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:
http://doorwayintothepast.blogspot.com/2013/03/mission-san-jose-y-san-miguel-de-aguayo_22.html

http://doorwayintothepast.blogspot.com/2013/06/mission-san-jose-revisited.html

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John Twohig house



The plaque on the front of the John Twohig house gives a brief glimpse into the interesting history of this house now located on the grounds of the Witte Museum. 

“In 1841, John Twohig – a San Antonio pioneer, Texas patriot, and prosperous merchant – erected this house on a site which was part of the Veramendi Palace within a curving bend on the San Antonio River at St. Mary’s and Commerce streets.  Mr. Twohig’s house was unique in the community since few buildings in this area at that time could boast a second floor.  In 1852, John Twohig surrounded his house with a beautiful garden for his bride, Elizabeth Priscilla Calvert, and later smaller guest houses for his important friends.  The Twohig’s were famous for their hospitality!
The property eventually passed into the ownership of the San Antonio Public Service Company, and finally, in 1941, was moved to the grounds of the Witte Museum.  The building as it now stands was restored as authentically as possible to John Twohig’s original home.  Built entirely of local limestone, each stone was carefully numbered and replaced in its proper position.  The original fireplace mantles and doors were installed, the outside stairway replaced, and details, such as lamps, were reproduced.  Even the bend in the river is strongly reminiscent of the landscape which surrounded the house downtown.”

Mr. Twohig, originally from Ireland, was known locally as the “Breadline Banker” because of his generous distribution of loaves of bread to the poor every Saturday night.  The original site of the house was actually on a small island formed by the tight curve of river and was reached by crossing a small footbridge.  After the removal of the house this bend in the river was filled in and the river re-channeled for flood control purposes.  (Click here to read more about Mr. Twohig and his interesting life)
Back side of house, facing the river
The house was to be torn down, but local preservations went into action.  The Historic Buildings Foundation provided three architects and an engineer to oversee the relocation.  City Public Service (the public utility entity of San Antonio) donated the building and paid for the move; the Conservation Society would provide furnishings for the house. The Portland Cement Company donated the cement to reconstruct the blocks; the last 430 bags of cement arrived just before the war necessitated a freeze on the use of cement. The Twohig house would be the last WPA project to be completed in Texas (Fisher, 1996).
Back side of house (stairs on left)
 
View river as seen from outside the Twohig house (looking north toward the start of the river)
 
 
 
 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Reptile Farm, Brackenridge Park


Remains of the front gate
The Reptile Farm had originally opened in 1933 in close proximity to the Witte Museum.  It would move twice before coming to this final location in 1939 when permanent stone structures replaced the temporary structures made of planks, barbed wire and old sheet metal.  The NYA assisted museum employees in constructing the large tank and surrounding snake houses.
 

These snake "apartments" featured steam heat to keep the snakes comfortable!
The first snake garden had opened on June 8, 1933, and was stocked with rattlesnakes captured on surrounding ranches and bought for 15 cents a pound, alligators that had been purchased at 50 cents a foot, and turtles. This was a solution for the abundance of snakes on area ranches and it provided income to the brave souls who rounded them up and brought them to the garden.  But the real benefit was for the Witte Museum.  Admission was 10 cents and within one week the garden had paid for itself; this was the Depression!  
 
The garden's popularity would continue throughout its existence.  A history of the Witte Museum states that it is believed that this was the first such facility in the United States. A popular attraction at the garden was a weekly rattlesnake fry; the last fry would be held on September 14, 1950.
Side of main entrance
South Texas was hit with a severe drought in the 1940's and snakes became scarce.  When the San Antonio Zoo opened their Reptile House the remaining snakes at the garden would be transferred to it in 1942.  The garden would switch to alligators as a substitute attraction; from 1952 until its closure in 1975 the garden displayed alligators and crocodiles. The snake garden closed when the manager, George Kimbrell, retired and took his collection to Arkansas.
The original roof structures are long gone, but the snake pits and other enclosures are still visible.  At the time of these pictures work was underway to remove debris and overgrown vegetation.  I doubt if there any plans to re-open the snake garden, but at least the structures are still visible and somewhat intact.  Their future remains to be determined.