Friday, June 22, 2018

Villa Finale part 1



The evening tour group gathered on the front porch to begin with a brief history of this 1876 Italianate home located in the King William neighborhood. As our guide unlocked the front door she told us that we would feel like we were stepping back into the 1800's, but really we were stepping into the 1970's. And indeed, as a child of the '70's I did see the truthfulness of the statement especially in the kitchen with the brown appliances and the elegant draperies with ball fringe trim!


This home's history really does begin in 1967 when Walter Nold Mathis purchased the derelict property.  Hard times had come to the King William neighborhood following the disastrous flood of the San Antonio River in 1921. The elegant homes built by mostly German immigrants in the late 1880's were flooded and many owners moved northward leaving the homes to be neglected or divided into apartments.  The neighborhood declined until a core group from the original families were successful in obtaining protective zoning.  Shortly after Mathis bought the home the King William Association formed and soon the neighborhood was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, making it the first listed historic district in Texas. To read more about history of the King William area click here . The home is also listed in the Historic American Buildings Survey (Survey number: HABS TX-3225).

Hardware merchant Russel C. Norton and his wife hired architect Francis Crider to design a one-story four room limestone house in 1876 and added an identical second story to the home before selling it in 1881. During the 1880's Edwin Polk added a Victorian style two-story brick wing and wooden gallery to the house as well as several outbuildings (no longer extant).
Two-story addition and galleries 

Double front porches


An exhibit inside the home credits Colonel Isaac Pryor and his wife, Myra, with the addition of the double front porches and Italianate style tower during their ownership from 1896-1901. However, HABS indicates that these were added by the Polks.

The tower is accessible from the front second-story room via a spiral staircase. In addition to giving the home a decorative touch on the exterior it is possible the tower was used to pull out the hot air from the lower floors.













From the 1920's until Walter Mathis bought the home it was divided into apartments and the rear porches converted into a kitchen and bathroom.  Like many of the once grand homes the property suffered from general neglect. Mathis was a devoted preservationist who, interestingly, had been displaced from his existing home due to the impending construction of a new freeway. He bought the derelict home in 1967 and restored it to the original floor plan using modern construction materials and some of the salvaged architectual details. A year later the King William Street Historic District would be approved and the neighborhood would revive.

He named the house Villa Finale as he knew this would be his final home. During the forty years he lived here he filled would fill it with art and decorative pieces from his international travels and his extensive collections.  After spending two years on the renovation of his home Mathis purchased and partially restored many surrounding homes and sold them to preservation minded individuals. He was a major influence on the renaisance of the King William Neighborhood.  Villa Finale is now owned and administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Front porches
Located at 401 King William St., San Antonio Texas. Call before visiting to make a tour reservation. For more visitor information visit  Villa Finale.  Part 2 will feature the incredible interior and grounds.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Tower of the Americas

For the last 50 years the Tower of the Americas has been a distinguishing landmark of the downtown San Antonio skyline.  Built as a part of the 1968 HemisFair it has remained an integral part of the community; most of HemisFair is long gone and soon new construction will bring further changes to this area now known as HemisFair Park.

From the base to the top of the radio tower the Tower measures 750 feet.  An elevator makes continual runs to the restaurant, bar, and observation deck, but if you feel challenged you can take the stairs - all 952! The views from the elevator are spectacular and the ride is about 2 minutes. The restaurant revolves and gives a panoramic view of the city, sunset is an time excellent to dine.
HemisFair '68 was financed with a combination of public funds and private underwriting; however, it was not without controversy. Developing the 92.6-acre site required the demolishment of an entire neighborhood that generated much opposition.  HemisFair architect O'Neill Ford would be relieved of his duties as primary architect because his plan was to save 120 of the historic homes, churches, and businesses that comprised this neighborhood. Fair planners were not pleased with his intentions, but Federal funding was released only after an amendment was passed that required them to save as many structures as possible; only twenty would be preserved. 

According to the San Antonio Conservation Society, the development project displaced a total of 2,239 residences and 686 businesses. It also demolished 1,349 structures and either changed or erased two dozen existing streets. (retrieved from Texas State Handbook online 4/20/2018)
Another controversy swirled when Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez questioned the bidding process for the Tower and withheld Federal funding until the bids were re-offered. Finally groundbreaking took place on August 6, 1966.

When the Tower opened to the public April 11, 1968 the fair had already been open for a few days.  Construction materials and workers greeted visitors arrived at the top of the Tower. The concrete base was built from the ground up and the clubhouse built on the ground and then hoisted up to be secured in place.  An interesting slide show of the construction can be found here.

Need a dime?  Not so easy as there is plexi-glass between you and it.  The round building in the upper picture was the Confluence Theater during HemisFair and is now the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse.
The observation level has both an inside area and one outside.  Originally the outside area had only steel bars, but safety and weather concerns prompted the addition of high plexi-glass panels.  Still, the wind can be fierce up there!

After many years of enchanting visitors the Tower closed and underwent a major remodeling, re-opening in 2006. The current restaurant contract holder, Landry's, also added a gift shop and small cafe at ground level. Today's Tower of the Americas is very different in some ways, but still offers the same thrilling elevator ride and 360 degree view of a growing city.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Kerr County Courthouse

The exterior of the Kerr County Courthouse (Kerrville, Texas) may not appear as ornate as other Texas Courthouses and it is not on the National Register of Historic Places, but it does have an interesting history and architectural features that are worthy of exploration.   
Designed in the Classical Revival style the building also has influences of the Italian Renaissance Revival style that are easily discernable. Notice the broken pediment above the front door and the columns on either side? That's a very common feature of the Classical Revival style favored from 1895 to 1950. The round arch entrance is typical of the Italian Renaissance Revival style favored between 1890 and 1930.
The 1926 Courthouse in active use today was constructed to replace the 1886 courthouse designed by noted architect Alfred Giles. Local legend attributes the need for a new courthouse to a fire in 1925; however, newspaper sources explain that the 1886 courthouse needed major repairs as well as a fire proof vault. Sources indicate that materials from the old courthouse were re-purposed in various locations around Kerrville. This is Kerr County's fifth courthouse since its creation in 1856.
Adams & Adams of San Antonio, Texas was awarded the contract to design the new courthouse; W.C.Thrailkill would serve as contractor.


Details of the front entry showing the Classical Revival style 

The third floor barely visible in the picture served as the County's original jail.  A kind deputy was happy to give a friend and me a behind the scenes tour and led us up the narrow stairs into this area. The original cells and still working door mechanism are still in place.  On a funny note it is where the Courthouse's Christmas decorations are now stored.  Contrary to local legend he assured us that no one was ever hanged inside this Courthouse and that none of the Al Capone stories are true!

The roofline balustrade is an example of both architectural styles while the dentiled cornice is a Classical Revival influence. 
The rusticated type stone at the ground level is an Italian Renaissance Revival influence.




Original Courthouse and attached 1977 Annex
1977 Annex  
By the mid-1970's Kerr County had grown significantly and there was a need for more jail space.  An annex designed by A.B. Swank and Lester B. Whitton and built by Waco Construction, Inc. was completed in 1977.  However, it was quickly outgrown and a new, separate jail was constructed. The annex was converted into modern court roooms. Many thanks to the very friendly deputy who let us see this room!


Original doorknob on office in basement

Basement office door

Detail of benches in hallway between Courthouse and Annex

Tile flooring in main entry
The stately Kerry County Courthouse is a perfect example of the blending of architectural styles as well as an old building continuing to serve the people of the county in a very modern way.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Concho County Courthouse, Paint Rock Texas

South elevation
A mid-December trip to Lubbock to attend the Texas Tech graduation ceremony provided an added bonus of travelling roads I had never travelled before. My favorite find was the Concho County Courthouse, which I later found to be one of the Second Empire Ruffini Architectual Triplets.
North door, appears to no longer be in use
The building had a familiarity to it, but I missed all the clues and had to wait until I returned home to find that it was designed and constructed using the same plans as the Sutton County Courthouse and the Old Blanco County Courthouse. All three are laid out on a cross axial plan featuring tall, narrow windows and two interior staircases; the Concho County building is considered the most elaborate in detail. Click on the link above to see pictures of each building.
Mansard roof south elevation

 Built in the Second Empire style much favored for public buildings of the period, its dominant visual feature is its characteristic Mansard roof, treated with much greater elaboration than some of its contemporaries such as F.E. Ruffini’s Blanco County Courthouse. (quoted from the National Register of Historic Places nomination, added 1977)
The design is attributed to Frederick E. (Ernst) Ruffini, but in truth the plan is an adaptation of W.W. Larmour's design for the Tom Green County 1885 Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas. Ruffini's brother, Oscar, had established a practice in San Angelo and was serving as supervising architect for the courthouse construction. He sent the plans and a photograph of the building to Ernst who modified them for the Old Blanco County Courthouse and for the Concho County Courthouse. Both brothers used the plans to design several other courthouses which have all been demolished except for the Sutton County Courthouse.  When Ernst passed away in late 1885 Oscar oversaw the completion of the Concho County Courthouse.
South elevation - when I looked through the door I could see a beautiful staircase decorated for Christmas! 
Bonds in the amount of $28,000 were issued at 8% interest to fund the project after Kane & Cormack Contractors and Builders were awarded the construction contract. Rusticated stone from a nearby quarry was used in the construction. As the project neared completion under Oscar Ruffini's supervision County Commissioners contracted with a Chicago firm to furnish the courthouse for a sum of $1,212.

North elevation
The building appears to be in excellent condition and very well preserved.  The only significant modification to the structure is the addition of a vault on the east side of the building (see the south elevation picture). Truly an architectual gem!

Just to note: I do plan to return when the building is open and see if I can make photographs and find pictures from the past on display.






Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Architectural Triplets

The Concho County Courthouse, the Old Blanco County Courthouse and the Sutton County Courthouse are architectual triplets.  Not identical, but still close matches (pictures below). All three are designed in the Second Empire style with the Concho courthouse being the most elaborate in detail. Each one is laid out on a cross axial plan and features tall, narrow windows and 2 interior staircases.

This design has an interesting story of its own that's worth noting here.  Oscar Ruffini was serving as the supervising architect for the Tom Green County Courthouse (San Angelo) that was designed by W.W. Larmour.  He sent the plans and a photograph of the project to his well known brother, F.E. (Ernst) Ruffini, who took them and modified them for the Old Blanco courthouse and for the courthouses in Callahan and Concho Counties.  Oscar took the plans and used them to design the Sutton and Mills County Courthouses.  I have to note that several references referred to this sharing of the original plan as "borrowing" or "used without permission"!

Concho and the Old Blanco courthouses were completed in 1886; Ernst passed away during construction and Oscar was appointed to serve as the supervising architect to complete the Concho courthouse. Sutton was completed in 1891. 

A post about the Concho County Courthouse will be up soon as well as updates to earlier posts on the Old Blanco County Courthouse and the Sutton County Courthouse. 


Concho County Courthouse

Old Blanco County Courthouse


Sutton County Courthouse

Thursday, September 28, 2017

San Pedro Park Branch Library


The San Pedro Branch Library was the first branch library built by the San Antonio Public Library System. Construction began in 1929 and the library opened its doors to the public on August 5, 1930.   The small 26,000 volume branch is located on the east side of San Pedro Springs Park and serves the surrounding community that includes San Antonio College.


The building underwent a total renovation in 2007 that restored it to much of its original appearance.  The San Antonio Conservation Society presented it with one of their coveted awards for the preservation efforts with this property.



Double archways over the entry lead into two separate wings that house the adult and juvenile collections. Architectural design was done by the prominent firm of Atlee & Robert Ayers who designed many homes and buildings in San Antonio. 






Two small rooms across the back were created when screened porches were enclosed. One serves as a cozy childrens space and the other houses the public access computers. The windows in this space give views of the large oak trees and the park. I was captivated by the older chairs for both children and adults in this area!








Yes, there are boot scrapers on either side of the door! This is Texas!



Sunday, August 13, 2017

Petunia, Betty & the mini dachshund

I've ridden the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority trollies twice and will do it again when I'm in Dallas!  They are a delight to ride and their history is even more intriguing.  Since they don't fit into my criteria for this blog, but are still very historic, I wanted to let you know I have post up on my Small Simple Things of Life blog.  Click on the link below to find out about the trollies and see more pictures.
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