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|
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 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.