August 2006 Park of
Fulton Mansion State Historic Site
Rockport's Fulton Mansion 19th Century Engineering Marvel
The Hurricane of 1919 propelled a storm surge 22 feet high into Rockport, Texas, destroying numerous structures and slamming a fishing boat into the front door of the 1870s bay front home of George and Harriet Fulton. The boat splintered and seven feet of water covered the first floor, but the three-story Fulton Mansion survived with scant damage and today welcomes visitors.
Fulton Mansion rose from the oak mottes as an anomaly of late 19th century Texas, where indoor plumbing, running water and central heating and "air conditioning" were a rarity. Even by today’s standards, George Fulton's ingeniously engineered French Second Empire-style edifice remains remarkable. Fulton Mansion opens its doors for 45-minute tours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Shortly after Texas won its independence from Mexico, Fulton had the good fortune of being hired by Henry Smith, the Republic of Texas' provisional governor, to tutor his children. The 30-year-old teacher ended up marrying Smith’s eldest daughter - 18-year-old Harriet - and the rest, as they say, is history. When Harriet inherited 28,000 acres in South Texas in the 1860s, the Victorian couple moved back to Texas and joined with two other Texas ranchers to build a South Texas cattle empire that occupied most of San Patricio County.
From that wealth sprang the couple's dream home - a 6,200-square-foot mansion with a basement and 11 rooms on three floors - that they called Oakhurst. Fulton, who had worked as a structural engineer, machinist, bridge builder and railroad superintendent, used his training and intuitive talents to build a residence that has withstood the ravages of Nature and decades of neglect as an aging relic once operated as a seafood restaurant and RV park headquarters.
The native Philadelphian and entrepreneur used his bridge-builder training and innate mathematical acumen to design and construct a fortress-like Gulf Coast landmark that operates today as a state historic site. He constructed the wood and masonry structure to last. He erected the home on a solid shellcrete foundation, installing a slate roof and building its walls and flooring of thick pine studs, cypress lathes, steel I-beams and three coats of plaster.
Kirby, who has managed the property since 1984, says that a visit to the
Fulton Mansion provides Rockport visitors a break from the usual seaside
"You can go to the beach, go fishing, shop and hang out, but my experience has been that people want a balance when they go on vacation," Kirby said. "Fulton Mansion provides a meaningful, learning experience where families and others can connect with the past. Besides, there's a little bit of voyeurism in all of us. We really like to look at other people's stuff."
Rest assured, there's plenty of interesting "stuff" to see and engage even the most recalcitrant youngster. Park interpreters make the past come to life through stories about the Fultons and Victorian-era life, often encouraging visitors to hold objects from yesteryear, such as a curling iron. Vintage photographs of the Fultons and family members peer from picture frames, lending a homey feel.
Though only a handful of the couple's original furnishings brought from England or New York decorate the mansion, most of the structure's interior, its hardware, faux-painted slate fireplace mantels and its woodwork of red cypress trimmed in black walnut remain. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department spent $1.6 million and five years refurbishing the decaying structure, purchasing period furnishings and restoring the Fulton Mansion to its former grandeur.
Visitors 13 and older pay to take a
guided tour of the first two stories of the house - from the downstairs
vestibule, parlor, dining room and conservatory to the second-story bedrooms
Finishing Victoria touches include tripartite walls of plaster, black walnut
and red cypress trim, cypress pocket window shutters, plaster cornice moldings,
plaster ceiling medallions, Austrian crystal chandeliers, brass fittings,
ironstone and marble lavatories.
The Fultons spared no expense, spending between $60,000 and $70,000 on their Texas "palace." They installed decorated Minton floor tiles, Axminster and Brussels rugs and even costly carpeting, which came in strips and had to be hand-stitched on site by its creator, who then added a border.
To make life on the Texas frontier more palatable for his family, Fulton saw to it that the home had lamps fueled by a gas plant at the rear of the house, flush toilets and bathtubs, sinks running with gravity-fed rainwater, and flues running from a basement furnace to warm the house. Perishable food was kept chilled by water circulated through concrete troughs to the larder.
One of the most interesting rooms is one that was never restored. The upstairs Gift Shop contains not only unusual souvenirs, but also exhibits explaining Fulton's clever engineering feats and Plexiglas panels that reveal the home’s original wood and shellcrete construction. An ownership timeline and a fading 1890s photograph of the mansion amid the wind-sculpted live oaks are must-sees.
Outside, visitors can enjoy the lush, two-acre grounds that include several picnic tables, expansive and a rear garden planted with the same variety of herbs, shrubs and flowers known to have been planted by Harriet whose love of gardening was only eclipsed by her love of family.
Harriet vacated Oakhurst in 1895, two years after her husband passed away in the canopied bed that can still be seen in an upstairs bedchamber they shared. But the legacy of this amazing early Texas couple still beckons to coastal visitors after more than a century.
Fulton Mansion State Historic Site is located 3.5 miles north of Rockport just off State Highway 35 on Henderson Street. Call (361) 729-0386 for more information. It is one of 114 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Fulton Mansion State Historic Site web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle