‘Tis Better to Keep than Replace

San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, with support from the San Antonio Conservation Society, offered a three day community symposium and workshop on wood window restoration last week.  For us preservationists, this was a wonderful thing.  To see a building with its wooden windows replaced makes us shudder, and plus, the appearance of the building changes completely, and not in a good way.

The “OHP” brought in experts in historic preservation to discuss sustainability, energy efficiency, and the economics of restoring historic buildings.  The goal of the symposium was to provide citizens with information about the real value and oft overlooked advantages gained by preserving buildings.  Professionals with specific experience in restoration were there to answer any questions regarding problems that may come up during a restoration. 

Villa Finale was very pleased to assist the OHP by providing a venue for lunch, which we set up on the terrace.  Afterward, the group toured the site’s exterior and listened to a presentation about the restoration of Villa Finale’s windows by architect Sue Ann Pemberton,  of  Mainstreet Architects.  Sue Ann and her firm will be performing the restoration on every exterior opening in Villa Finale, from the banal basement grates to the grand floor-to-nearly-ceiling windows.  

For all those readers who may be grimacing, thinking we’re all off our rockers and of the efficiency of replacement windows, think again.  Properly restored, wooden windows cut energy costs, window construction employs local crafts people (most replacement windows are not made locally, or even in the United States),  restoring windows keeps perfectly salvageable materials out of landfills and lastly, wooden windows are just plain beautiful.

group courtyard

The group of over thirty people listen as Sue Ann talks about Villa Finale.

Sue Ann keeps participants in rapt attention by talking windows.

Sue Ann keeps participants in rapt attention by talking windows.

Chris Roddy leads the group along a heavily windowed side of Villa Finale.

Chris Roddy leads the group along a heavily windowed side of Villa Finale.

Sue Ann reminisces about the front window that slammed down on her hand because it didn't have any sash cords.

Sue Ann reminisces about the front window that slammed down on her hand because it didn't have any sash cords.

–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

How Many Museum Professionals Does it Take…..



Chris is perched precariously on the ladder investigating wattage and voltage.

Although I am sure that my life is far more exciting than that of anyone else, I must occasionally reaffirm this notion by partaking in activities such as organizing the plastic grocery bags under my sink or lining the cat pan with clean newspapers, or, bringing the excitement to work by counting and inventorying light bulbs in each of the museum’s lighting devices.  Indeed, the thought of it gives me butterflies: The ladders! The dust! The myriad of moth carcasses in the bottom of fixtures! And we cannot forget the bulbs-or as Mr. Mathis called them, “light globes”.

Just yesterday, Villa Finale’s  Manager of Buildings and Grounds, Chris Roddy, asked me, quite early in the morning, if I had some time to accompany him in the bulb count.  And I said yes.  Armed with a flashlight, a rag, and cotton gloves, we went to work.  We took the ladder around to each room, examined the overhead fixtures and chandeliers first, then looked at free-standing lamps.   We went in the basement, in the tower, on the porches and in the bathrooms.  I had to consider which fixtures might not be aesthetically pleasing with new compact florescent bulbs, and which needed to remain clear or flame-shaped.  We will be able to replace quite a number of the bulbs because there are only a few that are visible from below.  


The lightbulb from the argand lamp.


The J. & I. Cox argand lamp.

We counted 207 light bulbs.  Some of them were ridiculously small and unidentifible with regard to wattage, but perfectly suited for the lamp and location in which it was placed.  Like this one in an Argand lamp made by the J. & I.  Cox of New York City.  This type of lamp was patented in 178o and originally fueled by whale oil.  Mr. Mathis’s Argand lamps date from 1810 – and I feel as if he did not want them to have the glow of a modern lamp, therefore he found tiny flame-shaped bulbs to place in these lamps, and several others in the house.  The effect is beautiful and appropriate.


Visitor Center: Transition from Demo to Construction

Exciting times are here for the staff at Villa Finale, we have visions of nail guns dancing in our heads … I hope that we do not hear a clatter on the rooftop because that work is not scheduled to start yet.  We are seeing more and more progress every day on the visitor center.  The project is now starting to transition from the “Selective” Demolition phase, to the Construction phase.  The skeletal iron work  and the forms for the new concrete that is being poured for the “New” Entrance and filling in of the old loading dock. 


Interior walls are starting to get framed. 


The contractors have also started to cut the concrete slab floors for the new plumbing that will be going in. 









Stay tuned for more stories of construction in the New Year.  Until then, Happy Holidays to all and to all a good night!!!

Goings and Comings at Villa Finale

Villa Finale has had an off-site storage unit for two years now.  Why? Because Walter Mathis, in his plan for Villa Finale as a museum and not a home, thought it would be nice for the future museum Director to have his or her own abode.  So, he kept 414 King William Street for that purpose, and before it was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he used it as a sort of “attic” – filling it with items collected from various places or things that no longer had a home at Villa Finale.  After Mr. Mathis passed away and before the official transition of the site began, the contents of the house were moved to storage.  

After a lot of careful thought and some consternation, the Villa Finale Advisory Board and staff decided that it would be beneficial for the museum if we disposed of these un-accessioned items.  Every object a museum accessions (basically, agrees to keep permanently) must be given the highest standard of care the museum can muster.  As these items really had nothing to do with Villa Finale, it seemed logical to dispose of them rather than accession them and pouring limited resources into caring for and storing this unrelated group of furniture.  National Trust and Villa Finale policy states that the group must be sold at public auction. 

The staff and Board are prohibited from buying any of these things, as that would represent a conflict of interest.  For all those non-museum readers out there, conflict of interest is very serious business in the museum world.  For example, if the Chairman of the Board at the Cat Whisker Museum decided it was a great idea to put Morris the Cat’s full set of whiskers up for sale, and forced staff and board to concur, and then we found, at the Chairman’s next cocktail party, Morris’s whiskers displayed on his mantle, this would be a conflict of interest.  He is conflicting with the health and well-being of the museum for his own personal gain. 

That aside, yes, we are selling Mr. Mathis’s things, but they are in no way related to the museum proper.  And all proceeds from this sale will be placed in a restricted fund to be used only for the conservation of collections within Villa Finale. 

Vogt Auction Galleries will hold the auction next Tuesday, November 25th.   They have a great web site, www.vogtauction.com , if any reader wishes to have a look at the pictures of the things available.  They will also, per the usual, have a viewing, with champagne, from 11 a.m. until the start of the auction at 7 p.m.

Having something of Walter’s is appealing to some,  and if you are unrelated to the National Trust or Villa Finale, you are welcome to bid!  Which leads me to a way you can sort of  get a piece of Villa Finale, if you click on this link:    

Nest Fest | mySA.com

The headline alarmed the entire staff here, as we thought word had gotten out erroneously that we really were selling bits of the museum in an auction.  But, much to our relief, it was all about moulding!   Lowe’s is selling a number of beautiful mouldings, chair rails and crown and base moulding, inspired by those in select National Trust sites, including our own Villa Finale.  A very exciting prospect for those who need a “little something” to jazz up their ceiling!


Visit from Eastern Michigan University and their Preservation Program Alumni

Chris and Dr. Ligibel

This past Saturday, October 25, we had a visit from Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and some Alums of their Historic Preservation Program.  Some of you may be wondering why EMU would be visiting San Antonio?  EMU’s Administration and their Development like to spend part of their time doing Alumni outreach and recognition that are scattered across the country.  As a part of these Alumni Events the University likes to highlight the different programs offered at EMU.  This visit, they decided to talk about the Historic Preservation Program which is guided by Dr. Theodore Ligibel.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the Preservation Program at EMU I will give you a little background on the program.  Founded in 1979, the EMU program is one of the oldest Historic Preservation Programs in the country.  It is also one of the largest and offers a minor in Historic Preservation along with a Master of Science in 4 different Course of Study paths.  Myself being a product of EMU and, more specifically, the Preservation Program, Dr. Ligibel if we could provide a preview of Villa Finale for a small group and explain the process that we are going through to prepare the site to open as a museum to the public.

We had a small group of 8 administrators and alums that attended our roughly one hour presentation of the site.  I must say, that it was very satisfying for me to have this distinguished group of professionals come to see what and how we are doing here.  It is not every day that you get to see a museum being created and for most people it is a very interesting and exciting thing to see, and from the comments of our EMU guests, they felt the same way.

Sylvia, Meg, and Chris enjoying the Menger reception.

After we had our preview of Villa Finale the University was nice enough to invite the Villa Finale staff to the Alumni party that they were hosting at the Menger Hotel in the heart of downtown San Antonio.  We enjoyed drinks and appetizers while mingling with the larger group of EMU alumni.  Dr. Martin, President of EMU, opened the evening with a status report on the University.  Dr. Ligibel then spoke about the Historic Preservation Program and the history and development of the preservation movement world-wide and in the U.S.  The evening was concluded with a group photo shoot and a good time was had by all.

Eastern Michigan University Alumni

Hey, maybe it’s easy being green after all!

In light of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sustainability Initiative, the staff at Villa Finale met recently to talk about how we can be more green, in our preservation and museum functions, as well as in our office work.  Here’s a list of what we came up with:

1.  Turn off lights.  It seems so simple that it’s easy to forget!  But now we’re going to make a concerted effort to turn off outdoor lights during the day, turn out lights when we leave the room, and turn off our power strips at night.  Even equipment that’s off draws power, so this should save some energy.

2.  Recycle office paper.  We were doing this already, but it’s good to restate it so we remember.  Since I do so much paperwork (sigh) I tend to generate the most waste paper, so I’m going to put a recycling bin in my office, to remind me.  We already recycle glass, plastic, newspaper, etc.  And the staff members that don’t have recycling programs where they live have been bringing their recyclables to the office for disposal.

3.  Compact fluorescent lightbulbs.  We’ve been phasing these in for some time, but now we plan to do an inventory of every shape and size bulb we have in the house so we can replace all existing bulbs with CFLs when they burn out.  I was amazed to see that now they even have flame-shaped CFLs for chandeliers!  We’ve got lamps and fixtures of every size and vintage, and with so many lamps in the house, burnouts are a regular occurrence.  And since the burn-outs will only increase when we’re open to the public and the lights are on all day, a bulb that lasts seven years sounds gooood!

4.  Green cleaning products.  We will be using environmentally-friendly cleaning products wherever possible, including collections care and building maintenance.

5.  Long-term solutions.  To protect the collections, we plan to install UV window film, which will also reduce interior heating due to sunlight.  Our upcoming window and door restoration project will make the house much more energy efficient, as will the two new HVAC units we installed.  As part of our landscape restoration, we’ll be installing an irrigation system, which will allow us to be more efficient at watering the grounds.  We’re also investigating a compost system to fertilize the beds.  All of Meg’s banana peels will be put to good use!

We’ve even discussed more flexible work hours so that the staff will not have to sit in traffic at rush hour, wasting gas.  And in what’s probably the biggest sacrifice on staff, Sylvia promises to work hard to lose her “LA Driver” mentality while commuting to increase her MPGs!

Stay tuned to see how we all do…

Buildings and Grounds Conference in Beautiful Monterey, California

Every 2-3 years the National Trust has a conference for all the Buildings and Grounds related positions of their Historic Sites.  This year I was lucky enough to attend this conference in Monterey, California.  The topic of discussions at this conference were Disaster Preparedness, Cyclical Maintenance, and Sustainability at our Sites.

We had sessions all day Monday and Tuesday that were very helpful in getting us to think about these topics through another, similar but different, set of eyes.  It was also very helpful to get to know our colleagues that do similar tasks that we do and to just enjoy the general camaraderie that we had.

Buildings and Grounds Conference Attendees

Buildings and Grounds Conference Attendees

We were also privileged to have special tours of two National Trust Historic Sites, Cooper-Molera Adobe and Filoli.  These are fabulous Historic Sites that I recommend to all that are close to them to spend as much time as possible there.

Cooper-Molera Adobe, A National Trust Historic Site.  Photo by Ron Blunt.

Cooper-Molera Adobe, A National Trust Historic Site. Photo by Ron Blunt.

Filoli, A National Trust Historic Site.  Photo by Ron Blunt.

Filoli, A National Trust Historic Site. Photo by Ron Blunt.

Goodbye, Ike

Well, Ike has left Texas, and thankfully, bypassed San Antonio completely.  The staff spent half the day Friday getting ready just in case – closing both the interior and exterior shutters in order to protect the historic glass, moving plants to shelter, etc.  Luckily, none of the preparations were needed, but if nothing else, it was a good dry (no pun intended) run for the future – and after what happened last summer, we weren’t taking any chances.

Word is slowing coming in about the damage to the coast and its historic buildings.  Our friends at the Galveston Historical Foundation have scattered, but are trying to set up shop elsewhere in the state, so they can get back to work.  GHF is partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to develop a list of structural engineers and architects who may be willing to go to Galveston and help out.  Here’s the link.

And Ike keeps going…rains from Ike have flooded the Fox River in Illinois, and now the Farnsworth House is under water.  The top two pictures on this page are just heartbreaking.  The Farnsworth House was built to be above the 100-year flood mark, but with changes to the local environment, and the addition of more and more asphalt, much more water is going into the river than when the house was built.  I worked on the Farnsworth House after the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased the site in 2003, and fell in love with it.  It’s absolutely a must-see.

Beggar Cleaned and Pressed

Last Friday I drove to Austin to view the progress on Villa Finale’s Lazarus-themed painting in Mark van Gelder’s conservation lab and studio.  Here is the studio from the outside …

… you’d never know this is what the inside looks like:





The first thing that Mark did to the painting was to stabilize the canvas and press it down to the backing fabric to smooth all tears and eliminate any irregularities.  I use the word “press” because that is exactly what the procedure is.  The fine linen that the painting is actually painted onto is adhered to a thicker fabric by a mix of bee’s and other waxes, thus saving the original canvas from being stretched too tightly and becoming deformed or torn.  Here is an edge of the painting after Mark removed layers of grime and old varnish: 


The yellow wax is clearly visible in between the canvas and backing fabric.  When the canvas was stable and smooth enough to work on without damaging it, Mark began to clean the surface with cotton swabbed on a pencil-sized stick dipped in a three-part chemical cleaner. 


Here is Mark diligently swabbing and one of the swabs:







Eww.  What you see is years and years of build-up of dirt and old varnish.  He left a some of the varnish on the surface to allow the canvas to retain a little elasticity. He will fine-clean at a later date.


Mark has cleaned half so far, here is the result:

Because of the methods used in the past to conserve the painting, Mark thinks that the last time it was cleaned was most likely in the 1940’s.  This ties in very nicely to the fact that Mr. Mathis purchased the painting in the early ’40’s–getting it ready to sell!

There was conjecture around Villa Finale that the painting had been removed from its stretcher bars and folded for some ominous reason.  Upon closer examination, it appears as if the old linen canvas was loomed only to a certain width and sewn together to create a larger canvas.  You can see the seam in the middle. 




In smoothing and cleaning, Mark also discovered artistic elements not seen until now.  He brushed on a light linseed oil to allow me to see details.  What we all assumed was just another sore on the beggar’s shoulder was in fact a glop of old varnish. Here it is cleaned and sore-free!:




Mark revealed plates, tablecloth design, clothing and more.  This is my favorite bit:

I will return in a few weeks to document further progress.  The canvas will be completely cleaned off which will allow Mark to pursue the fine details such as filling in cracks and tears and “in-filling”, basically painting damaged areas in the manner, texture and color that the original artist employed.