Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lee County Courthouse

On a recent visit to Giddings, Texas I was pleased to see that the doorway into the Lee County Courthouse was boarded up!  The building has not been condemned and is not to be torn down, it is undergoing a restoration to correct various problems that have appeared since the previous restorations!  This is the kind of boarded up building I like to see!

The Lee County, Texas Courthouse was completed in 1899 as a replacement for the courthouse that had burned two years earlier. The first courthouse had been completed in 1878 in the Second Empire style with a mansard roof and is described as having been an elegant building.  Prior to its construction there had been a heated debate and election to determine that Giddings would be the county seat; after the first courthouse burned there was another unsuccessful push to move the courthouse.

James Riely Gordon was chosen as the architect and after submitting a bid of $32,270 to complete the building Sonnefield, Emmins, and Abright of San Antonio was chosen as contractors.  Gordon was a prominent 19th century architect who designed many buildings in Texas, but is best known for his courthouse designs.  Most of the courthouses are extant and continue to serve as the seat of county government. Interestingly, he had no formal training as an architect!
Gordon used his version of what was referred to as a Richardsonian Romanesque style as it reflects the style attributed to architect Henry H. Richardson. The historical marker states that the courthouse was designed along the same lines as the New York State Capitol and several buildings at Harvard University.  Its simplicity and lack of ornamentation distinguishes it from earlier courthouses designed by Gordon.  The Lee County Courthouse is almost identical with the Comal County Courthouse designed a year earlier by Gordon.

The courthouse was built on the large lot one block south of the business district of Giddings where the original courthouse was located.  The contractor paid convicts $1 a day to remove the burnt bricks from the burned out courthouse.   Today the courthouse sits serenely in the middle of the park like block; its visibility in this tranquil setting seems to add to its grace and beauty.

I was unable to make out anything on the original cornerstone; details are more evident in a digital photograph.  Construction began in 1898 and the building was completed and received by the Board of Commissioners in June 1899. 

The building has had only minor alterations, thus retaining its original details. Even so, as with most old buildings the courthouse has faced serious problems that threatened its integrity.  As indicated on the cornerstone there was a restoration in 1982; however, basement flooding was threatening the building's structure.  A grant from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program in 2004 funded below grade water proofing, repaired exterior masonry, restored the windows, and replaced mechanical and electrical systems.  In 2010 an emergency grant had addressed stabilizing the foundation and another emergency grant in 2014 provided funds to repair masonry, doors and interior finishes that had been affected by the structural movement of the foundation.

The three story building rests on a raised limestone base.  Limestone also is used in the arches, foliated capitals and for the wide band that forms the first and third floor window lintels. The second floor windows have only a single stone lintel.  Blue granite used in the steps and polished columns provides a contrast to the red brick and white limestone.
Limestone is such a common building material in Texas that I have honestly never really given it any thought.  Not until I looked at these pictures and realized that it is an architectural element in its own way. I never realized how much detail the limestone blocks have and how that adds to the design of the building.  The workers that cut and laid these pieces were true craftsmen. 

And, yes I'm anxious to go back to see the courthouse when the boards are removed.  I'm watching the Texas Historical Commission website to see if they will have a re-dedication that's at a time when I can attend.   

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Battle of the Alamo hasn't ended

Before I move onto the next post, I feel that I would be remiss if I did not continue just a bit with the last post.  While it focused on what is known today as Alamo Hall I thought it would be appropriate to briefly mention the actual Alamo and Alamo grounds and the current battle going on there today. 

Alamo chapel doors
The Alamo is always associated with the battle to the death that took place in March 1936, but its history began long before that and has continued right up to the current day.  Originally founded as Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718 near the San Pedro Springs it would move a year later and then again in 1722 to its present day site. 
A concrete version of the acequia that brought water to the Mission from the San Antonio River
The history of the Alamo and the surrounding grounds is much too complex to even briefly summarize here and there are plenty of good sources to consult regarding the many events that these walls have witnessed.  The Battle of the Alamo was to the death, but in subsequent years there have been many locally earth shaking battles over these walls and the surrounding grounds. Preservation has been at the heart of each battle, but now it is the question of who will manage the Alamo complex in the future that is stirring the waters. 

East entrance of Alamo Gift Shop
The State of Texas took control from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas who had saved it from destruction in 1903. Now the Texas General Land Office is conducting a national search for a new management company to run the Alamo.  Personal opinion:  that strikes absolute terror in my heart! What concerns me is if an outside management company will truly understand what they are managing.  The chapel has serious structural issues that must be addressed and the debate is raging about the entire area known as Alamo Plaza and its preservation, just to name a few of the issues a management company will immediately face.  The property is not just something that a management company can manage.

If you would like to read more I'm attaching a link to an article in the San Antonio Express News published on Sunday, March 16, 2015 and an editorial published on Thursday, March 18, 2015 if you want to read further. 

A new era is dawning at the Alamo
Yes to an Alamo amendment

Monday, February 16, 2015

DRT Meeting Hall

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas used this building as their meeting hall from the time it was constructed in 1939 until 2012. The Daughters had lost their custodianship of the Alamo property following allegations of mismanagement and were asked to remove their property from the grounds of the Alamo.
Today it is known as Alamo Hall and is the only facility for public and private events within the walls of the Alamo grounds. This patio is located on the right side of the building as seen in the first photo and is a lovely setting for an event.  There was quite an uproar when it was decided that alcohol could be served in the Alamo Hall!

Work had been done on the Alamo grounds in 1934 under the Texas Relief Commission which had been established in 1933 by Governor M.A. (Ma) Ferguson; funding for the project was through the use of Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) funds.  A marker confirming this work is on the wall facing Crocket Street that connects the DRT meeting hall and their Library. I was puzzled about it because I knew for sure the building had been built in 1939.  My mystery was solved when I asked the local historian who writes a column in the San Antonio Express News about it.  The marker was relocated there from another lower wall that was present in the 1930's.  Even though it is out of place on the wall of the DRT meeting hall I was pleased that someone had the forethought to preserve it.
Lewis Fisher writes in Saving San Antonio The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage that the City had agreed to donate Fire Station No. 2 to the DRT in the fall of 1936 as part of a plan to preserve the Alamo and surrounding grounds.  The old fire station was to be torn down as part of the federally funded work being done on the Alamo grounds.  It should be noted that much controversy had surrounded the proposed plans for the Alamo and it is much too detailed to discuss here.  A member of the Centennial Advisory Committee, Ernest Altgelt, suggested to the DRT that they use the building for "some useful service" as it was a good strong building. The new auditorium would be constructed from the foundation and remains of the old fire station.

An article in the March 2, 1939 San Antonio Express News states that remodeling of the old central fire station on the grounds of the Alamo was underway and was expected to last for 3 months. The meeting hall would seat 300 people.  The plan was to reconstruct the abandoned fire station into an assembly hall for “San Antonio patriotic organizations”.  The structure was to cost $15,811 and this article notes that it would be one of the last projects in the area around the Alamo. It also identifies the work as being done through the WPA.

A picture and article in the San Antonio Light published sometime in 1939 states that work had been completed on the DRT meeting hall.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Aleswana Grounds

The previous post featured the lovely home originally known as Aleswana located in Comfort, Texas. I feel it would be remiss if I move on without mentioning the amazing grounds of the former summer home of the Steves family.
Even on a misty fall day the views of the Texas Hill Country are phenomenal!
In 1911 Albert Steves built the first of seven dams on the Guadalupe River.  These dams generated electricity to pump water up to the house. 
In 1922 a pond and storage tank were constructed close to the house.  Water was pumped into the tank and then used to irrigate the entire 22 acres. (The pond is contained in the rock wall behind the tree in this photograph)
The banks of the Guadalupe River were (and still are!) a great place to picnic, relax, and swim on a summer afternoon.  In the quiet I could hear the laughter of the girls and the delightful shrieks of the boys diving into the cold water! I wondered how many romances blossomed along these banks!
This gazebo was designed and built by Dionicio Rodriguez, a Mexican born artist who specialized in Faux Bois (false wood) sculptures constructed using a special formula of concrete.  His works are in various states and many are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Looks like real wood, doesn't it? I'm not sure when this was built, but it has withstood the elements very well. Apparently the formula to mix the special concrete was known only to Mr. Rodriguez.
A swimming pool is between the house and the gazebo.  The original pool is said to have been hand dug by the resident caretaker over the period of one winter!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Aleswana (Haven River Inn)

This lovely home just outside of Comfort, Texas, was built in 1910 as a summer home by Albert Steves. Mr. Steves was a successful businessman in San Antonio who had followed his father, Edward Steves, in owning the very successful Steves Lumber Company.   Today this house is known as the Haven River Inn and is a wonderful Bed and Breakfast!

I snapped this picture that is in a photo album in the Inn, but it also appears on their website.  An attic fan and the cupola helped to cool the large house which Albert Steves loved to fill up with friends and family. The original house had 8 bedrooms and one "facility". 
This picture appears to have been made during the most recent remodeling, but it shows how the original home was modified to enclose the screen porches and the cupola was removed. The third floor and wrap around porch seen in the first picture were part of the last remodeling done after the current owners bought the house in 1996.
Another photo in the album shows the large attic fan that was part of the original structure. 
Under the stairs in the original house

Under the stairs, now


The large house was built for entertaining.  These storage cabinets are located in the main hall convenient to the kitchen.  When the Steves came for the summer they brought a full staff with them. In addition, a full-time caretaker was employed to maintain the house and property. Mr. Steves guests occupied themselves with games, sewing, and reading. When the house was sold for the first time in 1984 some of those original diversions were still stored in the house.
This wrought iron sign by the pool announces the original name of the house
Mr. Steves named his summer residence "Aleswana" through the combination of two letters from each of his children's names:  Albert, Estelle, Walter, and Edna.

The living room and dining rooms face each other and both have large fireplaces.  The pictures don't show the size of the rooms, but they are large.  The dining room table seats 10 and until our group arrived it was nicely set and arranged as if to serve a meal.  The B&B serves meals on the glassed in porch where there are beautiful views of the property.

This one of two identical doors that lead from the dining room to the porch.  The transom lights over every door reminded me of my (un air-conditioned) elementary school.  The ones on the second floor had been painted over for privacy in the rooms, but still they were there to remind guests of the days before central air when these provided much needed air circulation.

I love this porch!  It was cold and damp on this trip, but both mornings I enjoyed a cup of coffee while sitting in a rocking chair enjoying the view of the Texas Hill Country on a fall morning.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ethel Harris' Mexican Arts & Crafts pottery

Ethel Wilson Harris was already the owner of a well-established decorative tile business, Mexican Arts and Crafts, in San Antonio when she became the local technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts division of the WPA in San Antonio in 1939.  Her staff of approximately 60 local artisans manufactured decorative clay tiles; during the time of the shop’s involvement with the WPA the tiles would not be sold but offered to charitable and public organizations. 

The tiles from her WPA involvement are seen today in two plaques along the San Antonio River and in other locations. In 1937 she had copyrighted a book of designs and the full blooming maguey plant as her craftsman’s mark.  During the two years of her WPA work she modified the maguey to indicate that the work was for the WPA.
The modified maguey is in the bottom center tile and forms the letters WPA at the top and AC at the bottom for the Arts and Crafts division
This version of the maguey (seen above the letter "O") also shows the year of completion
Mrs. Harris was very involved in local preservation efforts.  After Mission San Jose was restored she requested permission to open a shop in the granary to make and sell decorative tiles and other native made crafts; this business would be known as Mission Crafts.  She was also affiliated with San Jose Potteries in the mid-1930's.

As a young widow she would move into an apartment in the western wall of the mission; this was permitted in an effort to prevent vandalism to the mission but also allowed her to live close to her shop.
In 1941 after San Jose was designated a National Historic Site she was chosen to be the park’s manager, making her the first woman to be appointed as the site manager for a Texas State Park. She would remain in this position until her retirement in 1963.   

In 1956 she built a house on adjoining property in 1956, living there until the early 1980’s.  The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, was designed by her son, Robert, to fit on a foundation she had already laid.  It is 2,000 square feet in size and built using frame, stone and concrete construction. The design is thought to resemble the "Usonian" style of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mrs. Harris closed her business in 1977 and passed away in 1984. Her tiles today are considered collector’s items.

Sources referenced and for further reading:

Fisher, L. F. (2007). Riverwalk: The Epic Story of San Antonio's River. San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company.





Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Donkey Barn

This unusual building is about to undergo renovation and I do plan on posting updates as it progresses.  Located in Brackenridge Park this building was originally one story and was believed to have been the location of the barn built to house the hay and, possibly, donkeys used on the Donkey Trail in the park. 

In 1916 the San Antonio Rotary Club gave 12 burros to the children of San Antonio.  They were tended by a one-legged man known only as "Peg".  The San Antonio Light ( April 8, 1917) states that all the kids just loved Peg.  The donkeys were originally kept in corrals built next to the river, but in 1920 Ray Lambert, the Commissioner of Parks and Sanitation credited with much of the development of the park, took bids to construct a barn near the corrals. 

It is not clear if the building actually was used to house the donkeys or just hay for them and the nearby zoo.  In the 1920's children enjoyed the simple pleasure of a ride on the trail through the park on the back of a donkey; what a wonderful, simple time! The rides ended during the 1940's as a result of World War II.

The second story and the Alamo-style parapet were added in 1956 when the building was converted to offices for the Department of Parks and Recreation. The visible line above the door denotes the addition.  I can only assume that the window motif (in the style of the Rose Window at Mission San Jose) and the buttress like towers were added at that time.

The current renovation will replace the roof, convert the interior into office/educational space, and make the building handicap accessible.  Upgrades to electrical systems are also included.  The cost is estimated at $500,000.