Villa Finale visits San Antonio’s historic Milam Building

There are many beautiful historic buildings throughout downtown San Antonio.  Many have more history than we realize!  One of those is The Milam Building located at 115 E. Travis in the heart of the city’s business district.  Villa Finale’s staff had the honor of receiving a personal tour from Sam Trevino and Diane Coliz who are part of the building’s staff.

IMG_7681Built in 1928 and designed by architect George Willis, The Milam was not only the tallest brick and concrete-reinforced structure in the United States when it was built, it was also the first air-conditioned commercial high-rise in the world (21 stories).  It was named after Colonel Ben Milam who led 300 volunteers into San Antonio in December 1835 in an attempt to take it from the Mexican army.  According to our guide Sam Trevino, the building was a hub of activity after it opened.  Businesses were found on the ground level, including a barbershop and the Milam Drugstore & Diner (that closed its doors in 2011), and other shops, including a bridal boutique on the basement level.  People from all over the city and tourists would come into the building to get away from the heat and wonder at The Milam’s engineering feat.

The original air conditioning engineer, Willis Carrier, designed a system that steadily delivered just IMG_7629over 300 tons of cooling capacity to all the businesses on the ground and basement levels plus the 750 offices throughout the building.  The temperature throughout was kept at 80 degrees in the summer with 55 percent humidity and in the winter 70 degrees with 45 percent humidity.  Although the system has been updated twice, in 1945 and 1989, one can still see the original footprint in the mechanical room located at the basement level. The basement level also contains an area which the Milam staff would like to one day connect to the River Walk located adjacent to this part of the structure.  Of course, being a historic building, much planning and working with the Historic Design Review Commission is needed to accomplish this construction.

IMG_7675In addition to the milestone in climate control achieved at The Milam, visitors could also marvel at the beautifully hand-carved wood in the lobby which displays a lot of the charm found in business structures in Chicago and New York.  The allure of the lobby is carried through to its elevators and mail-carrying system which can still be seen and remains in use.  One of the highlights of our tour was seeing the incredible view of San Antonio from the roof-top … simply amazing!

Today, The Milam remains a commercial structure – we were told the building is at 72 IMG_7648percent occupancy – it also hosts special events, pop-up shops, art exhibitions and charitable events like the Texas Special Olympics “Over the Edge” event where donors can rappel down the side of the building beginning at the 22nd floor!  (See a video of the event by clicking here.)  Guests are always welcome to visit Lula’s Mexican Cafe (which opened in the summer of 2011 at the original site of the Milam Drugstore & Diner), tour the building, ask about hosting a special event or rent office space with 24-hour access.  While modern office buildings may have amenities not found in historic structures, none can compare to the charm and nostalgia found at places like The Milam!  Next time you’re in downtown San Antonio, walk into the building and experience it for yourself!

A special thanks to Sam Trevino of Milam maintenance and Diane Coliz of Red Star Property Management, Inc. for their hospitality!  For information about rental space within The Milam, visit www.themilambuilding.com or www.redstarproperties.com.  (Photos by Orlando Cortinas)

Second annual staff retreat: Galveston, Texas

On the Tall Ship Elissa

On the Tall Ship Elissa

Those of us who work at Villa Finale are fortunate to have leadership that encourages staff enrichment and development. For the second straight year, we loaded a mini van and all headed to Galveston to visit historic sites, places of interest and meet with other in the fields of museum and preservation.

As in 2013, our accommodations were once again at the Michel B. Menard House.  Built in 1838, the house is now the oldest surviving house in the city and is operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation.  After carefully picking out our rooms for our stay, we headed out to the Texas Seaport Museum to tour the Tall Ship Elissa.  Built

Boat tour of Galveston Bay

Boat tour of Galveston Bay

in Scotland in 1877, the barque is one of the oldest sailing ships in the world.  The ship is kept in tip-top shape by caring volunteers, many of whom have an opportunity to sail on the Elissa as a reward for number of hours served.  Many thanks to Rachel for the wonderful tour!  After our visit on the Elissa, the staff received its own private boat tour of Galveston Bay by the very entertaining Captain Wes and his one-woman crew.  The staff was enthralled by the amount of dolphins we saw frolicking throughout!  A highlight of the day was an Italian dinner with colleagues from the Galveston Historical Foundation.  Sharing stories about historic preservation over fine food and a glass of wine was a fitting way to end day one.

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At Shangri La

Day two began early the next day.  The staff, still tired from the boat ride and all the excitement of our arrival, stuffed itself in the van for a ferry ride that was the beginning of our trip to Orange, Texas and Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center.  The Center, a program of the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, is sprawled out over 200 acres; the Botanical Gardens contain over 300 plant species, many of which are in meticulously maintained green houses.  For me, the Pond of the Blue Moon and the Children’s Garden were the most fascinating.  After lunch at Shangri La, the staff received a tour of the 1894 W.H. Stark House, also in Orange.  The three-story house is furnished with original family pieces and is definitely something to see if you’re ever in Orange.

McFaddin-Ward House

McFaddin-Ward House

Our historic homes tour did not end there.  Our next stop was Beaumont and the McFaddin-Ward House.  The house, built in 1905, was the home of W.P.H. and Ida Caldwell McFaddin and family who made their fortune from the cattle and oil business.  The entire house is lavishly decorated but I think the staff would agree that our favorite place in the house was in the third floor, where the McFaddin boys lived.  It was quite the “man cave!”  For those of us who have made our careers in the museum field, the curatorial storage was an incredible thing to see – everything is carefully stored with proper materials and using best practices.  I was like a kid in a candy store!  Thank you so much to the McFaddin-Ward staff for sharing the space

Bishop's Palace

Bishop’s Palace

with us!  After yet another long day, the staff enjoyed down-time back in Galveston with a delicious dinner at the Saltwater Grill: you can’t go to Galveston and not have sea food!

On our last day in Galveston, the staff made its way to the Bishop’s Palace.  This was a stop during last year’s trip, however, some of us were unable to travel so I am happy it was added to the agenda once again.  The Bishop’s Palace is an absolute must-see if you’re ever in Galveston!  Designed and built in 1892 by architect Nicholas Clayton for railroad magnate Walter Gresham, the unfurnished house is nearly 21,000 square

Inside the magnificent Bishop's Palace

Inside the magnificent Bishop’s Palace

feet on an incredibly small lot but, wow!  What an amazing structure!  From its intricate wood details to its beautiful windows, the Bishop’s Palace does not need any furnishings in order to shine.

Next stop after the grandeur of the Bishop’s Palace was The Menil Collection in Houston.  This was an opportunity for each staff member to wander on their own to enjoy their preferred forms of art.  The stop at the Menil was fitting before our visit to Rienzi – the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  Rienzi is actually a house museum for European decorative arts located in Houston’s historic River Oaks neighborhood.  The home itself was built in 1952 for philanthropists Carol Sterling Masterson and

Sunset in Galveston

Sunset in Galveston

Harris Masterson III who, among their many endeavors, were avid collectors, much like Walter Mathis who owned

Villa Finale.  Unlike Villa Finale, however, Rienzi continues to add to the collection for the purpose of displaying items that are the best examples of its European theme.  It is always a treat to visit unique sites like Rienzi.

Needless to say, the staff was tuckered out after our three days of nonstop visits!  We arrived back in San Antonio safe and sound, just ahead of a rare freeze.  I guess it was very fitting as we “cooled down” from a very busy and exciting trip.

“Wild” Billy Keilman returns home

If you follow us on Facebook, check our website or receive our e-blasts then you know about our October 12th event, Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history!  But just who is Billy Keilman and how does he tie into Villa Finale?

Some time ago, I wrote a five-part blog called The Perils of 401 King William which detailed Villa Finale’s past owners.  Part five touched upon Billy Keilman who owned the house briefly from 1924 – 1925.  Of all the “personalities” who resided in the house, Billy definitely is worthy of his own themed event, even though he didn’t own the home for very long.

billy keilman

From “Action Magazine.” Nov. 1980

William H. Keilman was born on July 9, 1875 the son of pious German immigrants, Rudolph and Eliza Keilman.  As a youth, he was feisty and impulsive – so much so that at a very young age, he ran off to Cuba to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.  Upon returning to San Antonio, he joined the police force.  Standing at well over 6-feet and 225 pounds, Officer Keilman was an imposing figure who gained the respect of many petty criminals throughout the city.  However, his new-found fame as one of the city’s toughest cops was not enough for Billy who yearned to be a businessman.  Around 1910, after allegedly moving in with a red-head girl from “the district,” Billy quit the police force and forged his father’s name on a $5,000 check (over $121,000 today) to buy “The Beauty Saloon” bar and a 15-room house of prostitution – known as a “crib” – located on the corner Matamoros and South Concho Street, in the heart of what was then San Antonio’s red light area.

The issue of prostitution in San Antonio had been settled in 1899 when Mayor Bryan Callaghan successfully convinced the city council that “sin had to be regulated to be profitable.”  An ordinance was passed restricting such businesses to a 10-block downtown area: the “district” roughly encompassed Durango Street to the south (now Chavez), Frio Street to the west, South Santa Rosa to the east and Buena Vista Street to the north.  These “businesses” were under police enforcement, required an annual licensing fee of $500.00 per house and were subject to health inspections.  Fines for non-compliance were strictly enforced.

keilmans-blue-book“The Beauty Saloon” and its adjoining brothel were a hit as the entire San Antonio police force became instant patrons.  Musician friends of Billy’s provided the entertainment while being paid with beer, much of which was donated by the Pearl Brewery after Keilmam personally promised them he would be their largest customer once the business was up and running.  In addition to income from The Beauty Saloon and his “crib,” Billy also published The Blue Book: For Visitors, Tourists and Those Seeking a Good Time While in San Antonio, Texas.  The 28-page nondescript booklet, available for only 25-cents, provided “safe” saloons for out-of-towners to visit as well as gambling houses, cock-fighting pits, and listed and categorized the best bordellos in town with an A, B or C rating.  Ratings were based on cleanliness, service, and honesty.  Madam Hattie Baxter’s place, for example, was given an “A” in the Blue Book.  Not only did Madam Baxter store her client’s belongings in a secured safe, all items – including untouched wallets – were promptly returned at the end of a “visit” and all patrons received a receipt.

blue book inside

Blue Book interior

By the early 1920s, Billy and his wife, Minnie – a local madam –  had sold the Beauty Saloon and focused most of their resources on the Horn Palace Bar and Cafe which was purchased around 1912.  Reportedly, the business was first located in the south-west part of town near Kelly Field and later moved to 312 East Houston.  The Horn Palace, as it was most commonly known, was meant to be a direct competitor to Albert Friedrich’s Buckhorn Saloon which had opened in 1881.  The Buckhorn promised patrons a shot of whiskey or a beer in exchange for deer antlers.  The Horn Palace, however, boasted a larger collection than the Buckhorn’s of antlers, horns and trophies including “Old Tex,” a world-record holding longhorn steer which had been stuffed and mounted.  By this time, Billy was one of the richest and most influential men in San Antonio; while he had a lot of “friends,” he also made many enemies.

In 1921, a man named Yancy Yeager entered the Horn Palace and keilman blue book adtried to murder Billy by shooting him five times – including once in the head!  Despite a fractured skull – skillfully repaired when a local surgeon implanted a silver plate in Billy’s head – the rough and tough Keilman survived the attack.  During his attacker’s trial, the defence tried to discredit Billy by presenting The Blue Book as evidence of Keilman’s “shadyness.”  Billy denied under oath that he was the author of the scandalous Blue Book, despite the fact that his nameless likeness appeared on the back cover with the caption, “For Information of the Red Light District Ask Me.  MEET ME AT THE BEAUTY SALOON.”  The incident led to the closing of the Horn Palace which was deemed “unsafe” to the community following the attack.  The Buckhorn’s Albert Friedrich purchased the Horn Palace’s collection and this, along with “Old Tex,” can still be seen today at its location on Houston and South Flores Streets.

401 1924 saleThe closing of the Horn Palace had very little effect on Billy’s wealth, however.  In 1924, Billy and Minnie Keilman took part of their wealth to purchase the opulent home at 401 King William Street (then “407” and now Villa Finale).  The Keilmans more than likely purchased the home from Dr. G. E. Gwynn who had bought it in July, 1922.  Prohibition had been enacted in 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and thus the “dry movement” spread across the nation, but that did not deter many Americans from getting a drink including the business-minded Keilmans.

Billy and Minnie wasted very little time in making use of their new home’s 6,500 square feet.  Under the leadership of Minnie, the Keilmans operated a brothel in the home and bootlegged liquor from the basement.  Their new venture was known locally as the “Marathon Club.”  Just as it seemed Billy had more lives than a cat, fate finally caught up to him.

keilman death cert 1925

Keilman’s death certificate, 1925

In November 1925, Billy went on a hunting trip with a couple of friends.  It is unclear how an argument began or what the matter of discussion was but it eventually led to a fist fight between Billy and one of his companions.  While it seems that it had been broken up several times, Billy’s luck finally ran out as he was struck in the head with a blunt object and reportedly died instantly marking the end of one of San Antonio’s most infamous characters (in an earlier blog post, we had reported that Billy had died from a gun shot).  The house at 401 King William was inherited by Billy’s son, Rudy, who then gave it to his step-mother, Minnie, who in turn continued operating the Marathon Club after her husband’s death.  In 1967, Minnie’s grandson, James Campbell, who ran a boarding home at the location, sold the house to Walter Mathis and the rest, as they say, is history!

Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history on October 12th sponsored by Alamo Beer, will be a fun remembrance of the home’s most colorful owner and San Antonio’s rough and tumble past.  During the event, people will partake of local beer, learn about home-brewing from San Antonio Cerveceros (Billy would be proud!), dance to jazz music, receive a souvenir mug, and enjoy finger food catered by Liberty Bar to compliment “suds.”  We also encourage everyone to get in the spirit and dress up in their 1920s best!  Prizes will be awarded to the most original costumes including one for the best Billy Keilman look-alike.  As a highlight for the first time, Villa Finale will be opening the basement for the public to view … the event would not be complete without this important room!

For more information about the Blue Book and its various issues, check out the Postcards from San Antonio website.  If you are as fascinated with Billy Keilman as Villa Finale’s staff is, you can take an iTour of the Alamo and old San Antonio hosted by the “ghost” of Billy Keilman.  If you click on the link, note that its authors point out that Villa Finale “does not mention Bill.”  Not only are we mentioning ol’ Bill, he will now have his own event … MEET US AT THE SPEAKEASY!

Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history!  Saturday, October 12, 2013 from 5:30pm – 7:30pm on the grounds of Billy Keilman’s former home at 401 King William Street (now Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens).  Members: $35.00, Non-members $40.00.  Event for 21 and over only.  Call Villa Finale Visitor Services at (210) 223-9800 for reservations or more information.  Major credit cards and personal checks accepted.

The following sources were used as references for this article:
Bowser, David.  West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem and Vice in Old San Antonio.  San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2003.
Bricktop, Jenny.  “The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum: San Antonio, Texas.”  The Butcher’s Floorhttp://butchersfloor.blogspot.com/2006/06/buckhorn-saloon-museum-san-antonio.html
Eckhardt, C.F.  “San Antonio’s Blue Book.”  Texas Escapeshttp://www.texasescapes.com/CFEckhardt/San-Antonios-Blue-Book.htm
Kindrick, Sam.  “Profile of a Red Light District King.”  Action Magazine.  November, 1980: 7 – 9, 30.  Print.
Morgan, Lael.  “The San Antonio Blue Book: Proof of a Secret Era.”  The Compass Rose: Special Collections, the University of Texas at Arlington.  Fall 2007: 1 – 3.  Print.
Rogers, Alan W.  “The National Texas Longhorn Museum: The Horn Palace and the Buckhorn.”  The National Texas Longhorn Museumhttp://www.longhornmuseum.com/BuckhornHornPalace.htm

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).