After the devastating hurricane of September 8, 1900, Galveston was a city in ruins. The downtown commercial district and wharves were heavily damaged, and outside an area roughly bounded by 44th Street on the west, Avenue N on the south, and 12th Street on the east, almost every structure was completely obliterated.
At about the center point of the southern boundary of Avenue N, notice the dip one block south to Avenue O, which put the Garten Verein, located at 27th Street and Avenue O, in the “safe” zone (relatively speaking). Below, in a closer view of that area, the map’s key marks “22” as the Garten Verein (“23” is the Ursuline Convent) and adds the notation “small damage.”
It is often reported that the only structure to survive the 1900 Storm at the Garten Verein was the octagonal dancing pavilion. According to contemporaneous reports by the Garten Verein management, that is not accurate, but “small damage” is not exactly accurate either.
Indeed there was heavy damage at the Garten Verein. Wreckage not only from the club’s own structures but from surrounding buildings as well was piled five to ten feet deep over the entire five acres of the property.
For starters, the club house was badly damaged. The front part of the roof, including the upper gallery, and both sets of steps were blown off, and the rafters of the gallery roofs were broken under the weight of storm debris deposited there. Inside, all the plastering was down. The bowling alley was also damaged, tumbled over onto its side and in a badly wrenched condition.
While the dancing pavilion fared better than the club house and bowling alley, it too suffered damage. The flag pole in the center of the roof was broken off, and the beautiful dancing floor was warped and twisted by the storm water.
As far as the rest of the property, the little bandstand was completely demolished. All of the smaller pavilions, flagstaffs, and ornaments throughout the garden were also destroyed, and the perimeter fence was gone. Happily, the fountain made it through intact (it is still there today), and the statue at the front entrance on 27th Street still stood, albeit with a broken arm.
But to the club members themselves, the most regrettable loss was all the lovely plantings and trees that were killed by the storm surge and saltwater intrusion. The Garten Verein was, after all, a garden, and much effort and love had gone into its design, cultivation, and care. The wild peach trees and old mountain cedars succumbed, but most worrisome of all was the fate of the beautiful giant oaks. Whether they would survive or not wouldn’t be known for months.
Nevertheless, despite all the destruction and the daunting job ahead of them, the industrious and ever-optimistic Germans got busy and got to work. Repairs and cleanup began almost immediately. By Thursday, September 13th, only five days after the storm, the bowling alley was uprighted and in use as the headquarters for the city’s Eighth Ward relief committee, one of twelve organized to distribute food and supplies to the many thousands left homeless and destitute by the storm. In an odd and darkly humorous item published in the newspaper on September 26th, at least a few of the Garten Verein members were actually anxious to get back to bowling:
Mr. J.S. Montgomery, chairman of the Eighth ward committee, reported that he had been using the Garten verein bowling alley as headquarters, but the Garten verein society now wants the building so it can have the alleys fixed up, as some of the members want to use them.
Chairman McVitie very emphatically replied, speaking as a member of the Garten verein society, that he thought the society should hold its horses, that there is work on hand infinitely more important than the operation of a bowling alley. He indicated very pointedly that the bowling alley would be used as long as it is necessary for the work.
On September 30th, the following notice was published in the newspaper:
To the Members of the Galveston Garten Verein
The damage to our grounds and Buildings by the flood is being promptly repaired and we expect shortly to have the Garten in condition for use of members.
We will continue uninterrupted our weekly concerts early next spring and expect to make the Garten as attractive as heretofore.
We ask the members to lend us their active interest and support by upholding an institution that has always been a source of pleasure and pride to Galveston.
THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS
By October 1st, there were laborers in force working to repair the buildings. The Garten Verein had been the first institution in the city to bury its electrical wires, and after the storm, the underground system was found to be in working order. By November 10th, the lights were back on in the club house and bowling alley.
Both the club house and the dancing pavilion got new roofs of galvanized iron shingles and a fresh coat of paint, and all the ceilings in the club house were replastered. The bowling alley was repaired and also repainted. The flag pole formerly atop the dancing pavilion was replaced with a “cute little cupola,” and the remnants of the ornamental railing that had once decorated the roof just above the eaves was repurposed as a railing around a new ice cream and lemonade stand that was constructed nearby.
A new music pavilion was also built, this one larger and more attractive than the old one lost in the storm. New garden vases were placed around the property, and all the walks were reshelled. Although the fountain didn’t suffer much damage during the storm, it was overhauled and restocked with water lilies and a variety of gold and silver fish from Chicago, including Japanese fantails and colorful Paradise fish. Three new flagpoles were also erected: one for the United States flag in front of the club house, one for the Texas flag near the pavilion (the Texas flag having been recovered from the beach after storm), and one for the German flag on the northeast corner of the property. A new perimeter fence was constructed of broad boards and painted white, the same color as the old one.
And then, the garden itself was reborn.
The old salt cedars had stood up admirably during storm, with those near the dancing pavilion not seriously injured. So grateful to these old salts were the Garten Verein members that they planted a new hedge of them around the property next to the fence.
Some 1,500 new plants were ordered and put out over the winter and the following spring. About 300 of these were trees, including oak, cedar, arbor vitae, cypress, wild peach, sycamore, palms, California privet, and Georgia evergreen, and roughly 1,000 were shrubs, among them roses, climbing roses, jasmine, and magnolias. New flower beds were also installed around the circumference of the dancing pavilion, and in these were planted lilies, pansies, daisies, and chrysanthemums. The grounds were reseeded with grass, and around the stumps of the old trees that didn’t survive Boston ivy was planted.
But the happiest moment for the Garten Verein members came in April of 1901:
Members of the directory noted the appearance of a green leaf on one of the giant oaks. Never a word was said, but with fluttering and silent tongues they adjourned to the club house and drank a toast of gratification as hearty as ever passed over man’s palate. The dear hope long deferred through the winter months was realized and the giant oaks stand.
All of the old oaks didn’t survive, however. One of them near the bowling alley was cut down to the ground, and on the smoothed surface of the stump were carved the words, “September 8, 1900.” Sadly, no trace of it remains today.
After an outlay of approximately $10,000 and many months of tireless labor, the Garten Verein was back in business. On Wednesday, April 28, 1901, the opening of the first season of the new Garten Verein was announced in the newspaper. Streetcar service to the club was up and running again, too:
GALVESTON GARTEN VEREIN, SEASON 1901
First Entertainment, Wednesday, May 1, And each Wednesday thereafter. Open Air Concert and Dancing in Pavilion. Dancing for Children, 6 to 8.15 p.m.
Direct streetcar service from East Market Street, East Avenue H and Winnie Streets, Garten Verein and 33d Street Belt Line.
The Garten Verein would go on for many years to come, just as it had before the Great Storm of 1900, with its weekly seasonal concerts and dances, annual festivals, picnics, sports, and celebrations.
But alas, to everything there is a season…
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By the end of World War I in 1918, anti-German sentiment was on the rise, and with it membership in the club was declining. In February of 1923, a resolution was put before the stockholders of the “Garden,” as it had come to be known by about 1917, to dissolve the corporation and sell the property to an interested but unnamed buyer. The resolution specifically stipulated that the sale be conditioned upon the property being immediately turned over by the buyer to the city of Galveston for use as a public “playground.”
On Saturday, March 27th, a meeting was held at the club house to vote on the resolution. With the necessary four-fifths majority of the 336 stockholders either present or represented by proxy, the resolution was approved, with only a few not in favor. The unnamed buyer, represented at the meeting by club member John Neethe, was Stanley E. “Pat” Kempner.
In June of 1923, the sale to Kempner was completed for a purchase price of $50,000, and the proper deeds were filed, first transferring the property to Kempner from the officials of the Garden followed by the formal transfer of the property to the city of Galveston. On Thursday, June 28th, by virtue of a resolution adopted by the board of city commissioners, which included expressions of appreciation for Kempner’s generosity, the city of Galveston became the new owner and caretaker of the old Galveston Garten Verein, and the property was renamed Kempner Park.
The sale of the Garten Verein marked the end of an era for Galveston’s German citizens, but it had been a good and noble run. And all of us today who are citizens of this old town are the fortunate beneficiaries of their vision, hard work, and civic-mindedness, with a beautiful, now historic, public park for everyone to enjoy.
So what the heck. Maybe I’ll take up bowling…
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Did you miss it?
A Social Affair, Part 1: In the Garden