J.P. Bryan's quest to preserve the West ended fatefully — in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas, just down the shore from where his collecting obsession began.
You might say J.P. Bryan’s magnificent Texas obsession began when he was a kid on the beach saving sea turtles with his grandma. Throughout a life full of Forbes-worthy achievements, you could almost draw a line from those sandy sea-air days of his youth on the Gulf Coast across the decades to what might be his crowning glory: the new Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas.
“Catherine ‘Cassie’ Perry Bryan was her name, but everybody called her Miss Cassie,” says J.P. Bryan, who is quick to point out that the museum, which opened in June 2015, is not named for him but for all his forebears who played a role in the settlement of Texas, his grandmother among them. “She was a remarkable woman,” he says. “She was a real inspiration in my life. I really loved her.” And he loved what they’d do when he’d visit. Growing up, Bryan lived in the Gulf seaport town of Freeport, Texas; his grandma lived smack-dab on the beach. When he’d go to see her on weekends, they’d hunt, fish, and crab together. She’d teach him practical things, like how to help sea turtles back into the Gulf and how to plant poles in the sand where they’d laid their eggs. And, Bryan says, she’d teach him “important things: God’s word and the history of Texas.”
Sacred impartations, all.
One imagines the two walking the wet, packed sand on sunburned days with stories of the Lone Star State on the breeze. In introducing the young boy to the history of Texas, Miss Cassie was acquainting him with his own kith and kin and the birthright of the Bryan name. J.P. Bryan is the great-great-grandson of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, the sister and sole heir of Stephen F. Austin, the founding “Father of Texas.” It is pure Texan pedigree — and an exciting portal to the story of the West, a subject that would grab his imagination way back when and hold it for the rest of his life.
Miss Cassie must have had a gift for storytelling because Bryan grew up seeing history “not as boring but as high adventure” — an ethos that would come to define his future museum. That attitude toward history was reinforced in his childhood home, where he’d spend enraptured hours with his father’s rare books, especially those with foldout maps of Texas. He hoped he’d one day inherit the treasures, but when his father sold the vast collection of maps and manuscripts to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, a devastated Bryan, now in his 20s, realized it was time to start his own collection.
In fact, Bryan had evidenced the collecting bug much earlier. He still recalls his first purchase — an antique gun, which he bought when he was 8 years old. He paid for it by cutting grass and delivering newspapers; it remains in his possession to this day. Bryan’s collection has since burgeoned to more than 70,000 pieces, with archives and a library of some 30,000 documents (rare maps and records that detail the settlement of Texas, the Texas Revolution, and the Battle of San Jacinto) and 20,000 books. Among the antiquities are everything from a 10,000-year-old pre-Columbian corn grinder to Western-themed works by Andy Warhol to bits, spurs, and saddles — including a Spanish Colonial saddle that once belonged to Porfirio Díaz, the seven-term president of Mexico whose rule led to the Mexican Revolution.
Vintage tack, rifles, swords, fine art, rare manuscripts, and other relics — it wasn’t as if Bryan could fit his ever-growing stash at his company headquarters or home indefinitely. His collection had long since outgrown his multiple residences and the historic Gage Hotel, a property he spent years restoring after buying the Marathon, Texas, landmark in 1978. Aiding and abetting throughout his decades of acquisition was his wife, Mary Jon Bryan, who also provided a reality check: “ ‘You get awards all the time for this collection,’ she told me. ‘But you’re really getting an award for just being a shopper.’ ”
He laughs today at the good-natured ribbing, but it made him think. “It was kind of selfish to keep it all — to just collect and not share,” Bryan says. “I wasn’t collecting with anyone else in mind but me. Another gun, another spur.” He had been displaying hundreds of items, including a chuck wagon, on one of three floors at the headquarters of his oil and gas company, Torch Energy Advisors Inc., in downtown Houston. “When the collection was in the office, it was so admired that I began to understand how much it meant for other people to have a venue to appreciate it. We began teaching about the collection when kids would come on field trips — we had 15 or 20 docents to take the kids around. When we got to the point of bringing the final chapter of Torch to a close and we realized we didn’t need all the office space downtown, we were intrigued by the idea of doing something with the collection. We decided it was worth having our own museum, one that would give the comprehensive history of the settlement of the western part of the U.S. — a story that no one else was telling in its entirety.”
To tell that extraordinary story meant finding an extraordinary space.
The hunt for a proper place to showcase one of the nation’s most extensive — and important — collections of historic Western objects began at home in Houston. But, Bryan says, the city’s museum district didn’t suit his taste: “They were short on historic buildings, and we just couldn’t find anything that was right.” He happened to be on a research trip for a book he’s writing on the Battle of San Jacinto when he had occasion to visit the 1861 Galveston Custom House. “As we were leaving, coming out of that beautiful Greek Revival building, I thought, This is the kind of building we’d like to have.”
Galveston itself seemed to fit the bill, too. “It’s a completely appropriate place to be,” Bryan says. “The story of the West began here, with the first Europeans, [Spanish explorer] Cabeza de Vaca and some of his men, washing ashore here in 1528, and all the immigrants who came through here and began their dreams of a new life. At one time, Galveston was the Queen City of the Gulf.”
And Bryan’s new museum, a jewel in the crown of the city he’s helping to remake.
There was no way J.P. Bryan was going to be something other than a true Texan and a keeper of the flame of the West. He got a law degree, but instead of becoming an attorney, he dedicated his career to oil and gas, founding Torch Energy in 1981. He devoted himself to energy and to restoring historic Texas properties, including houses on his ranch in West Texas and a “great little Greek Revival farmhouse” in Round Top that has since burned. And he became an avid and discerning collector of Texana and Western memorabilia, a good deal of which was on view in a gallery at Torch Energy’s offices, until the collection found its permanent home in another of Galveston’s magnificent old buildings.
Museum director Dr. Jamie Christy was with Bryan in Galveston when he received a call from curator Andrew Gustafson in Houston suggesting they go see a certain vacant building. “The pictures online looked a little spooky, but we decided to drive by to see it,” Bryan recalls. “We pulled up in front and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It had been completely restored 10 years before but was unoccupied and on the market. The yard was a disaster, but that was a relatively minor thing. We walked inside holding our breaths. I was thinking, If it’s anything like the exterior ... . The floors, ceilings, and wainscoting were all wood. We fell in love. The feeling was immediate — this is it. No need to look further. I’ve never in my human relationships had love at first sight. But I had it with a building. In its own way, it reciprocated. It’s been a magical experience.”
There was some repointing of bricks and other items to attend to, but not all that much. “It came together in a magical format,” Bryan says. “It looks stunning, and all the things in it — it’s as though they belong there or were part of some kind of original grand design.”
The original design of the historic building was for a much different purpose: an orphanage for Protestant and Jewish children. A Gothic Revival design by Alfred Muller, it was built in 1895 with funding from Galveston business leader and philanthropist Henry Rosenberg. Severely damaged by the great storm of 1900, it was rebuilt — thanks in part to funds raised by William Randolph Hearst at a charity function (Mark Twain attended) in New York — and reopened in 1902. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, it would open as The Bryan Museum a little more than a century after orphans first roamed its corridors, leaving telltale signs of their residency here and there.
“Hearst raised $50,000 at his event at the Waldorf Astoria,” Bryan says. “In the rebuilding, the place took on a [Renaissance Revival aesthetic] — not as impressive as the original with all the cupolas on the roof, but still imposing and beautiful. There are 97 windows and 13-foot ceilings. It was a challenge to balance all the window space with display space, but everything we brought in fit perfectly. I couldn’t be more pleased about the look and how it presents the history.”
That history might come alive through anything from paintings by the “Dean of Texas Artists,” Frank Reaugh, to fine Saltillo serapes favored by fashionable horsemen in 18th- and 19th-century northern Mexico. Bryan has the back story, provenance, and a certain reverence for everything in the collection. Take the serapes, for instance. “I’d been looking for years for Saltillo serapes,” he remembers. “One day a guy brought a bunch of what he thought were Mexican rugs to the office to show me. He brought them up in a trunk on his back and was covered with perspiration. I told him that he had something far better than a box of Mexican rugs and that I wanted to buy them from him. He said to me, ‘I don’t know what they’re worth, but I can tell you this much: I’m not carrying this trunk back down the stairs!’ ”
These days, Bryan has Christy and Gustafson to do much of the heavy lifting after the two helped to curate, catalog, and display his collection. Bryan himself remains involved in not just the museum but also in the community. “What really gave me the confidence to go ahead with this project — why I didn’t flinch — was I knew what impact the restoration would have not just on the community but on the entire city. A museum’s not like some great resort, but I had seen through the restoration of the Gage Hotel how it didn’t just save the building but saved the soul of the community. I knew the museum would have an impact far beyond the museum itself. Museum areas seem to bring a much higher quality style of development and higher quality traffic, much more in keeping with the quality of the neighborhood. So I felt it would be well-received.”
It has been well-received, as has Bryan. He didn’t just drop a priceless collection on Galveston and head back to his high-rise condo in Houston — he put down roots on the island. You might say he’s returned to them. “I have a beach house here, and I bought a house a block away from the museum in the neighborhood. I wanted to show that I was not only fully committed to the museum but also fully committed to the neighborhood.” While he waits for the final restoration work to be finished on the house in the museum district, Bryan, 75, is back at the beach — this time not saving turtles but saving a bit of Galveston and preserving the high-adventure Western history he’s loved all his life.
The clarion call was in Miss Cassie’s stories, and he heard it loud and clear. “History is very distinctive west of the 98th parallel,” Bryan says. “There have been incredible historic happenings in the West, things that meant the country would never look the same again. There were very fast-moving, action-packed occurrences — thrilling things — in the West. I want people to come and be inspired by those events and the values brought by the settlers who came to the western United States. It’s part of the heritage we all share — along with future generations of not just Texans but anyone who comes to this country.”
The thrill, the values, and something a little less tangible but integral all the same — the feeling. To explain it in terms of his collection, to get at the heart of a lifetime’s worth of gathering the physical evidence of the multifaceted singularity of the American West, Bryan settles on a favorite painting. “It’s a picture of a longhorn steer by Frank Reaugh, one of my top favorite artists and an amazing talent. The longhorn is looking over Palo Duro Canyon. It epitomizes the spirit of West. It’s not about action but rather about the pastoral, peaceful look of the West. In Remington and Russell, you see the action — the being chased, the falling off a horse. In Bierstadt, you get the romanticized view of the land — the mountains, the lakes. In Hennings and Sharp, you have the people and the landscapes. Others, like Reaugh, saw it differently — as a long view, an expanse that could bring solace to your soul. I’m crazy about that painting. It says what the West is meant to be to those who are in love with it or are fascinated by it.”
Planning a visit to the Bryan Museum? Don't miss these highlights.
From the January 2016 issue.