No One Who Truly Knows the Mansion Would Ever Call It The Open Gates
By William S. Cherry, Ph.D.
When I was growing up in Galveston, there were so many mansions that the thought of their value and opulence to us were sidebars, really. They were nothing more than where our friends' parents had grown up, and now were where old people lived. People who told us the stories of Galveston's past. Many of the stories I learned to love and tell to you.
The exception was what family and friends called The Big House. It's on the corner of 25th and Broadway. The world knows it as The Open Gates, and since 1889, it has probably been the most photographed and recognized home in Galveston. The glorious photograph of The Big House on a snowy day is the work of Three Palms Photography.
George Sealy built The Open Gates for his wife, Magnolia, and their four children. It was designed by a New York architect named Stanford White, but the construction was supervised by famed Galveston architect, Nicholas Clayton. The style is known as Neo-Renaissance.
When I see tourists staring at it or taking photos, I can't help but grin. I wonder what they'd think if they knew what had gone on behind those walls. The Sealys, regardless of age, knew how to party, and they did it formally and informally with great regularity and bravura. One of their favorite ways to dress for a party was in Gay-90s costumes.
And upstairs in the third floor attic was a playroom with a stage. The various grandchildren, nephews and nieces would put on their own productions there. Sometimes when there was a traveling marionette troop passing through town, it would be engaged to do a special performance on that attic stage for the Sealy children and their friends. I remember going there for one of them on a cool spring Saturday morning. It must have been about 1948.
More than once, the grandchildren, nieces and nephews roller skated in the front parlor, knowing full well they'd be caught and made to stop. And there was the lasting odor throughout the house from Uncle Bob Sealy's elevator that croaked and groaned and smelled like burning carbon when he took it up and down from his quarters. That arsenic and old lace relic was so ominous that he was the only one brave enough to ride it.
But the real treat was to be invited to The Big House on Christmas Eve night, before the midnight service at Trinity Church. The Sealys loved plants, and the house and the conservatory would be overflowing. All of this in addition to the Christmas tree and seasonal greenery. No one made egg nog that tasted nearly as good or was anywhere near as potent as that Sealy bunch. I've tried to copy it for forty years. Mine might qualify as a poor second, nevertheless excellent in flavor, body and kick.
And a social function at the Big House where they were celebrating one thing or another, also became the traditional time and place for a Sealy heir to become engaged. I remember that just after her debut party during the holiday season of 1956, Bill Crum slipped an engagement ring on my friend Janey Pinkard's finger. Even at 16, to me it was an exciting event. I loved seeing Janey so happy.
And Ann Sealy tells the story of George, III, putting the ring on her hand as they were in the hall outside of Uncle Bob Sealy's quarters, greased down with Noxema after a day of too much sun at the boat club.
Well over twenty of the Sealy heirs have worn the wedding veil of Magnolia Sealy.
My primary connection with the Sealy family was through my childhood friends, Billy, Janey and Becky Pinkard. They lived in a stucco home behind Ashton Villa where the Sealy gazebo stands today. Without trying to wade you through the lineage, primarily because I'm not sure I can still get it right, it was their mother Jane who was a Sealy by way of the Burton family.
Walking from the Pinkards' home to The Big House was quick and easy, and it was always fun to see what fun-loving and eccentric Uncle Bob was up to, as well as to see what good things the family's maid, Lureline, could dig up for us to munch on.
And the way to go inside Galveston mansions was always through the back door. Only those who qualified for the austerity of being guests went through their main entrance.
If it were spring or summer or early autumn, we'd stroll the grounds, eating our cookies, but would usually end up walking to the Rosenberg Library to see what new books or exhibits had been added. The library wasn't air conditioned then. It had an odor all of its own. I always thought of it as the smell of knowledge, the body odor of Plato and Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard) and the Hardy Boys' adventures.
With all of the family activities that went on for generations at the Big House, and that were unselfishly shared with the Sealys' many friends, especially this one who lived with his family in a small brick home on Woodrow, it's hard for me to believe that era somehow terminated as none stayed behind to perpetuate it.
Now that that building is a property of the University of Texas Medical Branch, it's finally proper to call the architectural decedent The Open Gates, even though the famoous gates are ironically kept closed. The Big House is only a memory.
Copyright 2003 - William S. Cherry, Ph.D.