AN EVERLASTING LOVE
French Second Empire Architecture Preserved in Iconic Coastal Mansion
By Natalie de la Garza | Photos by Patrick Hughey
On the lip of the Aransas Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast sits a love letter, a four-story, French Second Empire dream home built by a 19th century husband and wife.
The Fulton Mansion, completed in 1877 by George Ware Fulton and Harriet Smith Fulton, remains a sight unlike any other along the coastal plains of Texas. The Victorian is not only unique in style and scale for its location, says Ellen Cone Busch, the Texas Historical Commission’s Director of Historic Sites Operations, but it was designed by George himself, an engineer by training and trade, for Harriet.
“He designed this house with features and technologies that he felt would not only best suit the home to withstand the coastal climate, including hurricanes that it faced, but also provide his family with all of the modern comforts that the family’s wealth could afford,” says Busch.
Oakhurst, as the Fultons called it, boasted modern furnishings and cutting-edge technology for the time, including a generator to light the home's chandeliers and cast-iron furnace; a series of flues to push hot air through decorative fireplaces; and a water tank above the tower room which, with an assist from gravity, provided hot and cold running water to the bathtubs and toilets.
But, Busch says, what truly makes the house come alive is the story of George and Harriet, who built the house for each other. “You can look at the encaustic tile and be impressed with how beautiful it is and where it came from, but when you realize George took Harriet to the World’s Fair where she picked it out [for] her dream home with the love of her life, it just makes it so much more meaningful.”
For the last 140 years the story of Fulton Mansion has been written, and the latest chapter opens with a hurricane. Harvey, the eighth hurricane to hit the mansion, caused substantial damage, primarily from the flat metal roof which, Busch says, “was literally peeled up like a sardine can.”
In addition to toppling the chimneys, it allowed rain to pour in, drenching three floors — along with the collections that had been moved to higher ground in anticipation of a storm surge — in water. Though the extreme winds wreaked havoc on the roof, Busch says it’s a testament to the care George took in building the mansion, specifically in the home’s stagger-stacked pine planks, that it still stands.
“[The stacked wood walls] give the home not only tremendous strength and structural integrity, but a flexibility,” says Busch. “It was flexible enough yet strong enough to withstand forces that literally tore apart other more modern structures.”
The site reopened within weeks of Harvey, as did the Education and History Center, which sustained almost no damage. And, once the mansion was cleaned and deemed safe, it too reopened for special “hard hat tours.”
“We do actually have hard hats, [but] we’re offering them less for safety and more for ambience,” says Busch with a laugh.
Busch says the tours offer visitors a new perspective and a rare opportunity to see the rooms “naked.”
“The house is usually presented as a very full, very lushly decorated Victorian home,” says Busch. “[But] a home isn’t a single artifact, it’s a composition, and the way the light comes in the window and falls on the floor is just as important to the environment of the home as the carpeting, [so] being able to get into the room and experience that space like the family would is very special.”
In particular, because the public doesn’t generally get to walk very far into the rooms, Busch recommends approaching the windows to look out onto the bay just as George and Harriet did all those years ago.
The tours will continue through the winter, as the Texas Historical Commission continues working with FEMA and puts together a plan for restoration, one which will not only repair and restore the roof, but better its resistance to wind while also shoring up the chimneys. Busch says they will also do a complete inventory and conservation work on the collections, as well as evaluate the mansion’s furnishing plan.
“I like to think that every change brings with it the gift of opportunity,” says Busch.
But even as the mansion is restored and the furnishings return, Busch says more than the visuals are the stories the house contains. “People fall in love with a place because of the stories, and the story of Fulton Mansion is a love story. And who doesn’t love a love story?”
Fulton Mansion State Historic Site
317 South Fulton Beach Road, Rockport
Friends of the Texas Historical Commission
To donate towards the restoration project
Texas Historical Commission
1511 Colorado, Austin