The Perils of 401 King William: Fifth and Final Part

The Perils of 401 King William concludes with this fifth installment.  At the end of Part Four, John and Elva Cunningham had purchased the property at what was then 407 Pershing Avenue – the city had changed the name of the street after the United State’s involvement in World War I and growing anti-German sentiments.  The Cunninghams moved into the property following the debackle between Martin Morales’s Bacon Investment Company versus J. H. Compton … little did they know they would become part of the crazy story.

In 1921, the City Commissioners of San Antonio ordered grading, paving, and curb improvements to many areas of the King William neighborhood, including along Pershing Avenue.  The city hired the Uvalde Company to complete the improvements and under city ordinance, residents were responsible for any and all costs involving work to sidewalks fronting their properties.  As the contractor, the Uvalde Company was given the right to secure payment plus 7% interest beginning on the day work was completed.  This interest portion of the contract was to be secured through, what else?  property liens. 

The Cunninghams continued the unpleasant tradition of 401 property owners’ troubles with property liens.  By mid 1922, the Cunninghams remained indebted to the Uvalde Company.  As if that weren’t trying enough, they were also responsible for a promissory note of $10,000 Martin Morales had made in 1918 using the property as collateral – that note was interesting in itself as ownership of 401 was being disputed at the time.  John and Elva Cunningham had enough of the burdens that accompanied the property – in July 1922 they sold it to Dr. G. E. Gwynn.  When Dr. Gwynn bought the property, it was back to its original three lots and was once again officially on King William Street.

There’s a large gray area in the story following Dr. Gwynn’s purchase.  Not long afterwards, 401 ended up in the hands of the infamous Billy Keilman.  Among his many claims to fame in San Antonio, Billy was a bar-owner and “provider of female services to gentlemen.”  He also published a booklet entitled “The Blue Book for Visitors and Tourists and Those Seeking a Good Time While in San Antonio, Texas” – but visitors and tourists wouldn’t find fun places to take the “kiddies” in Billy’s Blue Book: the booklet was a guide to the city’s red light district.  In 1925, Billy Keilman’s life came to an abrupt end after he was shot during a poker game by a man he caught “cold decking.”  In his will, Billy left 401 to his son, Rudy who in turn gave the property to his step-mother Minnie.

Keilman's infamous Blue Book.  A quarter would be the equivalent of nearly $6 today.

Keilman's infamous Blue Book. A quarter would be the equivalent of nearly $6 today, a hefty price for a 30 page booklet.

Minnie’s “fair sex” didn’t make her any less of a character than her dearly-departed husband.  Minnie too was involved in the distribution of female services as well as the bootlegging of liquor, an operation conducted from the basement of 401.  By the late 1940s, the property had been converted into low-income apartments to meet the city’s desperate need for affordable housing.  The once beautiful rear garden had by that time been converted to an all gravel lot to allow for automobile parking. 

It was in this state that Walter Mathis saw the property in 1967 when he was looking for a new place to call home – his own estate on Mulberry Street in Monte Vista was on the table to be demolished to make way for a section of highway 281.  Fortunately for the King William neighborhood, Mr. Mathis was able to see past the deplorable condition of the property choosing instead to focus on its large lot, eight fireplaces, and hidden charm.  401 was then owned by James Campbell, Minnie Keilman’s grandson who had no interest in selling the property, but the clever Mr. Mathis had a way around that situation.  On January 5, 1968, he wrote a check to James Campbell for the entire amount he was offering for the property.  It would be difficult for anyone to resist cashing a check for thousands in one’s name and Campbell was no exception.

Walter Mathis’s purchase of 401 King William, which he would rename Villa Finale, was as colorful as the stories of the owners that preceded him.  Unlike all the rest of them however, Mr. Mathis would not only go on to purchase over a dozen properties in the neighborhood, he would also become the the home’s longest-running owner — after nearly 100 years, 401 King William would finally enjoy happy and stable ownership.

— Sylvia Hohenshelt


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