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, 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.

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.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pentagon Barracks, Baton Rouge LA

The Pentagon Barracks is one of several unique places that I happened to stumble upon while on my Spring Road Trip.  I had seen a reference to them while looking through tourist information in the hotel lobby, and spotted them as I pulled up to the Louisiana State Capitol. When I ventured briefly out onto the Capitol's observation deck I was puzzled about why they are referred to as "pentagon" when there are only 4 buildings and, therefore, only four sides rather than five.  Time for a little research! But little did I know the problems I would have as the available information is sketchy and sometimes conflicting.  Plus, I felt that some of the explanations I found were not really well documented.  What I share here is what I sifted through and found to be accurate.
  • This area had been settled by the French after French explorer, Pierre Lemoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, discovered this area along the Mississippi River in the early 1700's.   
  • In 1763 the area was ceded to the British.  They built the first fort in 1779 and named it Fort Richmond. In September of that year Spain would capture the fort and re-name it Fort San Carlos. 
  • In September 1810 it was captured by a group of revolting citizens who then formed the short-lived West Florida Republic and changed the name to Fort Baton Rouge.
  • In December of that year the republic requested acceptance into the union and U.S. soldiers assumed control.

  • 1816-because of its location on the river the fort was selected as an ordnance depot by the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. A major expansion of the fort was undertaken during the years from 1819 to 1823.  Plans for the depot were drawn by a young Army engineer, Lt. James Gadsen, and the construction contract awarded to Joel Hill.  Hill was already under contract to the Quartermaster department to build four barracks buildings and a combination commissary-warehouse building.
  • 1825-the five building complex was completed and it was at this time that the quartermaster building complex became known as the Pentagon Barracks.  The commissary-warehouse building was soon torn down due to faulty construction, leaving only the four barracks buildings.  The fort became known as the Baton Rouge Arsenal and Ordnance Depot and soon was the largest in the South; during the Mexican War it was the military’s main supply depot. 
  • 1861-state militia forces led by Louisiana Governor Thomas Overton Moore captured the fort. The Confederate Army would assume command soon afterward; the ordnance in the fort supplied many Louisiana volunteer units.
  • 1862-in August the fort was captured by Union forces, renamed as Fort Williams, and held by them for the remainder of the war, continuing to function as an ordnance depot.
  • 1869-the fort was formally transferred to the Quartermaster Department.
  • 1879-the post is deactivated June 6th and the Army leaves.  Only one sergeant remains as a caretaker.
  • 1884-the property was transferred to the Department of the Interior. The General Assembly of Louisiana passed a resolution granting full use of the property to Louisiana State University.

LSU began using the facilities of the former fort for classes in 1886 and would be given full title to the property in 1902.  The university would move to its present day location in 1926, but the barracks continued to house cadets until 1932 and then co-eds until 1950. The other old buildings on the post would be torn down in 1931-1932 to make room for the new State Capitol. 

In 1951 ownership of the barracks was transferred to the State and the barracks were renovated into apartments and office space.  A complete interior renovation was undertaken in 1966 and again in 2006 so nothing remains of the interiors of the barracks used by the military or LSU.  Today these apartments are rented out very cheaply to legislators (yes, there is quite a controversy in LA over that!).

The barracks originally had 4 fireplaces; the galleries on both side of each building were added around 1834.  The Historical American Buildings Survey conducted in 1978 describes the galleries as being the finest example of Greek Revival colonnades in the area, but then later describes them as being Tuscan in style, and makes the observation, "Despite the fact that the columns are too widely spaced and entasis is improper, the colonnades are large and boldly formed, creating an overall effect of strength". There are many sources of old photographs of the barracks available on the internet, but click here to see a few that show good views of the buildings and the area around them.

 Today the barracks are not officially open to the public, but I didn't know that when I was there.  It was early on a Sunday morning and I strolled around the grounds enjoying the serenity of the park area in the middle of the complex and wishing that I could be there to see this very large magnolia when it was in full bloom!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

San Pedro Springs

(After posting this I did more research (imagine) and have added a few updates in italic to some of the facts.)

There is no doorway for us to walk through in this post, but the San Pedro Springs and surrounding area has more history than can be recounted in just a few words. In researching the Park I have collected enough data to write a book. I have found myself reading through archeological abstracts and other surveys, spellbound by the findings.  Needless to say, I have struggled with writing this post because there is so much to share, so I'm going to offer just a few facts and pictures for now.

This area just northwest of downtown San Antonio has been a gathering place for humans for thousands of years.  Prehistoric artifacts including bones, projectile points, and stone tools have been found during archeological investigations. 

In times of plentiful rain the Springs will flow from the openings in these rocks as well as from other springs scattered throughout the Park
In 1709 a group of Franciscan priests led by Fathers Antonio de San Buenaventura de Olivares and Isidro Felix de Espinosa came through this area on an expedition to the missions of East Texas.  They found a band of native Coahuiltecan Indians who called themselves the Payayas living here in their village, Yanaguana.  Father Espinosa named the springs agua de San Pedro. Father Olivares felt this would make an excellent place for a mission settlement and would return in 1718 to establish the mission San Antonio de Valero.  Its location is believed to have been somewhere in close proximity to the San Pedro Springs (this mission would move several times and its final location would become famous as the site of the Battle of the Alamo).

Early explorers would often confuse these springs with the nearby springs that create the headwaters of the San Antonio River.  The abundant supply of water from both springs was diverted to mission farmlands through a system of acequias built by Old World craftsmen who were skilled in designing and building perfectly functioning waterways that used a gravitational flow system. 

This acequia is what remains of the Alazan Ditch, an ill-fated concrete project engineered by Anglo businessmen in City Hall in 1874. It never functioned correctly and it was later reported that the City Engineer had "discovered that water will not run uphill" (San Antonio Express, April 16, 1875).

King Phillip V of Spain declared the area around San Pedro Springs an ejido  (public land) in 1729. When the Canary Islanders arrived in 1731 they were given temporary use of the land for farming.  It would be used by the military for encampments as well as civilians for public gatherings.  A plaque in the park declares that this is the second oldest public land in the United States; however, I read in several places that it is actually one of the top 10 oldest.  Records of the original boundaries were lost during the turbulent years of the early 1800's.  In 1851 the City re-established the boundaries based on the memories of older residents. 

The bandstand was built around 1890 over a pit that had housed bears.  Hot air balloon rides were offered and daredevil parachutists offered entertainment.  Shooting matches and horse races also took place in the Park.

In 1864 the Park as we know it began to be organized.  Jacob J. Duerler received a 20-year lease on the property from the City in return for his management.  He built fences, added landscaping, and cleaned out the Springs.  Fish ponds, rental boats, and a building with a ballroom and bar enhanced the property. It became so popular that a mule-drawn cart began making continuous runs between the park and downtown.
The pool is the centerpiece of the park today.  Originally there was a small lake created by the flow of the springs.  Following numerous renovations the City opened the first municipal swimming pool in 1922 using the old lake bed as a base.  The lake was naturalistic and still replenished by the springs.  Progress wasn't kind. The drilling of artesian wells eventually dried up the springs and in 1940 the pool was closed.  In 1954 a new, modern cement pool was built, complete with chain link fencing; a new tennis facility was also constructed. That pool was eventually closed and sat empty until the City undertook an extensive restoration project for the park that included this pool that closely resembles the 1922 version. It is used as a City pool during the summer months, and is considered a lake during the remainder of the year (of course, there are those that swim in it off season!). It is not filled with spring water, but with municipal water.  In the swimming season it is surrounded by a wrought iron fence to prevent entry except through the bath house (on the right in the above picture).

This grotto looks much like it did in postcards printed in the early 1900's.  I read several explanations of its original use and suspect that most of them are just folklore.  At some time in the past there was a spring or some source of water that issued from the top and moss and ferns would cover the grotto.  Since our area is in a drought there is no water flowing. (Further research shows that originally there was a summer house built over the spring that flowed in this location.  That building was torn down and this grotto was built over it.  The spring would flow through a pipe and down the sides of the grotto where ferns were planted.)

This building is referred to as the Block House, but has many other nicknames.  Its origin is unknown, but it is thought that a portion of it could pre-date the arrival of the Canary Islanders in 1731. One urban legend is that this was Santa Anna's home (it was not). The small slits were obviously for rifles.(Archeological surveys determined that this structure was built around 1850, but its original use is still unknown)


Old photos show that this star shaped structure was originally topped with ....a cow's head that appeared to be made of stone.

A close up of one of the main springs.  The last time the springs were active was in 1992. IF we ever have a substantial rain again you can be sure that I will be here to check on these springs!
There are 3 springs contained in this rock walled enclosure 
View of the main springs area from cliff above them

There are many very large trees in the Park.  These cypress trees along the side of the pool are quite large, but there are several oaks that have a tremendous base and wide, spreading branches.  Obviously, they have all witnessed many years of the history of this enchanting ejido.

San Pedro Springs Park was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.