Sam Houston at the docks when he arrived in 1861 to explain his anti-secessionist position to the Galvestonians. Houston brushed Sydnor aside declaring that he had “never run from a fight,” and delivered his address unmolested. Sydnor was commissioned as a colonel in the Galveston militia at the outbreak of the war. He was charged with the fortification of Galveston against Northern attack. Col. Sydnor was dispatched to Richmond to acquire cannons for the Galveston waterfront and upon completion of his mission, resigned his commission. For the duration of the war, he engaged in blockade running, carrying Texas cotton between Union gunboats to Caribbean ports.

In 1866 Sydnor dissolved partnership with his own trading firm and went to New York to act as a trading agent for Galveston cotton interests. He liquidated most of his Galveston holdings, and it is thought that he sold the Powhatan House to a Mr. Bolton at that time. Sydnor did not return again to Texas until 1869, when, on a visit to his son at Lynchburg, Texas, he died.

After purchasing the Powhatan House, Mr. Bolton made several attempts to operate schools and a military academy in the house’s spacious rooms. All of his efforts proved unsuccessful, however, and he converted the Powhatan to use as his private home.

In 1881 the house was purchased by the City of Galveston for use as the island’s first orphanage. In 1893 a new orphanage (now the Bryan Museum) was built and the Powhatan House became the property of Mrs. Carolyn Willis Ladd. Mrs. Ladd had the house moved from its original location between 21st and 22nd streets, and M and N avenues, to its present location between 34th and 35th streets. Under the supervision of the architect W.H. Tyndall, the house was divided into three sections and remodeled into three separate houses on contiguous lots. [marginalia: “incorrect Lebovich 8-15-75”] Each house was elevated on a ten foot high brick basement containing a kitchen and servants’ quarters. The central portion continued to be known as the Powhatan House or the “Main House.” Tyndall extensively modified the interiors, replacing original mantels with Victorian pressed-brick facings, new staircases, and a variety of diamond pane and two over two light windows.

In 1903 Charles Vedder, a prominent Galveston cotton merchant, purchased the central portion, or main house, which had been only slightly damaged by the disastrous flood and hurricane of 1900. The Vedder family occupied the house at the time of the 1907 grade-raising. The Vedders lost their basement kitchen and breakfast room to the inundation of sand pumped from Galveston Bay. The Vedders added a wing to the east of the house to replace the buried rooms.

Vedder was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as United States Cotton Commissioner, and was a member of the Galveston Cotton Exchange, which, together with the Wharf Commission, virtually controlled all of Galveston’s trading activity. Vedder’s wife, Florence, was the granddaughter of General George Heath Flood, who had been U.S. Minister to the Republic of Texas in 1839.

In 1927, the British government leased the house for use as its consulate. In 1935 the Vedders sold the house to J.W. Oschman, who occupied it until 1960 when the Forrest Dyer family purchased it.

The Powhatan House became the property of the Galveston Garden Club, its current owners, in 1965. The Garden Club restored the house to its 1893 appearance including Victorian furnishings and a garden planted in oleanders. The house was among the first of a series of successful restorations in Galveston which became the focus of an active tourist industry, replacing the city’s waning trading activity. The Garden Club uses the house and grounds for its monthly meetings, for periodic fundraising sales and events, and educational programs. It opens the house for use by civic organizations and private events rentals.

Architectural Description and Significance

The Powhatan House, located at 3427 Avenue O on the southeast corner of Avenue O and 35th Street in Galveston, Texas, is a Greek Revival home with Victorian modifications. The Powhatan House was built in 1847, an unusually sophisticated example of Texas Greek Revival architecture, raised on a full brick basement. The first and second floors were built of lumber and millwork shipped from Maine. In 1893 the house was moved to its present site from its original location on the block between 21st and 22nd streets. The Powhatan House was then divided into three sections and made into three separate raised homes on contiguous lots. One other section remains on the adjacent lot, but the third portion was destroyed by fire.

The present main house, still known as the Powhatan House, is an L-shaped, two story, heavy timber-braced frame structure, supported on foundations of isolated brick piers. The east side has a two story projecting kitchen wing, added in 1907.

Of the three divided structures, the Powhatan House contains the largest part of the original house, including the central hall and many well-crafted Greek Revival architectural elements which have not been diminished or destroyed by remodeling. Of the original portico, a three-column section remains as part of the main facade of the Powhatan House. Each column is 24 feet high with correct Doric capitals and abaci. The fluted columns are made of separate wood splines and are 2 feet 6½ inches in diameter at their bases. The entablature, duplicated on all sides of the house, is a modified wooden Doric scheme, without triglyphs or metopes.

The north entrance, with an identical portal opening on an iron-railed second floor balcony directly above it, is characteristic of the Greek Revival style. The transom bars have sophisticated cyma recta mouldings, which are unusual for their date because most Early Texas craftsmen used simple beveled mouldings as a substitute. The doors are solid wood with six panels, complete with panel mouldings on both sides. Flanking the doors are wooden pilasters with typical antae capitals and three-light sidelights with lower panels of wood. The first floor entrance has a cornice with characteristic antae; the second floor has a simpler wood-moulded cornice.

The two windows on the north facade are original. The first floor window has a triple hung six over six over six floor-length window with a classical cornice moulding. Directly above it is a double hung six over six light window with a wood-moulded cornice. The remaining walls of the house have a variety of two over two light and diamond pane windows, inserted during the 1893 remodeling.

All of the exterior walls are sheathed with white pine weatherboard siding, except the north wall which is covered with three-quarter inch center match planking. The floors on both levels are pine 3¼ inch center match.

The original Powhatan House was a square Greek Revival central hall plan with 24 rooms. The present abridged house has twelve rooms, including the stair hall which was divided in the center and incorporated into the southwest rooms on both floors. The 1893 restructuring included the addition of a new staircase, with winders and a quarter turn at the top and bottom. The staircase has octagonal newel posts with elaborately turned finials. The original rooms were each served by a brick fireplace; the present Powhatan House has seven fireplaces served by four brick chimneys. Three of the chimneys are interior structures, the fourth is located on the northwest side of the house and is stuccoed up to the cornice line. The roof is flat and does not protrude above the cornice. The brick basement, constructed for the house in 1893, was filled with sand in 1907 by the city grade-raising project, in an attempt to prevent flooding on the low-lying island.

Even in its present altered state, the Powhatan House has considerable architectural as well as historical merit. The detailing is unusual for its early date and the alterations themselves represent significant events in Galveston's past.