A True Story: Meg and the Victorian Society in America American Summer School, Newport, Rhode Island

1. Lyman-Hazzard House

1. Lyman-Hazzard House

I am now an alumnus of the Summer School, Class of 2013.  I survived!  Upon acceptance, course director, Professor Richard Guy Wilson wrote, in a letter sent out to the class before we all gathered on June 9th, we were NOT to wear new shoes because we were to be on our feet for six to eight hours a day. 

But…but…I had a pair of new sandals I just had to wear.

He was right of course. It was intense.  All in all, the group of 31 saw 62 sites in nine days. Yup, that averages out to seven sites a day.  The roster included churches, mills, private homes and historic house museums, libraries and art societies.

The Victorian Society Summer Schools, yes there are two: American (Newport) and British (London) was established nearly 40 years ago.  Here is an excerpted description of the schools, taken from Society literature:

2. 1890's Marble House

2. 1890’s Marble House

Both schools focus on a variety of 19th and 20th century architecture and material culture. Through lectures (we had thirteen) site visits and tours (62) of important buildings – many of which are not open to the public – students acquire a comprehensive understanding of the aesthetic, social, economic and political forces that shaped our modern age.

I benefited greatly from further education about one of the most beauty-filled periods in our history, the Victorian era. This time in history was also highly interesting to Villa Finale’s Walter Mathis, as any of you who have visited know!  I like to believe Mathis surrounded himself with beauty because he derived a great deal of happiness and contentment from it.  Aesthetics should be a part of the lives of everyone, but the concept is often ignored. 

3. Ochre Court

3. Ochre Court

Mathis had the idea that visitors would be able to experience the home of a ‘Victorian gentleman’ when they visited Villa Finale.  As a result, the house appears as if there is not one square inch left uncovered.  The effect is dazzling and incredibly appropriate for the era. He was spot-on in his decoration.

On the more practical side, during the nine-day course, I examined the successes and challenges in historic preservation, collections management and historic house and landscape interpretation in Newport, a highly successful model of heritage tourism.

4. Breakers kitchen

4. Breakers kitchen

I was able to study houses and their collections not normally on view, and have access to the people who keep and interpret them.  Since I am responsible for a collection numbering 12,000, I was able to observe both stored and exposed collections in a variety of historic house museums and understand how to counter wear on buildings and collections caused by visitors. 

Professor Wilson took us through Newport chronologically, going from this – the 1690s Wanton-Lyman-Hazzard House (1) to this – 1890s Marble House (2).

I learned much about what is successful and what really just doesn’t work in historic houses: for example, the offices within Ochre Court (3) and the big plex boxes (4) in the beautiful Breakers kitchen.

I felt that Walter Mathis would have been pleased with the summer school, after all he was a long-time member of the Victorian Society and there were so many things that appeared in the tours that also appear in Villa Finale! Another pewter-filled Welsh dresser (5). Can you find Villa Finale’s oyster plate? (6). Lots of encaustic tiles on porches! (7). Enamel eggs, chalices (8) and micro-mosaics (9). A whole cabinet full of Wedgwood Fairyland Luster (10).

Villa Finale lends a helping hand at the Texas Governor’s Mansion

The Texas Governor’s Mansion, during the years 1980 to 1982, underwent a major restoration funded by the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion. Walter Mathis was deeply involved with the Friends group and was asked to be on the restoration project committee. At the time, Mathis had already been residing in Villa Finale for thirteen years and was actively restoring other historic structures in the King William neighborhood.

The Mansion project was very special as Mathis got to choose, with the rest of the committee, exceptional American antique furnishings from the best antique dealers in the nation. He also had a hand in choosing drapery and floor coverings, decorative and fine art objects and very likely had a say in the landscape as well.

Mathis was definitely in his element – Texas, a historic house and antiques! And he didn’t have to buy a thing or find room for it in his already-full home!

A letter in the Villa Finale archives, dated March 31st 1983, invites Mathis to the San Antonio Conservation Society Annual Awards Dinner where the Governor’s Mansion received a Special Award for a “restoration that has brought to all Texans a renewal of pride in this symbol of our State’s unique heritage.”

Fast forward to June of this year, when the Governor’s Mansion was finally at the end of a major restoration and renovation, and when I was invited to assist Jane Kartokin, Administrator and Curator of the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion and a member of Villa Finale’s Advisory Council, to reassemble the rooms in this beautiful historic house. I, in turn, invited my colleague Karina Serna, to come and help too. Jane gladly accepted us both, as the job ahead was tremendous!

For four intensive days I transferred myself to Austin where I did everything from dusting and silver polishing to placing furniture and objects in (for example) Sam Houston’s bedroom! Also drank a lot of coffee and folded a lot of packing paper. It was such a rewarding experience working with Jane, Karina (in a setting that was NOT Villa Finale!), the Governor and First Lady’s staff and others who volunteered their time to help. We even had a visit from First Lady Anita Perry, who graciously acknowledged our hard work.

It was most fun seeing the presence of Walter Mathis throughout the house. Many objects that are in Villa Finale’s collection are repeated in the collection owned by the Friends group and displayed in the mansion. When I look at photographs taken after the 1980s restoration, I noted the choices made by Mathis and the committee had not changed at all.

Thoughtful and classic decoration lasts for decades! I encourage everyone to have a tour of this stunning house, now as fresh and lovely as ever! And then, of course, tour Villa Finale!

Villa Finale Paintings on loan to San Antonio Museum of Art!

"Casa Ranchera"

The San Antonio Museum of Art has asked to borrow two Theodore Gentilz paintings from the Villa Finale Collection for a show entitled Theodore Gentilz: Mission Life of San Antonio and Northern Mexico which opens on March 2nd and closes May 20th 2012The show is part of an exhibition series called San Antonio Collects, truly a great fit for Walter Mathis and his Villa Finale.  The paintings Man and Pueblo Home, a charming watercolor and Casa Ranchera, oil on canvas, are two great examples of Gentilz’s illustrative style.



"Mexican Man with a Cane Walking Before Pueblo Houses"

Theodore Gentilz, (1819-1906) was an established young painter when he set sail for Texas in 1843, leaving his home in Paris, France, forever.  He was invited to come to Castroville by fellow Frenchman Henri Castro, the founder of that town, but settled in San Antonio where he opened a studio in 1847.  He left as his legacy a rich pictorial account of the people of San Antonio, its environs, and Mexico.  He also worked as a surveyor, creating detailed, illustrated maps of areas surrounding San Antonio and most of northern Mexico.  Many of his paintings of Mexico, like the two on loan, were painted during surveying trips.  All of Villa Finale’s Gentilz collection, eight in total, hangs in the Mathis Sitting Room.

Theodore Gentilz: Mission Life of San Antonio and Northern Mexico, runs from March 2nd through May 20th, 2012.  For more information about the San Antonio Museum of Art’s exhibit, please click here.  You may also contact SAMA directly at (210) 978-8100.  The San Antonio Museum of art is located at 200 West Jones Ave., San Antonio, TX 78215.

Villa Finale presents: A European Concert Series!

If any of our blog-reading audience has been to Villa Finale, they will have noticed that Walter Mathis was a lover of music in his home, as well as a great supporter of the performing arts in his beloved San Antonio. This passion inspired Villa Finale staff to organize a concert series featuring vocal music from Germany, Italy and France. The series is generously supported in full by Mr. and Mrs. (Laurie) Thomas Saylak of Scarsdale, New York in honor of our first council chair and Walter Mathis’s niece, Jessie Mathis Kardys.

The front Napoleon Parlor; Photo by Carol Highsmith.

The concerts will be held in the front Napoleon Parlor and we will make use of one of the largest objects in our collection, the Bechstein-Welte grand piano, which has been tuned, repaired and ready to play! The vocalists are talented graduate students from the University of Texas at San Antonio Music Department who will sing German lieder (romantic songs) and arias during the first concert on December 8th, duets and arias from Italian opera for our February 16th concert and French operatic arias, duets and melodies for the final concert March 22nd. An optional tour, focusing on decorative and fine art in Villa Finale’s collection originating from the evening’s featured country, will be given after each concert.

Villa Finale has held only one other concert in the Napoleon Parlor, and that was a French-themed concert that occurred last March, part of a series of events held at Villa Finale in conjunction with San Antonio French Cultures Month. The audience was captivated by two sopranos who performed French songs and excerpts from French opera. It was a magical evening in a beautiful setting and we’re looking forward to replicating this amazing experience, threefold!

Admission for each of the concerts is $15 for Friends of Villa Finale or National Trust members, $25 for non-members.  Space is limited, please call (210) 223-9800 during business hours to make your reservations.  Pre-paid reservations only, please.  People with paid admissions meet at the front gate of Villa Finale at 401 King William Street; gate opens at 5:30 pm, concert begins promptly at 6:00 pm.

Dates for “Villa Finale Presents – Concert Series 2011-2012”
December 8, 2011: “Frohe Weihnacten!” German Holiday Concert – featuring music of Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovski and Wolf
February 16, 2012: “A Trip to Italy” Italian Concert – featuring music of Cilea, Donizetti, Mozart, Rossini and Vivaldi
March 22, 2012: “From the French Salon to the Stage” French Concert – featuring music of Bachelet, Delibes, Duparc, Gounod and Massenet

Conservation Celebration!

This fall season has been a wonderful time at Villa Finale…the reasons?  We’ve had fifteen objects return from their long summer sojourns in conservators’ studios.  Three Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922) oil paintings and twelve mantel clocks came back to roost in the past two months. 

"Pool on the Guadalupe," before treatment.

The paintings, thanks to a generous grant award from the Dallas-based Summerlee Foundation, were cleaned and stabilized.  Through no fault of anyone, just age, they had issues such as actively flaking and lifting paint, discolored varnish, unsuitable or no backing, improperly executed retouching, losses or punctures and overall discoloration. Mark van Gelder of Art Conservation Services of Austin painstakingly handled all of those issues, cleaning inch by inch with cotton swabs, repainting where paint had flaked, tightening the canvas and stabilizing the frame.   Van Gelder conserved on one small painting entitled Valley Near Williams Ranch – Twenty Miles West of Kerrville, which hangs in Villa Finale’s Dining Room, one medium-sized Texas bluebonnet painting and one very large painting entitled Pool on the Guadalupe River. 

Here is where I will be perfectly honest with you, dear reader: previously I did not care for, in the least, Pool on the Guadalupe River.  It was a muddy, dark painting with no depth whatsoever and something or someone had punctured the painting right in the center of the pool.  But when I went to van Gelder’s studio to see the finished product, my jaw hit the floor.  Here before me was a stunning deep river pool, greenish-gray, lined with limestone ledges and stands of fall trees in the background.  It was wonderful! I understood why Onderdonk painted this scene and why Walter Mathis acquired it.  It was a pleasure to behold. 

"Pool on the Guadalupe," after treatment.

So not only do your eyes get a treat at Villa Finale, your ears will too when you hear the chime of our many clocks.  Their repair was another grant funded project, this time from an award from the National Trust’s Historic Sites Fund.  

The clocks add a liveliness and warmth to the house that Mathis enjoyed – the sound and movement of the clocks also give energy and vitality to the current interpretation of the museum.  It goes without saying that the clocks are also an important part of Villa Finale’s decorative arts collection and are inherently valuable.  They date from the mid- to late 1800’s and are primarily French.       

My colleague, Sylvia Gonzalez-Hohenshelt and I put together a little video about the clocks for your viewing pleasure:   CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO

Enlightening!: UV Blocking Window Films at Villa Finale

Sunlight is a beautiful and necessary element.  However, it can wreak havoc in a historic house, in fact, in anybody’s house.  Villa Finale is no exception.  Ultraviolet rays are the single largest cause of fading and material degradation in any setting, home or elsewhere.  In years past, when Mr. Mathis lived at Villa Finale,  he very often kept the interior shutters closed in order to protect his collections, carpets and furniture from light.  But now, for visitor comfort and the stunning appearance of the museum rooms,  the staff decided to leave the shutters open for tours -a decision that necessitated installing ultraviolet light blocking film.  

 This past January, we invited brothers Don and Mark DeLisle to come to San Antonio from freezing Stockbridge, Massachusetts where their company, Capital Energy Co., is headquartered.   Mark and Don  specialize in installing films in historic buildings.  The pair is able to work around furnishings and in tight quarters, and are sensitive to the non-standard sizes of old windows and hand-made glass panes.   Villa Finale asked them to install window film on 347 panes of glass in the main house and in the carriage house, and they completed their job, cheerfully, in two weeks from start to finish. 

Months before they came, I measured each window pane down to the eighth of an inch, noted the type of glass – flat, beveled, leaded, etc., where the window was located – as different exposures require different film intensities – and sent all dimensions and specifics to the DeLisles.  They, in turn, shipped everything on to Villa Finale before hopping on Amtrack and moving southwest for two weeks.

Villa Finale chose a ceramic-based film from the 3M company’s Prestige line.  The film is applied using water and a squeegee, which makes it completely reversible, and it is nearly undetectable from the inside or outside.  It will reduce the heat entering the house by almost 80%, and it blocks 99% of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. 

Enjoy pictures of Mark (who does all the cutting) and Don (who does all of the application) and their outfit of the Pewter Room in the main house and then in action as they “film” a window in Villa Finale’s Carriage House.

Wallpaper woes, and a triumph

In Walter Mathis’ bedroom and adjacent upstairs sitting room, there was wallpaper hung in the old-fashioned way, on cheesecloth which was nailed, in no particular pattern, to the boards that form the walls in those rooms.   It was also hung directly on plaster over solid masonry.  It was actual paper, as opposed to vinyl, and patterned to look like cream-colored linen.   Over the years, this paper got wet, the result of a leak in the roof.  The paper didn’t take too well to being wet and wrinkled and molded a bit.  Insects thought it was marvelous, however, and began munching away on the glue, and in the process, eating the paper, too.

Wallpaper replacement is part of Villa Finale’s  restoration project, so the contractors painstakingly removed every last piece of the old wallpaper, and we set out to find paper exactly like it.   As all wallpaper hangers know, one procures ten percent more paper than one needs for a project and Mr. Mathis had done just that.   A spare roll, with name, color and manufacturer printed on the plastic wrapper was found in the Carriage House.   

We presented this to our interiors specialist and over the course of several weeks, she sent us samples from all over the United States.  Nothing.  No one makes this paper anymore.  Then, I had a very happy revelation.  We would be able to replace the faux linen with real cream-colored linen, the color of Isak Dinesen’s skirt in Out of Africa…(or something like that).  I was torn – as museum people are supposed to “replace like with like”.  Well, I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the like with like. 

After several more weeks, the painting contractor found the paper.  Almost exactly our paper.  Yes, I was sad I did not get my linen, but relieved that we are behaving as a real museum should acting professionally and replacing our paper, instead of putting my our personal preferences on the wall.  Here are some of our samples; the winning, matching paper is on the right with a piece of the original.

Villa Finale’s Garden

A sander, a painter and an arborist were working on a historic house…

A chainsaw is buzzing out in the garden as I sit in Villa Finale’s kitchen – in fact there’s a cacophonous chorus all around me.  Hammers, sanders, nail guns, wood being thrown about, shop vacs running.   But the most important thing that is happening today is the removal of trees.   Select trees.  Trees that were never in the plan that Mr. Mathis created for his formal garden, plus one (shown in the picture) that is threatening the foundation of this National Historic Landmark.  As an unapologetic treehugger,  it is very difficult for me to see a tree come down.   However, our buildings and grounds department is very carefully following a Cultural Landscape Report completed in 2008, as well as the guidance of common sense and garden health.  Wood from the trees will be made into merchandise that will be available in our museum shop, and the leaves and small branches will be converted into mulch to help us get a little closer to our wish for Villa Finale’s garden to be  %100  organic and self-sustaining in five years.

If anyone out there has any questions or comments about our work, in the garden or elsewhere, please contact us by leaving a comment here, or dropping by the Villa Finale Visitor Center at 122 Madison Street, or calling or e-mailing any of us.  Staff contact information can be found at www.villafinale.org

Meg Nowack

Restoration Stories from Villa Finale

Things are going so swimmingly at Villa Finale regarding its restoration that we thought we’d bring you the second installment of videos documenting the work.  Our lovely hostess, Sylvia Hohenshelt, chose a few key spots in the house to talk about it.  The most striking thing is the emptiness and the  windowless-ness (is that a word?) rooms.   That aside, yes, the windows are being removed and restored, and beautiful brass weather-stripping is being installed (using ten thousand brass nails for the entire project!), sash cords replaced,  glazing removed and replaced, etc.   All exterior doors will be restored, as well.  The back porches, which Sylvia describes as being less than stable, are also being restored.   Next week we plan to move all of the furniture and boxed objects from the north side of the house to the south side, so work may begin on the south.  Enjoy the show!

Watching paint dry…

A shutter from the dreaded north side.

We have had the nicest people come through on Villa Finale’s Hard Hat Tours.  They are interested in just about everything, from the kitchen ceiling to the old piece of wallpaper I found upstairs behind the base board in the Green Sitting Room. (yep, wasn’t always green, it was blue and swirly at some point).  The tours are a joint effort between the Manager of Public Programs, Sylvia Hohenshelt, Manager of Buildings and Grounds, Chris Roddy and me, Manager of Curatorial Resources.  We have a great time showing our small groups of visitors through the house under construction. 

Cocooned Meissen Dog Band.

 The tour officially starts at the Villa Finale Visitor Center, but Chris and I don’t see them until they arrive at the gate.  The dialogue is a relay between the three of, Sylvia tells the visitors about the history of the house, as we’re walking from room to room, and Chris and I talk about building restoration and curatorial information, respectively.  Since there isn’t a stick of furniture on view, I must be quite creative, curatorially speaking.  I do explain how we packed up the house, piece by piece, into acid- free temporary housing, show them my finding aid for each box and tell them that, if requested by a researcher, I could unearth the …Meissen Dog Band, for example.  I show them how each delicate little piece is cocooned in polyester fluff and tissue.  We also describe how we’ve swaddled every large thing in unbleached muslin and heavy plastic sheeting. 

Even the smallest grate has a number.

We give a pretty good run-down of the project and all of its detail and subtleties.  Right now, several windows are being restored under the car-port, and they each have their own story.  You can see if panes of glass were replaced, or not, and you can tell if the person who replaced them was lazy or not by how they were replaced and glazed. And every single exterior shutter has been taken off, labeled, and will be straightened out and repaired.   If it’s a nice day, we take the group into the garden and explain what will occur there, the storm drain system, the plant removal and replacement.  And our visitors are still interested!  Storm drains! Wow!