The Collector

 

J.P. Bryan is creating a living history of Texas and the settlement of the West.

There are few stranger things than watching a painting come to life while standing next to its subject, its canvas a vertically mounted flat-screen television nestled inside an ornate gold frame. The man inside the frame, a trim, white-haired man with just a wispy shock of leftover blond talks about how the West was won while the real-life version of the same man whispers in my ear. His 11-year-old dog, Chalk, is nuzzling against my leg. It’s stranger still that we’re in a 19th-century orphanage that was almost crushed under the foot of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, and now houses more than 70,000 pieces of Texana and Western artifacts.

Alas, the double-tracked vocals have an odd effect, and the museumgoers who can hear but cannot see where the second voice is coming from look at each other, befuddled. The video finally ends, and J.P. Bryan, the man himself, fully steps into the doorway to greet the patrons.

“Is that you?” a woman asks, pointing to the frame.

“I think so,” Bryan says, to laughter.

And with that, half a dozen curious, middle-aged Texans are ready to dive deep into a chronological telling of the Western settlement, with Bryan, BA ’62, JD ’65, Life Member, as their guide. What the group may not realize, but will soon figure out, is that Bryan doesn’t know minute details about every nugget of Texana in the place because he’s a historian, or a museum buff, or a millionth-generation Texan. He is all of those things, to be sure. But the reason he can tell the man in a fanny pack how many pistols the Dance company made (400) or who owned the one behind glass (Wild Bill Longley) or how many people the outlaw John Wesley Harding, whose business card is on display, claimed he killed (a prolific 20 by the time he was 19 years old) off the top of his head is because all of these items are his. They don’t call it the Bryan Museum for nothing.

The tagline for the Bryan Museum, which opened on Galveston’s quiet, palm-lined 21st Street in June 2015, is “The West as it will never be seen again.” From a four-barrelled Sharps pistol he bought at age 8 with $10 in newspaper-delivery money to an ultra-rare book written by 16th-century Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca that he won in a bidding war 15 years ago, the hyperbolic statement is perhaps true. Bryan has lived many lives: publisher, oil investor, hotelier, historian. One title, a thread that has run through his entire life, however, is the only one he’s never had to put on a CV: He’s the most prolific private collector of Texas artifacts the world has ever known.

On the ground floor of the Bryan Museum, which is devoid of priceless artifacts as a safeguard for future hurricanes, Bryan explains how his immense collection ended up here. As a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast, Bryan says he figured the museum would be in Houston. But after a thorough search, he says sticker shock and the lack of historic buildings downtown discouraged him. He also didn’t feel like wrestling with an architecture firm that would force his antiques into a chrome box.

“I like Classical architecture and proportionally correct things,” Bryan says, “not all glass or big stark space without anything to embrace you.” What he wanted, really, was a turnkey space, a building as historic and pristine as the collection he’d house inside.

While researching at the Galveston Library for a book he was writing about the Battle of San Jacinto, he drove by a beautiful Colonial building erected just before the Civil War, with a for sale sign posted out front. He inquired, and upon inspection, found the space to be too small, and full of water damage. Discouraged, but set on Galveston, a friend told him to drive down 21st Street.

What he saw was a Gothic Revival mansion, its signature center peak crumbled by the 1900 storm and rebuilt with a flattened facade, but nonetheless a sparkling gem shimmering at the heart of the island. It was creepy on the outside, enveloped by overgrown weeds—“like Dracula’s house,” Bryan says—but the inside was immaculate. Bryan purchased the Galveston Children’s Home, built in 1895 and used as an orphanage until 1984, in October 2013. Without an architect, and using just an outside installation firm, Museum Arts, work started in January of the following year. By June 2015, the Bryan Museum was open. The first new pieces he found were already on site when they started digging in the yard to install a geothermal heating and cooling system (museums are held to a standard of 66 degrees fahrenheit or below). In the basement is one sole exhibit of artifacts, long lost-treasure washed underground by the storm: toy guns, army figurines, and a cache of marbles belonging to the children living inside at the time, none of whom were affected in a significant way by the hurricane. It’s a small, symbolic gesture to the history of the building, but nonetheless one that characterizes Bryan’s attention to detail.

“It’s breathtaking,” curator Nathan Jones says. “It’s larger than life, and in a style not very common in a new museum—like stepping back to a different era.”

That’s because even though the museum is new by most standards, it’s 50 years in the making.

In 1966, Bryan was a young law school graduate with a budding small publishing company called Pemberton Press, located at 910 Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. The company, which published the first biography of J. Frank Dobie titled Portrait of Pancho: The Life of a Great Texan, sprung out of a rare books business that Bryan and his friend John Jenkins, ’63, Life Member, started while Bryan was still in law school.

“From that point I amassed a small collection,” Bryan says. His father, however, had him beat. J.P. Bryan Sr., BBA ’29, Life Member, who studied at Texas Law and later became a UT-System regent, and the great-great-nephew of Stephen F. Austin, had a large collection of Texana, composed mostly of maps and documents, that the younger Bryan assumed he would inherit someday. Combined with his burgeoning lot, it would have made a substantial trove.

“That didn’t happen,” Bryan says, laughing. His father sold the collection to UT’s Barker Center (which was absorbed by the Briscoe Center in 1991). “I was very disappointed about that, selfishly. I thought, well, if I want a collection, I better go get it.”

After a turn in investment banking in New York City, Bryan started Torch Energy Advisors in Houston in 1981, all the while collecting maps and documents that started clogging the closets and lining the floorboards of the home he shared with his wife Mary John in the Rice University neighborhood. Then a lightbulb went off. Much like Dobie was the unheralded master of an underappreciated genre—Western lit—there had to be counterparts working in the fine arts. When the savings and loan crisis hit Texas banks hard, Bryan says, prices went down everywhere, including on regional art. That’s when he pounced.

“Nobody talked about the West. I did a little review and I was amazed to find how many great artists called Texas home,” Bryan says. “If these individuals had been on either coast, they probably would have commanded much larger attention.”

He started buying works from Texas artists like Julian Onderdonk, Frank Reaugh, and Jose Cisneros, whose beautiful canvasses were filled with images of the West: bluebonnets, pueblos, and herds of buffalo. He hired a curator, who found a glaring omission in his collection. He didn’t have any of the actual objects used to help settle the West. That kickstarted his quest to collect every pertinent spur, saddle, and revolver he could find.

By 1986, Mary John was at her wit’s end with the de-facto museum taking over their home. So Bryan set up a gallery in Torch Energy’s downtown office, jam-packed with antique Colt pistols, early Texas maps, and even an old chuck wagon that he’d cook food on while he showed busloads of schoolkids artifacts.

“That was, for me, a turning point in my collecting habits,” Bryan says. “Was I pursuing some selfish endeavor here, that may not have much value to anybody but me?” But once his mini-museum became a hit, it validated the countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars he had spent on art. Bryan delighted at the scores of elementary school children that would drop in for field trips.

Bryan began shuttering Torch’s Houston office in 2007. Needing somewhere to put his collection, he had a few thoughts about where it would go. He could sell it off, like his father did, or try to find an existing museum that might like to build a wing to house it. He still thought it completely unlikely that he’d open his own museum.

In 2012, the Harry Ransom Center borrowed items from Bryan’s collection, including several paintings from noted Dallas artist Frank Reaugh. Peter Mears, curator of art at the HRC from 1995 until his retirement last year, says he met Bryan during this time, and thought that his collection was astounding.

“It is the largest private collection of—I feel—significant Texas artifacts,” Mears says. “Certainly it touches the museum scale.”

Mears continues, “What impressed me was his ability to jockey back and forth between literary and visual and topographic—how that all grows out of the roots of Texas history. His mind and his collection spans amazing chapters of Texas history.”

Despite the confidence of distinguished curators like Mears, opening a museum is a vast undertaking generally left to philanthropic societies or a consortium of donors; Bryan hadn’t even received a single major gift to that point.

“Professional dealers will say it about guys like me who have a great collection all the time: ‘He’s got a good eye.’ Which means, he doesn’t know anything about the art, he doesn’t have any real schooling, but he can pick out a good piece,” Bryan says. “I’ve heard that said about me, but I’ve never felt like it was a salutation or congratulations of praise.” Bryan’s collection was always impressive, but the collection itself wasn’t enough. Sure, being a “hunter-gatherer,” as Mears calls him, is appealing; the chase is perhaps the most exciting part of any journey. But for Bryan’s collection to have meaning, for it to truly soar, he needed to share it with the world. And so here we are.

If Galveston is a former Texas boomtown that Bryan is imbuing with a strong dose of cultural cache, it wouldn’t be the first time. More than 40 years ago, Bryan blindly bought a dilapidated yellow-brick building in a forgotten town and forever transformed its future.

In the late 19th century, the now-sleepy West Texas outpost of Marathon was once a bustling town, exploding in part due to the local ranching and cattle industry. San Antonio businessman Alfred Gage saw an opportunity in Big Bend, eventually amassing more than 500,000 acres in the region and establishing the A.S. Gage Ranch in 1883. In 1926, Gage hired renowned El Paso architect Henry Trost to design him a residence and headquarters for his banking and ranching businesses. The following year, the Gage Hotel opened, and became a popular dining and dancing destination. In 1928, Gage died suddenly, but for decades, the hotel remained in operation.

In 1978, Bryan was fresh off purchasing the 15,000-acre Chalk Draw Ranch, a short tumbleweed roll north of Big Bend National Park. Still primarily based in Houston, he was looking to purchase a home nearby. Bryan was driving along Highway 90 when he saw a for sale sign outside the erstwhile Gage Hotel, now scantly used and in disrepair, so he called on it. The man on the other end of the line told him the price was $30,000. Bryan went silent for an extended period, not unusual if you’ve ever spoken with the man.

“Well, Mr. Bryan, if that’s too much … ” the proprietor stuttered.

“No,” Bryan said calmly. “I’ll take it.” He paid full price, without stepping foot through the doors. When he finally poked his head inside his latest real estate venture, it looked “awful,” he says. It smelled bad too. Ever the historian, though, Bryan traveled to El Paso to get information on Trost and the Gage. He returned with, stunningly, the original plans to the hotel. A purist at heart, Bryan talked himself into transforming the Gage back into its original form.

“No one came. For years,” Bryan says. “You could almost put a cot out on [Highway] 90 and not worry about anyone disturbing your sleep.”

Soon enough though, visitors began flocking from Austin out to Big Bend, caught wind of the Gage, and gave it a boost. And then, Bryan says, “People from the East Coast found Marfa and thought they discovered the West, which brought another class of visitor.”

From there: expansion. Bryan started with a 20-room extension, called Los Portales, where guests gather each night in the adjoining courtyard. In the mid-90s, the house next door was transformed into the 12 Gage restaurant, serving steak, oyster nachos, and a Cobb-type salad named after Henry Trost. Twenty years ago, the house next to that was converted into a gift shop, where visitors can purchase books and home decor related to the West. In 2016, he continued his annexation, buying the next house down and turning it into the V6 Coffee Bar. If you need anything in Marathon, from caffeine to koozies, you’ll buy it from J.P. Bryan. He owns every building in the town along Highway 90, plus a church, an old coffee shop, and multiple other houses nearby. Plans for a barbecue joint and brewery are also in the works. It’s like Roadhouse, if Ben Gazzara’s character was concerned with restoration instead of extortion.

“I think I own more of it probably than I should,” Bryan says. A 1998 Texas Monthly article contains quotes from multiple locals who were less than pleased by Bryan snatching up several properties in Marathon, but, Bryan says, he tried to buy a building when he thought he could make a difference.

“It’s a gift for people who happen to come out here,” says Gage general manager Carol Peterson. “This is his way for sharing this part of the world with everyone else.”

On my second night in Marathon, I cozied up to the hotel’s adjacent White Buffalo Bar, an intimate room tucked in the back of the 12 Gage restaurant with quite the literal name: a stuffed white buffalo head is perched on one wall, and a white buffalo burger sits atop the bar menu. As I nursed a glass of bourbon, I drank in the clientele willingly stranded with me in the almost-ghost town.

There was the 52-year-old man from San Diego riding his bicycle across the country, and his wife following behind him in a van. There was the older couple from East Texas stopping off on the way to a wedding in the park. There were even two howling businessmen sipping pink grapefruit vodka, devouring their filet mignon while touching nary a vegetable on the plate, and uttering unprintable obscenities. The point is, the Gage attracts all-comers, and for many, it’s a repeat stay. Except, of course, if you’re looking to watch television in your room. The issue comes up every couple of years, and Bryan says he’s adamantly against it.

“If you come out here to watch TV, maybe you shouldn’t come,” he says, noting that the bar has a couple for sporting events. “That’s not the purpose of being here. You don’t need to watch FOX or CNN; use your brain for something else.”

In an introduction to the book Deep in the Art of Texas, published in 2014, Bryan outlines four lessons of collecting he adapted from Jenkins, a man whom he called “a genius” in one of our interviews, and wrote about him being “certainly the greatest Texas rare book dealer in the business at that time” in the foreword. Of the four applications—which include buying whole collections, collecting only the best, and loving what you collect—the fourth is the one he spurned. It deals with specialization, and the notion that any serious collector should gather everything he can within a particular discipline—an angle within an angle—before expanding.

“This last piece of advice I mostly ignored,” Bryan wrote. “I collected every subject and almost every category of collectibles related to the settlement of Texas and the West. Not because limiting one’s focus does not suit the best process for collecting, but because it simply did not suit my more impetuous nature and my abiding interest in all things Texas.”

Back in Galveston, in a small sitting room off the main lobby of the museum, I ask Bryan about an anecdote he began to tell inside, before a captivated visitor commandeered him. Long before he owned a museum, he bought a copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence for $25,000 from a dealer. For almost a decade, Bryan says, he had one of the rarest and most important artifacts in Texas history. Then, in 1991, a book called Texfake was published, with an introduction by Larry McMurtry. It outlined a bevy of forged declarations that had trickled out into the market in previous decades. To Bryan’s horror, his was one of them. To make matters worse, the dealer was a distant relative. And to add insult to injury, the document came to Bryan through a familiar intermediary: an old friend and business partner of Bryan’s.

“I was furious,” Bryan says. “I knew that [the man] who I bought it from knew it was fake. [The forger] told me, ‘I never intended to sell them. It was art to me. I was trying to see if I could exactly duplicate it.’ Yeah, sure. Come on.” As if on cue, Chalk sighs and spreads out on the floor, reflecting his owner’s dejection. Bryan says that the declaration is still his white whale, but that with so few authentic copies in existence now that the fakes have been exposed, and having spent years not purchasing one while it only appreciated in value, it’ll take a small miracle for that to come to fruition.

I ask Bryan if he’ll continue to scratch that itch now that he has his dream museum, filled with 70,000 artifacts already. Like the Gage, a continuous restoration and expansion, the Bryan Museum is a history project with no end in sight.

“Yeah,” Bryan says, without missing a beat. “Once you’re a collector … ”  he trails off. Chalk’s nails are clacking the wood floor as he settles in for a nap. Here comes that famous Bryan pause as he collects himself. Then, he says, “It’s something akin to an addiction.”

 

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