Staying “in tune” – update on our “Music for Your Eyes” tour and more

Walter Mathis's Edison Cylinder Phonograph.

Since its debut last April, our Music for Your Eyes tour has become one of our most popular programs selling out each time it has been offered (click here for tour information).  I am one of the “hosts” for the musical experience as is Meg Nowack, our curator, and Syeira Budd, Villa Finale’s Community Programs Coordinator.  During the past four months, my colleagues and I have enjoyed sharing historic information behind Walter Mathis’s music machines as well as demonstrating these wonderful items. 

Walter Mathis loved music and enjoyed filling his home with its beautiful sounds.  Among the demonstrations on the tour are the circa 1912 Deluxe Model Violano Virtuoso, two Victorian music boxes, an Edison Cylinder Phonograph, and the grand finale of the 1910 Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano – I cannot tell you how many people have left the tour humming or whistling to the piano’s melody!  People on our tours have enjoyed hearing the rich history of the machines and the background information to some of the songs played.  All of the items on the tour are diverse in machinery as well as origin.

Meg demonstrates the reproducing piano.

South Texas as a whole has a wonderful musical history which is influenced by its diverse population.  Once part of Mexico and strongly influenced by Mexican border states, “Tejanos” of the era soon mixed their musical traditions with those of European immigrants.  It isn’t difficult even for the most “untrained ear” to hear the Waltz and Polka influences in Tejano music.  Make sure you check out the “Tejano Explosion” event during Fiesta San Antonio.      

Speaking of European immigrants, German music in Texas can be traced back as early as the 1830s with the arrival of the first settlers here.  The polkas we all associate with the very popular Oktoberfest originated in 19th century Bohemia.  The German version of this genre, also known as “Oompah,” is very identifiable by its use of the tuba, clarinet, trombone and of course, the accordion.  If you would like to get a feel for what the King William neighborhood would have been like during the late 19th century, visit the Beethoven Maennorchor on Pereida Street on First Friday or during one of their Gartenkonzerts – you will not be disappointed!   

One of the music boxes demonstrated on the tour.

Of course, any mention of Texas and music wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Country music.  In Texas, the genre is uniquely influenced by its many immigrants: Spanish, Mexican, French, German and more.  San Antonio has a variety of historic venues where people enjoyed live country music performances during the genre’s golden era including The Majestic Theater, the Empire Theater – where Gene Autry performed – and the Aztec Theatre.  If you would like to take a trip back in time, the Aztec Theatre hosts the San Antonio Rose Live show which is a tribute to classic country music in an equally classic venue.

If you enjoy music, and enjoy little historical tidbits like those I mentioned, make sure you join us on the next Music for Your Eyes tour.  The experience is a treat for your eyes … and ears.

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.

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!

A Grand Opening..albeit damp.

On Wednesday, October 21st, at 5-ish, the Villa Finale Visitor Center opened to the public with a lovely ceremony, fabulous and touching remarks and delicious food and drink provided by gracious donors.  I cannot forget the torrent that occured during the most important bits, but it really didn’t (excuse the cliche) dampen any spirits.

I was awaiting comment on the exhibition A Legacy Assembled, as it was scrutinized by its very first public audience.  My eavesdropping was a success, and I heard that the thing that the audience liked the best was that the objects could be examined in close proximity.   I hope very much that all who are in the area will come and see the exhibtion- in the Visitor Center gallery at 122 Madison Street.  But, if you cannot, I have prepared an on-line version of the exhibition, in which I have provided photos of each object and their interpretive labels.  I hope you enjoy it!

A Legacy Assembled 

–Meg Nowack

The Villa Finale Visitor Center is open!

Last week, at long last, the Villa Finale Visitor Center opened to the public with great fanfare – both natural and manmade!  Nearly 300 friends and neighbors turned out to visit, explore our exhibits, and check out the Museum Shop during our opening celebration.  We began with a very touching dedication ceremony featuring remarks from a niece of Walter Mathis’s, as well as Jim Vaughan, the Vice President of Historic Sites for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Phil Hardberger, the former mayor of San Antonio.  All knew Mr. Mathis and remarked on how proud he would have been to see his dream of a museum beginning to come true.Visitor Center opening 102109 001

Following the ceremony, the guests were treated to wonderful food from the Liberty Bar, beer donated Eugene Simor of Alamo Beer, and an excellent selection of wine generously provided by Charles Butt of HEB.  King William neighbors joined us as part of their quarterly social, and I think many of them were excited to learn more about their neighborhood and see objects they had loaned to us for the exhibits.

You’ll see additional blog entries about the exhibits and shop shortly, but in the meantime, if you’re in the neighborhood, come check them out!  The Visitor Center is located at the corner of Turner and Madison in the King William district, and we’re open from 9:30am – 3:30pm Wednesday-Saturday, and Tuesdays 12:00 – 3:30 pm. 

I also want to thank Councilwoman Mary Alice Cisneros for all she did to facilitate the event, Richard Thompson of Thompson Landscaping for lending us the gorgeous plants for the event, and Josie Fauerso and Joey Fauerso for the flowers.  And we couldn’t have done it without Esther Pipoly, Jessie Kardys, Josie Fauerso, Betty Murray Halff, Carolene Zehner, and Alice Lynch, who volunteered their time to help with the planning.  In addition to those mentioned above, we also had generous financial support from Dwight Hobart, Frost, and The Howard and Betty Halff Fund. 

It was a fantastic night, but what I think I’ll always remember is this:

Weeks ago, while we were planning the event, we went back and forth on whether to rent a tent.  They’re not cheap, and we hadn’t had any significant rain in South Texas for many many months.  The odds of actually getting rain that day seemed about as good as my winning the lottery – which is pretty impossible since I don’t buy lottery tickets.  But rain here is serious business.  No polite little drizzle making one want to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea.  We’re talking Noah-get-the-ark-because-the-floodwaters-are-rising kind of rain.  So we decided not to take any chances.  Thanks to the generosity of the Steves Foundation, we rented the tent, and are we ever glad we did!

Just as the dedication ceremony was about to get underway, Hurricane Rick decided to  make his appearance.  (Hey, who invited that guy?)  The roar of the rain on the tent was so loud that the guests couldn’t hear the speakers even with microphones, so we had to move everyone into the building for the speeches.  By the time the last speaker finished, we’d received about an inch of rain!   Thankfully the rain slowed after that and it turned into a very pleasant evening for all.

Introducing VILLA FUN ALLEY kid’s page!

fun alley logo

 We are excited to introduce “Villa Fun Alley” – our page for kids!  Villa Fun Alley is hosted by Beauregard Cogswell Norton III – or Boo Boo for short – our resident kitty who will tell kids all about the King William Historic District.  Cupcake, Mr. Mathis’s cat, will host the Villa Finale and Mathis collection sections.  Kids can read about King William’s history, learn about the collections within Villa Finale, learn about the house, download activities, and more.  Most of the activities are appropriate for grades 2nd through 4th. 

“Boo Boo” and “Cupcake” will make changes and additions to Villa Fun Alley in the future.  In the meantime, please visit the page and enjoy.  We have a lot of fun ideas in store so please keep checking frequently.  It’s our hope that parents and their children enjoy the information, images, and activities.  Have fun!

— Sylvia Hohenshelt


Not for Love nor Money, but for Books

Way back in December I applied for this fantastic grant, not of money, but of books, books on collections care and management from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the American Association of State and Local History.  Just last week I was notified I had received it.  Here is the press release they sent to me with my award notification:

News Release

For Immediate Release
June 17, 2009

Contact: Meg Nowack 210 223 9800 or

IMLS Contact:
Jeannine Mjoseth,
202-653-4632 or

Villa Finale, a National Trust Historic Site, Receives Conservation Bookshelf

San Antonio– Treasured objects and artifacts held by Villa Finale will be preserved for future generations with help from the IMLS Connecting to Collections Bookshelf, a core set of conservation books and online resources donated by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). IMLS has now awarded almost 3,000 free sets of the IMLS Bookshelf, in cooperation with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).

Villa Finale, which is not yet open to the public, has objects of many types and materials that have existed for over forty years in a non-museum environment and their care can only improve as the museum develops.  “The staff will be able to reference its research library and feel confident that the publications provided by the Bookshelf will give them the most up-to-date information and guidance” said Meg Nowack, Manager of Curatorial Resources at Villa Finale.


 “When IMLS launched this initiative to improve the dire state of our nation’s collections, we understood that the materials gathered for the Bookshelf would serve as important tools for museums, libraries, and archives nationwide,” said Anne-Imelda Radice, Director of IMLS. “We were both pleased and encouraged by the overwhelming interest of institutions prepared to answer the call to action, and we know that with their dedication, artifacts from our shared history will be preserved for future generations.”

Villa Finale will receive this essential set of resources based on an application describing the needs and plans for the care of its collections. The IMLS Bookshelf focuses on collections typically found in art or history museums and in libraries’ special collections, with an added selection of texts for zoos, aquaria, public gardens, and nature centers. It addresses such topics as the philosophy and ethics of collecting, collections management and planning, emergency preparedness, and culturally specific conservation issues.

The IMLS Bookshelf is a crucial component of Connecting to Collections: A Call to Action, a conservation initiative that the Institute launched in 2006. IMLS began the initiative in response to a 2005 study it released in partnership with Heritage Preservation, A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections. The multi-faceted, multi-year initiative shines a nationwide spotlight on the needs of America’s collections, especially those held by smaller institutions, which often lack the human and financial resources necessary to adequately care for their collections. Click here for more information on the Connecting to Collections initiative.


About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. To learn more about the Institute, please visit


Meg Nowack

Ladies and Gentlemen, Introducing the Agents of Deterioration!

As part of the museum’s mission, the curatorial staff plans to have occasional workshops and instruction about caring for objects in both museum and home settings.  To get things rolling, the curatorial department thought that introducing some of our topics to the blog-o-sphere might be interesting.  This blog entry will be one of several on this subject.

Villa Finale  is a house, and by its very nature it is not hermetically sealed.  Light, air and little creatures often get in to houses and act naturally, i.e.: they damage the organic materials that make up most of a home’s furnishings.  We don’t have any current issues here, but we do have signs of some of the ever-present Agents of Deterioration!!  The agents, as we like to call them, are made up of things such as insects, sunlight, humidity, extreme temperatures, even oils from human hands.   Surprisingly, poor object handling is the number one cause of object deterioration in museums.

An adult beetle.

An adult beetle.

Villa Finale has had a couple of  obvious run-ins with the agents, one was evidence of Furniture Beetle, or Powder Post Beetle, infestation blogged about here.    Furniture Beetles, in larval form, are known as “woodworms”.  These creatures have a penchant for chewing through old wood and weakening it.  They get there by way of adult beetles flying in to a dwelling, or entering literally in another piece of furniture as larvae or even eggs. 

The adult female beetle lays from twenty to sixty eggs on the surface or crevices of wood furniture.  In a mere six to ten days, cute little newborn larvae hatch and begin munching their way through the piece of furniture so thoughtfully provided to them by their mother.   They create galleries and tunnels, eventually emerging an incredible two to five years later through exit holes.  The adult beetles then fly off and “meet” other beetles and start the cycle all over again.

Pieces with active infestation are easy to spot.  There will be very fine sawdust around the piece and in any exit holes.   Here are some exit holes in an Italian table in Villa Finale’s front hall. 

Exit holes.

Exit holes.

Exit holes.

Exit holes.









These are no longer active,  but nevertheless damaging because the tunnels have irreversibly weakened the legs of the table. 

Infestation can be prevented if  adult beetles are trapped or never enter the dwelling or museum in the first place.  Traps that are the most effective work with an irresistible attractant-Furniture Beetle pheromones!  These traps should be available on-line through Insects Limited, but as of this writing, the traps were still in development.  So, prevention is the key.  If infestation is detected, or if a piece brought into a building has exit holes, the item can be placed in a verylarge plastic bag and sealed for both observation and treatment.  A  furniture conservator or exterminator should advise at that juncture.  Giant furniture bags are available on-line at Gaylord Bros, Inc.

Both museum artifacts and pieces in the home need to be checked for infestation of any insect at least once a month.  This is roughly the period during which most insects pass from one developmental stage to another-with, of course, the exception of the Furniture Beetle!  So, keep your eyes to the floor, look for sawdust, and, until next time (light damage!) this is your curator signing off!

–Meg Nowack

You Can Help Villa Finale Preserve History

Meg and I have been busy bees conducting research on and off site. We’ve enjoyed looking through old photographs and documents in our quest to put together enjoyable and informative exhibits at the Visitor Center, as well as compiling information for our research files.  Late last week we had the idea of soliciting help from you, our wonderful blog readers!  This is what we are looking for:

1)  Former residents who lived in Villa Finale (the Norton -Polk House) while it was still subdivided into apartments.  This would be any time before 1967.

2)  Residents who own old photographs, documents, and or newspapers, as well as objects having to do with the history of the King William neighborhood (pre 1985).

3)  Artwork, including paintings and drawings of the neighborhood and its historic buildings

If you or anyone you know own any of the above, we would love to hear from you.  Your help will assist us in compiling neighborhood information and adding much valued items to our research files.  Thanks everyone!

Back porch of Villa Finale during one of Mr. Mathis's events, ca. 1990

Back porch of Villa Finale during one of Mr. Mathis's events, ca. 1990

–Sylvia Hohenshelt

Cleaning Noah’s Ark-Not Such a Big Job

I have finally gotten down in the basement to process the collections down there.  I started with my favorite thing down there-a wooden 19th century Noah’s Ark from Germany.  Here is a video about the process:

–Meg Nowack