Preserving a piece of history at the Flying L Guest Ranch

2013-05-16_13-39-52_977On Thursday, May 16th, I had the pleasure of joining the Texas Hill Country Trail for their board meeting at the Flying L Guest Ranch in Bandera.  Buck Shannon, The Flying L’s Entertainment Director, met the group and took us all for a tractor-pulled tour of the Ranch.

The Flying L opened as a 542-acre “dude ranch” in 1946 by owner Jack Lapham, a retired Army Air Corps colonel whose father financed the first two oil wells of what would become Texaco.  Colonel Lapham wanted the ranch to be a Texas getaway for those who loved to fly and who

Guest Villa

Guest Villa

wanted to learn to fly.  An airstrip was built on the ranch for incoming pilots; pilots would check into the Pilot’s Lounge, receive a key to a villa, and then taxi their plane and park in front of their assigned villa.  Among its many high-profile guests were John Wayne, Slim Pickens and Willie Nelson.

Today, the Flying L serves as a resort and conference center, complete with water park and 18-hole golf course.  Although the ranch has many modern amenities, it also has many buildings from its dude ranch days.  The Ranch Villas, which were designed by associates of Frank Lloyd Wright, are still in use.  The Villas were designed to emulate airplanes, with dormer wings at the sides — the dormers were screen-enclosed until guests demanded the comfort of air conditioning.

Pilot's Lounge today

Pilot’s Lounge today

The same architects also designed the Pilot’s Lounge where pilots checked into the ranch and received their villa key.  According to Mr. Shannon, the Pilot’s Lounge had been used for storage for many years; furniture had been piled ceiling-high at one point.  Now, the lounge is being used for small parties and meetings.  However, it needs some major renovations: among the problems facing the structure, the large window leaks and the wood-work needs a lot of care.  Upon preserving the building to its former glory, the ranch plans to rent it out for private gatherings and even host some major events like it did back in the day.  Life magazine covered a story in 1947 of a fashion show in the building hosted by Herbert Marcus, of the department store Neiman-Marcus, headquartered in Dallas.

Pilot's Lounge ca. late 1940's

Pilot’s Lounge ca. late 1940’s

The Flying L has some great ideas for the Lounge upon its renovation.  It hopes to raise much of the money for the project by selling “Pilot Club Memberships” – folks signing up for a membership get their name on the Pilot’s Lounge Wall of Fame located inside the building.  The structure is truly a wonderful piece of history and architecture — it’s great to hear that the Flying L recognizes its importance.

To learn more about the Flying L Guest Ranch and about how you can preserve the Pilot’s Lounge, call 1-800-292-5134 or visit  For information on the Texas Hill Country Trail, visit

Thank you to all the wonderful people at the Flying L for their hospitality!

Villa Finale’s grounds: A serene getaway

Front gateOur South Texas weather has been perfect recently for enjoying the outdoors here in San Antonio; so if you happen to find yourself in the South Town area, why not stop by Villa Finale and enjoy our recently opened grounds for a stroll or nice picnic on the vast expanse of the lawn.

Having been renovated this past summer, we wanted the public to be able to come explore and enjoy the gardens of this historic site.  Villa Finale’s property backs into the River Walk so access is available straight from the River or street level.  Once you are here, you can take advantage of our Formal gardenhouse tours available daily.

Grounds are free and open to the public Tuesday, 12:00 – 4:00pm and Wednesday through Saturday 9:30 – 4:00.  A free downloadable self-guided brochure of our grounds is available by clicking the link below or at our website

Grounds self-guided brochure

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!

My visit to a Texas civil rights treasure

A little over a week ago I had the pleasure of visiting the former Corpus Christi clinic of Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American G.I. Forum and civil rights leader.  The building is now in danger of being lost – however, a group of caring individuals is currently mobilizing to save the structure.  In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I was invited to write about my visit for the National Trust’s blog at  Click here to read the story.

I have included more photographs of my visit here for readers of Villa Finale’s blog.  Now that Villa Finale is a National Trust Historic Site, we want to make people aware of the importance of historic preservation as well as inspire others, much like Walter Mathis did, to become actively involved in the effort.

If you would like to join the preservation movement and the vision of Villa Finale, we invite you to consider a membership to our site which includes a number of benefits.  Click here for more information.

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!  

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!

Villa Finale Restoration Update

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

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 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.