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.

‘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

Villa Finale’s Very Own Owl

Besides the staff, there is wildlife at Villa Finale other than the usual city-dwelling squirrels.  For several months,  mostly in the afternoon, the staff would hear the very distinctive hooting of a large owl, and then the Watership Down-esque shadow of a giant predatory bird flying overhead, causing the most incredible outburst from other smaller and less fortunate birds. 

The owl remained out of sight, and only if you arrived very early could you see it crammed up against a tree trunk.  This author was never so “lucky” to arrive at the crack of dawn.  However, one late afternoon when the staff decided to take a spontaneous inventory of the patio furniture, with liquid libation, we saw it very high in a tree over Sheridan Street. 

It remained elusive until yesterday afternoon when it was having a battle with another raptor  and I was able to capture an image of it on my camera.  I identified it as being a Barred Owl.  Described as a “sit and wait” type owl, I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with this beautiful and intelligent bird.  It is also described as having “liquid brown eyes”, which also endeared it to me.  But, anthropomorphising aside, this owl is pretty fantastic. 



As I mentioned, its hunting method is to literally sit and wait for unsuspecting creatures to pass beneath it.  It will even wade into shallow water to catch crustaceans.  In fact, the belly feathers of the Barred Owl can turn pink from eating crayfish.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website provides a map showing the winter range of these owls, and it doesn’t quite make it to San Antonio, so I think it is safe to say that we have a (sort of) rare bird!  These owls are known to live in forested areas near streams or rivers-how perfect that this bird feels as if King William is the place to be.  If we’re lucky, our owl is a female.  Female Barred Owls go outward to find a mate and bring the winning candidate back to her territory to nest.  We may know in February, when the owl population settles down to start their families.

Barred owls are not welcome everywhere, though.  In the last century they have expanded their territory westward, often displacing rarer owls such as the Spotted Owl-however, the Spotted Owl doesn’t seem to mind that much – there have been reports of owl hanky-panky resulting in Barred/Spotted hybrids. 

I immediately thought the other raptor was a Cooper’s Hawk, but when looking at the photo I took, his chest is streaked, not barred, its overall appearance did not really look like one.  Maybe a juvenile.  Whatever he is, he definitely seems to mind the owl’s invasion.  If you look very closely, you will see the hawk on the far left and the bulky owl down on the right.  But he shouldn’t really get his feathers ruffled.  Unlike the Cooper’s Hawk, Barred Owls do not catch anything on the wing, so all the sweet little song birds that the Cooper’s Hawk likes to eat will go unnoticed by our owl.  

Here are some Barred Owl statistics:  Length: 17 to 20 inches, Wingspan 39 to 43 inches, Weight 16 to 37 ounces.

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…