Eugene Aubry's watercolor perspectives of Galveston street scenes belong to an art genre historically associated with Galveston. In the late nineteenth century, when Galveston was Texas' major seaport city, the immigrant German landscape painter Julius Stockfleth painted scenes of its streets, wharves, and harbor. Boyer Gonzales, who grew up in Galveston and lived there until he was middle-aged, exhibited his awareness of broader trends in art at the turn of the twentieth century in his paintings of Galveston. Emil Bunjes spent his adult life in Galveston drawing and painting scenes of daily life, which the best-known Texas topographical artist of the twentieth century, Buck Schiwetz, also portrayed during his forays to Galveston. The line drawings of Ralph L. Stuart and the whimsical paintings of Mary Clifford Lazzari carried this genre into the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Gene Aubry's motivation differs from these other artists. He is not simply documenting city scenes, as Stockfleth did, or specific buildings, as Stuart did. Nor does he depict the quaint, colorful scenes that attracted Bunjes and Schiwetz. His drawings are not winsome in the ways that Mary Lazzarri's are, nor are they a pretext for exploring movements in contemporary art the way Gonzales's were. Aubry's topographical drawings explore a more allusive vein of inquiry: they are means through which Aubry seeks to identify what it is that draws him back to Galveston and understand the emotional claims that the streets, sidewalks, arcades, and raised cottages exert on his consciousness. The term for this longing is "nostalgia."
Nostalgia is often dismissed as nothing more than sentimentality, when instead it has the more precise meaning of homesickness, the biochemically stimulated sense of emotional desire for a remembered place. That you can experience homesickness in your hometown is the paradox around which Aubry's fascination with Galveston revolves.
Aubry is an architect. He engages the question of his relationship to the city where he was born and grew up (and where he has found himself spending more time in the past few years than he once might have thought likely) through buildings and places, rather than through music, literature, food, or social customs, all phenomena that also evoke nostalgic associations with place. Aubry's Galveston is not the entire city but its nineteenth-century core: the Strand Commercial Historic District downtown, the commercial streets that parallel the Strand, the East End Residential Historic District within easy walking distance of downtown, and the humbler cottage neighborhoods south of Broadway, the city's principal east-west thoroughfare, where Aubry grew up. Aubry's Galveston does not encompass the harbor or the beachfront along Seawall Boulevard. He shies away from such iconic historical landmarks as the Bishop's Palace, Ashton Villa, or the Ménard House. His vision does not encompass the medical center anchored by the University of Texas Medical Branch. Nor, with a few exceptions, does it encompass the city's twentieth-century neighborhoods. Aubry is not drawn to the buildings he himself designed in Galveston, such as the San Luis Hotel and Condominium on Seawall Boulevard or the Galveston News Building, produced while he was in partnership with Howard Barnstone. Nor is he attracted by the city's mid-twentieth-century modern architecture, built when he was an architecture student in the 1950s. It is the exuberant Victorian structures and the streetscapes they compose to which he returns and which he records in his drawings and watercolors.
Gene Aubry was born in Galveston in 1935. He graduated from Ball High School in 1954 and hoped to attend what was then North Texas State College to study music—until, Aubry says, his practical father let him know that music was not an economically acceptable career choice. So instead Aubry went fifty miles up the Gulf Freeway to the University of Houston, where he elected to study architecture, which his father conceded was more economically promising than music. Aubry's design instructor in his fourth and fifth years was the architecture program's best-known design critic, Howard Barnstone. Howard Barnstone had an instinct for spotting talent, and he saw that Gene Aubry had it. Aubry began working part-time at Barnstone's firm, Bolton & Barnstone, in 1959 and joined it full-time following his graduation from the University of Houston in 1960.
The buildings with which Bolton & Barnstone gained recognition in the 1950s bore no relationship to those of nineteenth-century Galveston. Barnstone had established the firm's reputation with sleek, flat-roofed, glass-walled modern buildings that registered the influence of the German-born Chicago architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Mies's protégé, the New York architect Philip Johnson. When Aubry entered Barnstone's office, Bolton & Barnstone were completing construction administration on the first three buildings that Johnson designed at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Johnson got the commission to design these buildings as well as a master plan for Houston's fledgling Catholic college through the intervention of the French-born energy corporation executive and art collector John de Menil. Menil and his wife, Dominique Schlumberger de Menil, had hired Johnson to design their house in Houston in 1948. After its completion in 1951, they turned to Howard Barnstone and Preston Bolton to help them with maintenance and repairs. At the same time that Johnson's buildings at St. Thomas were underway, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was constructing a breathtaking modern addition to its neoclassical museum building designed by Mies van der Rohe. John de Menil was a trustee of the museum. In 1961 he persuaded his fellow trustees to hire James Johnson Sweeney, who had just resigned as director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, to become director of the Museum of Fine Arts. Sweeney was an extraordinary showman. In the great, glass-walled room of Mies's addition, Cullinan Hall, he installed exhibitions of modern art that astounded, amazed, and, often, bewildered Houstonians.
A crucial concern that, in retrospect, linked the careers of Sweeney the museum director, Philip Johnson the architect, and Dominique and John de Menil the collectors and patrons was the relationship of modernity and modernism to history. In 1962, Menil, through the Museum of Fine Arts, financed—with Sweeney's enthusiastic support—a project to produce a book that Barnstone was to write on the nineteenth-century architecture of Galveston. John de Menil enlisted the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he had earlier commissioned to do work for the Schlumberger corporation, of which he was an officer, to make photographs for the book. In the early 1950s, Barnstone had introduced Dominique and John de Menil to Galveston and its haunting repository of Victorian architecture, much of it in seedy condition, reflecting both Galveston's twentieth-century economic decline and the depredations wrought on aging buildings by the island's intensely humid, hot, salt-laden marine environment. Aubry, as the Galvestonian in Barnstone's office, got the job to guide Cartier-Bresson through Galveston, surreptitiously photographing not individual buildings, Aubry remembers, but the people and places he encountered. When Barnstone's book The Galveston That Was was published in 1966, it was precisely these photographs that appalled Galveston's social and business elite. Cartier-Bresson took pictures not of Galveston patricians in their drawing rooms and counting houses but of the BOI (born on the island) working class, both white and African American, slumped on ragged sofas on decrepit front porches or standing in dim, sordid stair halls bearing hand-lettered signs demanding advance payment. He showed the weeds that grew through the sidewalks in front of rusting, boarded-up iron-front buildings on the Strand, bearing all the scars that time had inflicted on Galveston.
Hurricane Carla in September 1961 had exacerbated this scarring. Tornadoes generated by the hurricane spiraled through the city. The most tragic loss was the Ursuline Academy, an extraordinary Venetian Gothic production by Galveston's great High Victorian architect, N. J. Clayton. As Barnstone and others recognized at the time, damage to the Ursuline Academy was localized and could easily have been repaired. But Galvestonians whose vision of progress was predicated on eliminating as much of the Victorian past as possible seized the opportunity to replace this fantastic pile with a prosaic, one-story, concrete and brick school building. It was Barnstone, the acclaimed modern architect, who advocated for its preservation. The Galveston That Was sought to preserve it as best it could by chronicling what seemed to be a vanishing architectural legacy. Cartier-Bresson's elusive photographs, supplemented by Ezra Stoller's crisp documentary images and Barnstone's romantic prose, were an elegy for a larger-than-life city whose current, smaller-than-life inhabitants seemed intent on destroying it to conceal their failure to maintain the legacy they had inherited.
Yet things did not quite turn out this way. Instead, in the 1970s, Galveston became one of the primary sites of the nationwide rise of the historic preservation movement. Today, most of the commercial, institutional, and residential buildings that were standing when The Galveston That Was was published still exist. Only now they are meticulously repaired, resplendent with fresh paint (carefully reproducing historic colors) and, in some cases, painstakingly replicated architectural detail. The East End has been gentrified, and on weekends the Strand, Mechanic Street, and Postoffice Street downtown are populated by tourists rather than bums. Gene Aubry's architecture career in Houston followed a similar trajectory. In 1966 he became Barnstone's partner and together they were responsible for a series of publicized houses and institutional buildings, including the Rothko Chapel of 1971, which Aubry completed for Dominique and John de Menil based on a design by Philip Johnson.
In 1970, Aubry dissolved his partnership with Barnstone and joined a much larger Houston architectural office, Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson. As the firm's chief design partner, Aubry worked with S. I. Morris Jr. (who reorganized the firm as S. I. Morris Associates in 1972 and as Morris Aubry Architects in 1980) to become one of Houston's foremost architects. The buildings he designed in the 1970s and 1980s—the Art Barn and Media Center at Rice University (1969, 1970), the Doherty Library at the University of St. Thomas (1970), the College of Education at the University of Houston (1971), KPRC Television Studio (1972), the Houston Central Library (1975), the First Baptist Church (1976), the Glassell School of the Museum of Fine Arts (1978), the Prudential Insurance Company Building (1978), the Awty School (1979), the Four Seasons Inn on the Park (1981), the First City Tower (1981), One Westheimer Plaza (1982), the Continental Airlines Building (1984), and the Wortham Theater Center (1987)—represent the expansive era when Houston became the Golden Buckle on the Sunbelt. Expansion propelled the firm's reach as Aubry directed the design of high-rise office and hotel buildings in other Sunbelt cities—Austin, Beaumont, Oklahoma City, Corpus Christi, Victoria, New Orleans, Nashville, Miami, and Orlando—as well as the central libraries of Birmingham, Alabama, Corpus Christi, and Charlotte, North Carolina. After retiring from Morris Aubry in 1986, Aubry pursued his practice from Northeast Harbor, Maine and Sarasota, Florida, producing such buildings as the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Florida (1989), the Bank of America Building on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina (1991), and the St. Regis Aspen in Aspen, Colorado (1992).
Aubry never relinquished contact with his family and acquaintances in Galveston. In the 1970s and 1980s, he would drive down the Gulf Freeway after a day of work to perform with friends in a band at the Galveston Artillery Club. But after going to the University of Houston, he never lived in Galveston again. When family circumstances brought him back to Galveston from his home on Anna Maria Island, Florida in the late 2000s, sometimes for weeks at a time, he often found himself with nothing to do. This is when, Aubry says, he began to sit out on the sidewalk in front of Bistro Le Croy on the Strand, drawing what he saw from beneath the sidewalk canopy.
Aubry is a skillful draftsman. During his years with Barnstone he made large-scale perspective drawings to study the design of houses in detail. At Morris, Aubry worked more with models than with drawings. But he did not lose his ability to connect eye and hand. As he moved around downtown, then over the "border" on 19th Street to the East End, his eye and hand began to reconnect Aubry with Galveston. What his drawings show is that he is especially attuned to the characteristics architecture shares with music: scale, rhythm, cadence, harmony, repetition, alternation, crescendo. These attributes tend to be more evident in pre-modern architecture because the constructional scale of pre-modern buildings is different from that of modern buildings (even for buildings of the same size) and because of the presence of decorative ornament in pre-modern architecture, which provides more opportunity for the elaboration of patterns. In finishing these drawings, Aubry added watercolor washes to many, markedly changing viewers' perceptions by introducing color, apparent depth, tonal variation, and layers of transparency that override linework and induce more complex and subtle emotional responses. In some images, Aubry lets either linework or watercolor prevail. In others, there is an overlay of the two media. And sometimes there is tension between them.
The subject of emotional response returns to the phenomenon of nostalgia. In the scales, rhythms, and harmonies of nineteenth-century Galveston, Aubry recovers what is so reassuring about its urban space. It's not that this urban space is cute, cozy, and ingratiating; it's that it frames human occupation with a clarity, consistency, and solidity absent in the vacuous, boundary-less spaces characteristic of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century suburbanized American cities. Aubry is not drawn merely to prettiness; he records buildings that have been modified without concern for their original configurations as well as those that have been exactingly restored. When he speaks about his motivations and his choices, he especially mentions the resilience of Galveston, its people, and its architecture.
This resilience was demonstrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston in September 2008. Unlike the damage that resulted from the two major storms that came after Carla in 1961, Hurricane Alicia of 1983 and Hurricane Rita of 2005, Hurricane Ike swamped Galveston Island with the backflow from its tidal surge. The Galveston Seawall, built in the first decade of the twentieth century to protect the city from a repetition of the disaster that befell it in the Great Storm of 1900, served its purpose by guarding Galveston against the direct impact of Ike's storm surge. But the tremendous volume of seawater that the hurricane winds drove into Galveston Bay inundated the island city from its unprotected harbor side, producing the most serious flooding of Galveston since the 1900 storm. Water stood ten feet deep on the Strand and five feet deep on Broadway, eight blocks south of the Strand. Downtown and the East End were absorbed into Galveston Harbor. Because the city had been evacuated before flooding disrupted traffic, there was no widespread loss of life or social breakdown, as occurred in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But Galvestonians had to deal with the longer-term consequences of this catastrophe, which, as in New Orleans, weakened already stressed public systems. One demoralizing consequence of the flooding was that standing saltwater killed much of the vegetation. The majestic avenues of live oak trees that canopied Broadway and other streets in the East End, planted as part of the recovery effort in the early 1900s, died and had to be cut down. The palms trees survived.
What had been Aubry's personal preoccupation—producing watercolor drawings of local street scenes—thus acquired a new relevance. Aubry approached Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, with the idea of publishing a book of these drawings to financially benefit the foundation's efforts to promote responsible, sustainable rehabilitation practices after the storm as well as to repair its own damaged properties. In 2010 the Foundation named Aubry its official artist.