There are many exciting aspects about converting Villa Finale from a private residence to a museum. One of my favorite has been conducting research on the topics that will tell our story – and what an interesting story it is, particularly that of the house. The lands and house went through an amazing amount of hands before finally finding stable ownership with Walter Mathis in 1967. You could even say the land itself was destined to be in the hands of Mr. Mathis.
The land on which the house was built was originally part of farm lands for mission San Antonio de Valero, most commonly known as the Alamo after a Spanish Cavalry division. In 1793 Governor Manuel Munoz secularized the Alamo (separated the building from religious connections) and ordered its lands were divided amongst those people who depended on the mission for survival, most being Native American families. Pedro Huizar surveyed the plots while Vicente Amador – a former tailor from Guanajuato, Mexico – was given the responsiblity of distributing the land parcels to the designated families. Both Huizar and Amador took the opportunity to petition Governor Munoz for some of the land – not surprisingly, they asked for and received some of the nicest parcels along the San Antonio River. Amador’s land grant included the parcels where Villa Finale was later built – incidentally, Vicente Amador is one of Walter Mathis’s ancestors.
There were a number of transactions involving the land over the next fifty years, especially after Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836 and its admission into the Union in 1845. A map of the 1870’s names “M. P. Norton” as owner of Villa Finale’s plots as well as others around it in the early 1840’s. (Milford P. Norton was named judge of Texas’ Sixth District Court in 1845.) On September 4, 1869, hardware merchant Russell C. Norton, son of Judge Milford Norton, and his wife Ellen purchased three of the lots on King William’s 400 block. After seven years of owning the property, the Nortons began making plans for the constuction of what would be Villa Finale. This is where the story gets a little complicated.
On June 24, 1876, the Norton’s entered into a contract with the San Antonio Building and Loan Association for “homestead improvements”: building a house. The contract was what’s known as a mechanic’s lien which gave the San Antonio Building and Loan Association interest in the title of the house to secure payment for materials and labor used for construction. Architect Francis Crider was hired to design a one-story, four-room dwelling built out of native Texas limestone. Crider was to be paid $400 per month beginning on July 1, 1876 for work to be completed within four months. In addition to that money, the Nortons agreed to repay the Building and Loan Association $3,000 within a period of six years at 12% interest – this was money advanced to the Nortons for commencement of all work.
By 1879, only three years after completion of the house, Russell Norton and his business partners of the firm Norton & Deutz found themselves in serious financial trouble. The firm assigned Power of Attorney to Lieutenant Joseph F. Minter to handle their business and personal estates. Minter declared the firm was unable to pay their debts and therefore recommended the sale of their personal and real property to satisfy their creditors. On February 7, 1880, Edward R. Norton – an older brother – purchased all of Russell Norton’s promisory notes and lien on the property owned by the San Antonio Real Estate Building & Loan Association.
As part of the transaction, Edward Norton entered into a new agreement with the Nortons for 401 King William. First, the interest rate was reduced from the original 12% to 8% and second, a new Trustee (a person appointed to handle the affairs of a company in this case, Edward Norton) named John R. Shook was appointed in the place of the Building & Loan Association in case of default on the loan and subsequent foreclosure. The new agreement seemed to stabilize the Nortons fortunes and on December 21, 1882 they paid off all remaining promisory notes to Edward Norton with a final payment of $2,148. Only six months previous, Norton & Deutz had settled all debts with their creditors in court for $42, 651.36.
It seemed as though Russell and Ellen Norton couldn’t wait to get the property off their hands for on December 28, 1882 – only seven days after settling all debts associated with the property – they sold the three lots of 401 King William to Edwin Polk. We can only speculate that the home, only six years old at the time of the purchase, was a welcomed Christmas present for the Polk family. It was however, just the beginning of another troubling chapter in the early life of 401 King William. Stay tuned for part two!