Sealy, Magnolia Willis (1854–1933)

By: Leslie A. Watts

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1995

Updated: February 19, 2019

Magnolia Willis Sealy, wife of George Sealy, daughter of Peter James and Caroline (Womack) Willis, was born in Montgomery, Texas, on June 15, 1854. As a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War and the deaths of her mother in 1863 and a sister in 1864, Magnolia and her two remaining sisters left the family plantation in southeast Texas and were enrolled at an early age in boarding school in New York. Meanwhile, back in Texas, Magnolia's father and his brother, Richard Short Willis, were busy establishing P. J. Willis and Brother, one of the largest mercantile establishments west of the Mississippi. After completing her education, Magnolia emerged on the scene of Galveston's "Golden Era" as the daughter of one of the island's most prosperous businessmen. It was here that she fell in love with and later married George Sealy, one of her father's business associates and twenty years her senior, on May 12, 1875, in Galveston's Trinity Episcopal Church. During the next eighteen years Magnolia and George Sealy had five daughters and three sons, including George Sealy II. It was during the early years of their marriage that George and Magnolia built their luxurious home, Open Gates, which became a center of Galveston business and social life. According to family legend, the construction of the landmark mansion was instigated by a statement made by Magnolia after the birth of the couple's fifth child in 1885, "Sir, I'll give you a second son, if you'll build me the finest home in Galveston."

Whatever the actual circumstances, Magnolia Sealy visited New York in 1886 and procured the services of the nationally acclaimed architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The resulting neo-Renaissance mansion was completed in 1889 and is thought to be the only building in the South designed by Stanford White. An elaborate carriage house, designed by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, was finished in 1891, the same year the couple's second son was born. As the wife of one of Galveston's leading businessmen, Magnolia Sealy devoted her life to her husband, children, and community, and her home provided an important focal point for family and civic activities. Befitting her position in Galveston society, she was a leader in church and philanthropic pursuits and ladies' aid societies. She helped found the Women's Health Protective Association, later known as the Galveston Civic League. Following the Galveston hurricane of 1900, she opened her own lavish home as a shelter to some 400 victims, some of whom had been literally washed up on her doorstep. The house was later the setting for gatherings honoring such notables as Clara Barton and President Theodore Roosevelt. An avid gardener, she also helped initiate the establishment of Galveston as "The Oleander City." Magnolia Sealy died on November 8, 1933, in Hot Springs, Virginia. Open Gates, complete with furnishings, was conveyed to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1979 and is designated for use as a conference center for the university.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website

A Century of Service: The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, 1891–1991 (Galveston, 1991). "The Open Gates: The George Sealy House in Galveston," The Magazine Antiques, September 1975. Richard Payne and Geoffrey Leavenworth, Historical Galveston (Houston: Herring Press, 1985). Jane and Rebecca Pinckard, Lest We Forget: The Open Gates, the George Sealy Residence (Houston, 1988).

  • Women
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Leslie A. Watts, “Sealy, Magnolia Willis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995
February 19, 2019

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: