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)

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Villa Finale Retreats to Fort Worth – Part 3

My last post ended with our staff leaving the Fort Worth Water Gardens on our way to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art on the third day of our staff retreat.  First, a little background.  Amon G. Carter was the founder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a civic leader and a collector of American art.  (There is much more to Amon G. Carter: for more information click here.)  He died in 1955 but in his will left terms for the creation of a museum to house his collection plus other fine examples of fine American art.

Today, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art houses many fine examples of paintings and sculptures.  Further, the museum educates the public through a variety of special exhibits and programs.  We were fortunate enough to be there during a grammar school visit; normally, this would be a distraction if you’re just visiting for fun, but being in the field, you are always looking for ideas to incorporate into your organization.  Some of the art may seem a little daunting for children to grasp; however, when given the opportunity and with the right guidance, young people can and do appreciate many subjects adults may otherwise not give them credit for understanding.  I listened in on some of the instruction and conversation the children were engaged in; the educators at Amon Carter were really making the kids use their own experiences and powers of observation to convey the messages seen in the art … kudos to them!

Aside from “eavesdropping” a bit on the school children’s lesson, our staff had ample time to view the beautiful art throughout the museum.  Personally, I also enjoy reading text on all the labels.  This is great because you learn more about the work and an artist, but not so great when you’re pressed for time!  And indeed we were as we made a short walk down to our next stop: the Kimbell Art Museum.

Before I get into the wonderful art found throughout the Kimbell, I would like to first mention the ingenious design of the main building which is the work of Louis Kahn.  Completed in 1972, the structure is designed with light as the main theme.  Kahn’s designed called for barrel vault ceilings with narrow plexglass “skylights” that would allow for natural light.  However, in order to avoid direct light from damaging the pieces within, the natural light is disseminated by aluminum reflectors that hang directly underneath each skylight.  The result is an open and bright gallery that allows for an enjoyable viewing experience of the artwork.

Speaking of the art … amazing!  And so was our docent, Len Schweitzer, who knew the subject matter passionately well!  The permanent collection itself is relatively small, less than 350 pieces, but – following the collections policy established by the Kimbell’s Board of Directors – the works collected into the institution are to be based on the highest quality rather than quantity.  The Kimbell boasts such artists as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Monet and Matisse, to name but a few.  In addition to paintings, the museum also houses antiquities, Asian, pre-Columbian, and African pieces such as sculptures, ceramics, bronzes and more.  The Kimbell is a MUST-visit when in Fort Worth.  Admission is free and so is an app available for download with visual and audio information (if you do not have a pair of headphones on you, no need to worry.  The Kimbell’s shop has headphones for sale at a reasonable price).

Our staff was exhausted but fulfilled with our trip to Fort Worth.  You really do not know how much one’s state has to offer unless you get out there to explore.  Whether you’re planning to visit Fort Worth or another city near or far, do your research to see what best fits your interests and pocket-book.  So much to explore, so little time!

We’re looking forward to our next retreat in January 2016.  Where we go next remains to be decided!  Any suggestions?

Villa Finale Retreats to Fort Worth – Part 2

I ended our last blog post with our visit to McFarland House, but the day did not conclude there.  We hopped in our van (aka the “iceberg”) and headed to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards.  Beginning in the 1860’s, the city of Forth Worth was the last major stop for cattle drovers heading up the Chisholm Trail before heading into Native American Territory.  Here, cattlemen stocked up on supplies and enjoyed rest and relaxation.  During the next two decades more than four million head of cattle made their way through Fort Worth earning it the nickname, “Cowtown.”  The arrival of the railroad in 1876 made this district a bustling center for business that included livestock shipping, packing houses, auction blocks, saloons and hotels.  The thriving business at the Stockyards earned it the title of “The Wall Street of the West.”  The rise of the trucking industry, among other factors, eventually lessened the significance of the area as a business center.

In 1976, it was officially designated with the title of National Historic District.  While some buildings, including historic packing plants, were lost, many were saved from the wrecking ball giving the district its unique western flair.  In fact, Fort Worth can boast as having the last standing stockyards in the country!  The Stockyards today continues to celebrate and preserve Fort Worth’s rich cattle industry history by maintaining an active stockyard with a variety of animals (a huge bonus for our animal-loving staff), shops, bars (including Billy Bob’s known as the world’s largest “honky tonk”), and a rodeo.  Visitors can also enjoy an old-time cattle drive down the main street, called Exchange Avenue, twice daily.

Now, you can’t travel and not try local cuisine.  Up to this point, we had been in town two days and we had had a number of people tell us to eat at a restaurant called Joe T. Garcia’s (apparently, word of mouth has been a traditional way of advertising for this eatery since day one).  I mentioned our staff loves animals, well, we also love eating so off we went to Joe T. Garcia’s!  The restaurant has a very interesting history; founded in 1935 with a capacity of only sixteen people, the business soon gathered local fame as people would wait for hours to eat its delicious enchiladas and homemade tortillas.  The seating capacity today is 1,000 with the location spread out over one city block.  If you ever visit, don’t be surprised by the lack of menus.  You can choose from either enchiladas or fajitas but trust me, you will have food galore!  You can see in the pictures below we had plenty of leftovers!

After satisfying our bellies and getting a good night’s rest, we rose bright and early for a visit to the Forth Worth Water Gardens built in 1974 and designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee.  The park serves as an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle and let me tell you, it certainly is!  There are three focal pools of water including the main “Active Pool” which has a series of terraces leading down into its center.  It can be very intimidating climbing all the way down as the water rushes below you at every step; beware if you suffer from vertigo.  The “Quiet Pool” takes you down 20 feet by a series of steps which gives an “Alice in Wonderland” illusion of falling down the rabbit hole.  Once at the bottom, folks are treated to a serene blue pool flanked by tall, overlooking cypress trees.  The walls around you are dressed by gently cascading water in stark contrast to the rushing waters of the main waterfall.  Pool number three, known as the “Aerating Pool” is composed of a series of sprinklers designed to spray up to walking level thus creating the illusion that one can indeed walk on water!  I was told that on sunny days this pool reflects incredible rainbows!

At this point we switched gears and drove to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth’s Museum District.  However, that experience I will save for part 3 of this story!

Villa Finale Retreats to Forth Worth – Part 1

How many other work places take you on a retreat to visit places of interest?  Villa Finale’s staff has that unique opportunity. The past two years the staff visited Galveston but this year we went north to Fort Worth!  The trip began in the early morning hours of Tuesday, January 27th as the staff gathered – coffee cups in hand – on the grounds of Villa Finale ready to board our big white rental van (christened “the iceberg” during the trip) for the 4.5 hour drive north.  After a brief stop for breakfast goodies, our Fort Worth exploration began with a guided tour of the Japanese Garden.  Built in 1973 inside the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the 7-acre site was once a gravel quarry and dumping place for manure produced by the military’s equine.  Years of manure droppings made it an ideal location for the growth of lush green plants.  Many of the plants were donated by businesses and individuals, not only from Fort Worth but throughout the United States.  The result is a lush paradise of fine greenery accessible by winding paths which whisk you away to another place.  The bridges, rolling hills and decks provide a tranquil place of reflection and serenity.  If you ever visit, make sure you feed the Koi – they are eager to make your acquaintance!

After a well-deserved night’s rest everyone was up and ready to go for another day of cultural expansion.  Wednesday morning’s first stop was Thistle Hill, a mansion built in 1904 now owned and operated by Historic Fort Worth, Inc. a local partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Historic Fort Worth was founded in 1969 to preserve the city’s identity through stewardship, education and leadership. The organization was gifted the property in 2005 but not before it was saved from demolition in 1974 by a group of concerned citizens who raised $240,000 to purchase the property.  That came during a time when many of the city’s oldest and most beautiful homes – located in a once opulent area called Quality Hill – were being razed for parking lots and modern businesses.  Citizens knew a part of the city’s rich history would be lost if some of the homes weren’t saved from the wrecking ball, and, indeed, Thistle Hill is a gorgeous treasure!

The home was built as a wedding gift by Albert Buckman Wharton – who owned Fort Worth’s first auto dealership – for his new bride, Electra, the beautiful daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest cattle barons.  As I listened to this I thought, wow, what a great wedding gift!  Some of us would get luck to get a crock pot!  And Albert spared no expense – he paid $46,000 (that’s well over $1 million dollars today) for the 11,000 square foot abode that, although grand in every way, is incredibly practical and comfortable.  I was most particularly impressed with the wall decor in what used to be the billiards room; the walls have several inspirational quotes and sayings. The Whartons didn’t live in the house very long before they sold it to Elizabeth and Winfield Scott in 1911.  The Scotts immediately began remodeling the home from its original Colonial design to a Georgian Revival style.  Unfortunately, Mr. Scott died a few months after the property was purchased and never lived in the house.  Mrs. Scott and her son Winfield, Jr. moved into the house in 1912 after all remodeling projects were completed.  Thistle Hill would be her home for the next twenty-six years during which time she hosted a variety of social events.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1936, Winfield, Jr. sold the home to the Girls Service League as a safe and positive place for young women to live while they completed their education.  However, as women became more independent and it was “acceptable” for young ladies to be out on their own, the need for Thistle Hill as a rooming house became irrelevant and the organization abandoned the building.  The house was left empty for a number of years until it was purchased in 1974.

Historic Fort Worth also owns the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland House only a few blocks away; this was our next stop.  Now the headquarters of Historic Fort Worth, the first floor can be rented out for small private events and weddings.  Although smaller than Thistle Hill, the Victorian charm of this home can be seen inside and out.  The Queen Anne style Victorian house was constructed in 1899, also in Quality Hill, by Sarah Ball, the widow of George Ball, a wealthy banker in Galveston.  Sarah, who paid roughly $38,000 to have the house built, chose this site not only because it sat atop a bluff above the Trinity River – thus providing great views – but also because it was right next door to her physician, Dr. Joseph Pollock.  Ball died in 1904, merely five years after the home was constructed, and that same year it was purchased by William H. Eddleman, a cattleman and founder of Western National Bank.  Eddleman and his wife had one daughter, Carrie, who was the light of their life.  When Carrie met and fell in love with Frank H. McFarland, the Eddlemans gave their blessing as long as McFarland didn’t take their daughter too far away after marriage.  So what did the couple do?  They moved in with Carrie’s parents: now there’s a gentleman for you!  The Eddlemans remodeled an upstairs bedroom as a suite for the young couple, and the four lived under the same roof until the death of Carrie’s parents.  Frank McFarland died in 1948 and Carrie lived in the home until her death in 1978 – that is a total of 75 years in one home!

The McFarland house is very beautiful and charming.  The exterior features turrets, gables, carved sandstone, marble and copper.  The interior is rich with colorful stained glass, splendid woodwork including coffered ceilings and parquet floors throughout and so much more!  I could go on and on about the features of this home, but it really is something you have to see for yourself.  It’s wonderful that the Junior League of Fort Worth purchased the home in 1979 thus saving it from eventual demolition before it was purchased by Historic Fort Worth.  Both Thistle Hill and the McFarland House are available for guided tours.

So much to tell about places we visited during our trip to Fort Worth!  I will be blogging about the rest of our trip over the next few days.  Villa Finale’s staff would like to thank our wonderful docents at the Japanese Garden, Mr. and Mrs. Winn; Diann at Thistle Hill, Jimmy at McFarland House, as well as Historic Forth Worth, for their generous hospitality!