Tuesday, 09 July 2013 14:44

Clayton home relevant as a portal to the past

Written by Paul Beckman
Rate this item
(3 votes)

Research center helps families uncover their historical roots

Except for an occasional stray cat, no one lives on the historic Clayton home property on Caroline Street. Nobody has for decades.

Still, people have been showing up for nearly half a century searching for their families. 

Once the home of businessman William L. Clayton, the Texas Historical Landmark building now serves as part of the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research. Visitors from across the United States and even other countries stop in to trace their family histories at the center.

House of cotton

The Georgian Revival style home, designed by renowned Houston architect Birdsall Briscoe, was built in 1917. In addition to the three-story brick home, the property also included a guest house and carriage house.

A Houstonian, Clayton was born in 1880 on a Mississippi cotton farm. He left Mississippi, but never left cotton. At 24, he helped establish a new cotton company called Anderson, Clayton & Co., which became the largest cotton brokerage firm in the world by the 1930s. Clayton and his company were dubbed "King Cotton." 

"It was an international company but was based in Houston and employed generations of Houstonians from the early 1900s until 1986 when it was purchased by Quaker Oats," said Susan Clayton Garwood, a great granddaughter of Clayton.

In the 1940s, Clayton worked in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and then served as undersecretary of state for economic affairs under President Harry Truman. As undersecretary,  he became a principal architect of the Marshall Plan, which played a significant role in rebuilding Europe after World War II.   

In 1948, the Claytons returned to Houston and became more active in philanthropy. Author and close friend Marguerite Johnston Barnes told them about a need for branch libraries in Houston and suggested they donate their home, Garwood said.

"Always supportive of education for all levels of society, the Claytons loved the idea and arranged through their wills to leave their home to the city to be used as a library," Garwood said. 

What's old is new again

In 1968, two years after William Clayton died, the Houston Public Library's expanding genealogy collection outgrew its space in the Julia Ideson Building. So it was packed up and moved to the Clayton Home.

"Because we don't throw anything out, it outgrew this area too," Clayton Library manager Susan Kaufman said. "The property next to the home was donated also and a new building was built in 1988."

The Clayton Home was dwarfed by the new building which Kaufman said soaked up the entire genealogy collection except for the family histories.  

The home's role was reduced but not forgotten.

The house, guest house and carriage house received a major makeover that was wrapped up in 2009. For the renovation, the Clayton family donated $4 million; Clayton Library Friends raised $2 million; and the city of Houston provided $1 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment.

The buildings saw improvement inside and out. The home's exterior renovations focused on brickwork, painting, light fixtures and the roof, while the interior received cosmetic enhancements, new millwork, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades. And the restored gardens feature the same kinds of plants available in 1917 Houston.

The early 20th century house is now 21st century efficient with a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - or LEED - gold certification.

During the renovations, the family histories were moved to the new building. The house is now used largely for a microfilm program in partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' FamilySearch.

"You can see the microfilm readers," Kaufman said. "When people order microfilm from Salt Lake City, it comes here." 

Garwood was 5 years old when Clayton died, so she has had the rare experience of seeing the home in all its different roles.   

"I remember visiting him at the house and having dinner there with my family in the dining room. I was seated on phone books to reach the table," Garwood said. "Now I am very much involved in protecting historic architecture all around Houston so, on many levels, I am devoted to the ongoing care and maintenance of the Clayton house and garden. I find it wonderful and fitting that the house is not only preserved but being used for genealogy."

Read 4072 times