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).

Steves Homestead and Villa Finale: Partners in tours

Steves Homestead

Steves Homestead

Steves Homestead House Museum and Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens, have recently teamed up to offer a special combo ticket for visitors wishing to see both historic sites in one day.  For the price of $12.00, folks visiting the King William District can now see both homes during self-guided tours.  The sites are located only one short block from one another.

Combo tickets are valid only on the day of purchase and only for self-guided tours.  Both sites still offer guided tours; Villa Finale offers guided tours on Tuesdays at 1:00pm and 2:30pm, and Wednesday through Saturday at 10:00am and 2:30pm.  Combo tickets to tour Villa Finale are only offered during the site’s self-guided tour times which are Wednesday through Saturday, 11:15am – 2:00pm.  (Villa Finale’s self-guided tours are first floor only.)

Villa Finale

Villa Finale

For information on Steves Homestead tour days and times, visit http://www.saconservation.org or call (210) 225-5924.  For questions regarding Villa Finale’s tour times, please call (210) 223-9800 or visit http://www.VillaFinale.org.

We hope to see all of you in the King William National Historic District in the not too distant future — happy touring!

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!

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.

Restoration update: June 18, 2010

Things continue to move along at 401 King William. The Carriage House at the rear of the property is a shadow of its former self. It’s hard to believe most of us had our work stations there barely two years ago.  Here’s our latest video showing the changes within the Carriage House.  Enjoy!  

Villa Finale Restoration Update

Here is a brand new video showing the progress of Villa Finale’s restoration. Enjoy!

A New Year A New Beginning

The perimeter fence goes up as we prepare for construction.

This new year promises to bring a new beginning to Villa Finale, starting with the commencement of construction at 401 King William in early January.  Updates are to be made to the interior and exterior of this historic house but it won’t stop there.  As the Landscape Technician for the grounds,  I am pleased and excited to say that the landscape will be getting a face lift as well.  Since the landscape is considered historic, we will be preserving it as best we can and attempting to restore the landscape to its original beauty.  Why stop there?  Well, we  won’t.  From the ground up with this landscape project, we will be taking a ‘Green’ approach.  No chemicals or herbicides will be used in the demolition, soil amending will be done with compost and natural materials as opposed to synthetic fertilizers.  As for the new irrigation system to be installed, great care will be taken to efficiently operate it so no water will be wasted or misused.  We will strive to be a self-sustaining and environmentally friendly site. We will not be contributing any yard or kitchen waste to our landfills, we have been and will continue to create our own compost for use in the landscape. In addition, lawn/plant fertilization and weed/pest control will all be done organically so the use of toxic chemicals will not be needed.  We look forward to this new year and eagerly await all the great changes it will bring.  Check back with me, as I will continually keep you posted of things going on with the Villa Finale grounds.

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