"Sir, I'll give you a second son, if you'll build me the finest home in Galveston." Spoken by his wife, Magnolia Willis Sealy, after the birth of their fifth child in 1885, those words inspired George Sealy to indeed build the finest home in Galveston. A year later, the influential Galveston businessman sent his wife to New York City, where she hired Stanford White, the favorite architect of the fashionable and rich. White would build a home for the Sealy family like no other in the southern United States. The Sealy's second son, Robert, was born two years after Open Gates was completed in 1889.
The luxurious mansion's neo-Renaissance style and exquisitely crafted brick, stone and exotic wood symbolize not only the strength of the Sealy family, but also the resiliency of the Queen City of the Gulf. George Sealy's descendants generously donated Open Gates to the University of Texas Medical Branch in 1969, turning it over to the university in 1979. Today, it is used by UTMB and other community organizations for conferences, educational retreats and social functions that are consistent with the university's mission. The majestic halls and original furniture pieces evoke the significance and vitality of the Sealy legacy. UTMB is honored to steward this architectural treasure.
George Sealy was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1835. Hearing of substational business opportunities, in 1846 his older brother John came to Texas and became a partner in a successful dry goods company, Ball, Hutchings & Co. John convinced George to join the firm in 1857, three years after it relocated from Sabine Pass to Galveston. As the company diversified and Galveston grew to rival New York City as the important port in the nation, the Sealy brothers gained a reputation as railroad and cotton barons, as well as banking entrepreneurs. George Sealy enlisted as a private in the Confederate army during the Civil War and helped move cotton and dry goods between Houston and Matamoros, Mexico, circumventing the Union naval blockade of Galveston harbor. He later purchased the property on which Open Gates was built for $20,000 from a former officer in the Confederate Cavalry Brigade.
Magnolia Willis Sealy was born in 1854 in Montgomery, Texas and married George Sealy in 1875. During the next 18 years, she and her husband would have five daughters and three sons, including George Sealy II. An avid gardener, Magnolia, and later George II, helped establish Galveston's reputation as "The Oleander City." Cuttings from the original double-pink oleander plant brought from Jamaica to Galveston in 1841 thrive today on the Open Gates property, where a plaque commemorates the family's contribution to oleander cultivation. Magnolia and her children George II and Margaret helped to lead the effort to replant the island after the grade-raising that followed the 1900 Storm.
George and John Sealy made myriad contributions to the island and to the economy of Texas. Upon his death in 1884, John Sealy bequeathed
$50,000 "for charitable purpose." His widow, Rebecca, and his brother George determined that the money should be used to build John Sealy Hospital, which led the Texas legislature to proceed with its plans to establish the University of Texas Medical Department (now UTMB) in Galveston.
Growing up in "The Big House"
Sealy descendants often use three words-security, warmth, and strength - to describe the feeling emanating from "The Big House," the nickname lovingly bestowed on the home by the family. Open Gates inspires those same feelings in today's visitors. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the home was a hub of Galveston social life-a welcoming site for everyone from family and friends to local business leaders and state dignitaries. But the name Open Gates would come to mean much more one terrifying night in September 1900, when the most deadly hurricane to reach North America descended on the island. Although nearly 12 foot of ocean water filled the basement during the storm, the home became a haven to several hundred hurricane survivors who were carried to it, clinging to wood and debris, by the rushing flood. Sealy family members and servants pulled them from the water to safety on the porch.
Today, the home is said to house more than memories. Repeated sightings of two friendly ghosts have been reported: a Sealy cousin, Agnes Campbell, and the coachman, Albert.