Past Treasure of the Month – August 2019
During the month of August, Rosenberg Library exhibited a Civil War artillery shell fired from a Union vessel during the Battle of Galveston, January 1, 1863. The shell was excavated at the corner of 21st and Postoffice in 1919. Donald McKenzie, Jr. donated it to Rosenberg Library in 1920.
In 1919, an old commercial building at the southwest corner of 21st Street and Postoffice was undergoing renovation when an unusual artifact was unearthed. It was an artillery shell from the Civil War, and it confirmed a tale passed down through the family of Donald McKenzie, owner of the property.
John Henry Illies was an early Galveston resident who owned a successful grocery and wholesale business. In 1845, he purchased two lots near 21st (Center) Street and Postoffice. He later built a frame cottage at the site which was surrounded by a flower garden and fruit trees. He lived there with his wife, Justine.
During the Civil War, a pivotal battle took place in Galveston on January 1, 1863. After Confederate troops launched a surprise attack, Union gunboats began firing in downtown Galveston, damaging numerous commercial buildings and residences. According to Justine, an artillery shell crashed through the roof of the family’s home, narrowly missing the couple’s infant son, Charles.
Presumably, the shell was buried at the Illies property some time between 1863 and 1867. John Henry Illies died in 1866, and Justine Illies erected an investment property on the lot next to their residence the following year. It was a two-story frame structure with retail space on the ground floor and a residential space on the second floor.
Justine Illies later remarried Donald McKenzie, and they had another son, Donald, Jr. together. Donald McKenzie, Jr. became an architect on the island, and in 1929, he razed the 1867 Illies Building (which he co-owned with his half-brother Charles Illies) to make way for a five-story apartment building.
McKenzie named the development “Justine Apartments” in honor of his mother. The Justine Apartments included state-of-art amenities such as an elevator and a trash incinerator for residents. Each unit featured terrazzo floors, colored cement walls, and Murphy beds, plus refrigerators and gas stoves. The 90-year-old structure continues to operate as an apartment building today.