Villa Finale is celebrating five years: A look back at how we got here!

Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens will be celebrating its 5th anniversary of being open to the public on Friday, October 2nd. Although five years do not sound like much, a lot has happened during that time. I am one of three remaining staff members that were hired before the museum was open to the public, so I thought I would share some reminiscences with you regarding everything that went into opening this historic site and some of the experiences since then.

San Antonio or bust! My car loaded and ready to go from Los Angeles, with three cats in the back, April 2008.

San Antonio or bust! My car loaded and ready to go from Los Angeles, with three cats in the back, April 2008.

I first came to Villa Finale from Los Angeles in early March, 2008 for my interview. It was not only my first time at the site, it was also my first time in San Antonio! I immediately fell in love with the King William District and I remember thinking I was in Disneyland as I made my way from the bed and breakfast where I was staying to Villa Finale for my interview.  The interview I felt went well but just in case I did not get the job I made it a point to see the Alamo just in case it would be my last time in San Antonio for who knew how long.  Little did I know Sandra Smith, who was Villa Finale’s Director at the time, would call me a couple of days later to offer me the position of Manager of Public Programs. Taking the position was a scary decision since my entire family was, and still is, in Southern California; plus, I didn’t know one single person in San Antonio. But I could not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not every museum professional gets the opportunity to conceptualize and open a historic site from scratch! In a month I trained my replacement at the historic site where I was employed, packed my apartment,found a place to live in San Antonio, transferred all my personal business and arrived at my new home with three cats in tow on Sunday, April 6th.  On April 9th I officially began at Villa Finale.

Under construction!

Under construction!

My first order of business was to become immersed in San Antonio history, especially the great accomplishments by Walter Nold Mathis. I had to write subject documents on all the major themes covered at the site: King William, Villa Finale (the house), Walter Mathis and the Mathis collections.  Mind you, as a Southern Californian born and raised it wasn’t entirely easy although I had a great understanding and knowledge of the mission system in the West and Southwest. On weekends, I made it a point to go downtown and visit the missions as well as other places of interest to become familiar with the city and its history.  For weeks, I visited archives all over town with Meg Nowack, Villa Finale’s Curator and Deputy Director, accumulating photographs and historic information to use for our exhibitions and interpretive material.

With Meg Nowack in Villa Finale's kitchen planning out exhibits for the Visitor Center, late 2008.

With Meg in Villa Finale’s kitchen planning exhibits for the Visitor Center, 2009.

The most difficult part was becoming familiar with Walter Mathis’ collections since most objects were packed in boxes. Somehow I found a way to write about things I couldn’t really see! I am so thankful to my colleague Meg Nowack who was patient and kind enough to guide me during that first year towards useful places I could find the information I needed. She was also great to work with as we put together exhibitions for our former Visitor Center that was located at 122 Madison. And speaking of colleagues, Meg and Chris Roddy, our former Buildings & Grounds Manager, and their spouses became my very first friends in San Antonio. They welcomed me into their homes and we all got together for dinner or happy hour every week. To this day, I am so grateful to them for their hospitality and friendship!

First volunteer class, 2009.

First volunteer class, 2009.

A little over one year before Villa Finale opened to the public I began to put together Villa Finale’s guided tour and a volunteer program (since I also assumed volunteer coordinator duties at the time) including writing a volunteer handbook, an orientation model, and guide training materials including a syllabus. Being someone who began in the field as a museum volunteer, I knew Villa Finale’s volunteer program should be welcoming, inclusive and informative. I will never forget that first class of volunteers – some of which are still with us – for not being intimidated to study and learn the tour we give at Villa Finale. The over 12,000 individual objects we have in the house have been known to “scare” people away from becoming guides. Fortunately, most stay and become very enthusiastic about Villa Finale!

Volunteers at our opening celebration, September 2010.

Volunteers at our opening celebration, September 2010.

As volunteer training revved up, so did work at the house, inside and outside. Cleaning, repairing, unpacking and putting everything back just as Walter Mathis had it by using photographs taken right after he passed away in 2005. When I first arrived at Villa Finale, opening day seemed so far away.  Meg, Chris and I ofted joked among ourselves about how nice it was to have this wonderful historic house to ourselves!  Finally, the day that seemed so far into the future came: our grand opening celebration on September 30, 2010. I remember being so proud of seeing our first class of volunteers in action! But the real thrill came when we opened to the public on October 2nd. After all, Mathis left this wonderful gift to share with the general public and really, this is for them!  The day of our opening, I remember reflecting on everything that was accomplished to get to that moment: the creation of marketing blurbs, interpretive materials, designing a logo, work in and around the house, recruiting volunteers … so much leading up to it, and much more to do!

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Volunteer Guide, Dalal, leads one of the first public tours at Villa Finale, October 2, 2010.

Since our public opening on that day in 2010, there has been much change and growth at Villa Finale.  With our ongoing research, we have updated a lot of guide training and marketing materials.  We have also left the former Visitor Center at 122 Madison to focus operations at the historic site and are currectly thinking about how we can provide visitors that service at Villa Finale’s grounds.  We have tried hosting some events and programs that haven’t quite worked out while others have been amazingly successful.  To be more identifable to the general public, we added “Museum & Gardens” to our name, a small move that has helped immensly.  I have also seen volunteers come and go, all wonderful people who enjoyed their time with us but had to leave due to life’s demands.  And of course, great colleagues have also come and gone.  I have also had the pleasure of seeing several folks from our volunteer and intern ranks promoted to staff positions, including our current Execuitve Director, Jane Lewis.

Villa Finale as Grand Marshals of the King William Parade, April 2011.

Villa Finale as Grand Marshals of the King William Parade, April 2011.

Villa Finale is truly a labor of love and I am so happy I made the difficult decision to move so far away from home to be a part of this great project. Today, I have many wonderful life-long friends in this city, many of whom I’ve met through my work at the site and through colleagues. If you haven’t visited Villa Finale yet, I invite you to do so! Perhaps your first visit could be at our 5th anniversary celebration called That Was the Year That Was: 1967 on Friday, October 2, 2015 from 5:30pm – 8:00pm (admission is free). Mathis bought the house in 1967 and we wouldn’t be here without him!

Thank you, San Antonio for your growing support these first five years. Also, thank you to all of my colleagues, past and present, for making and continuing to develop Villa Finale. And a HUGE thank you to my friend, former colleague and professional mentor Max van Balgooy who told me about Villa Finale and provided much-needed guidance during my first couple of years here. I cannot wait to see what the future brings!

Enjoy the gallery below featuring glimpses of Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens history!

Happy New Year! Villa Finale announces upcoming programs for 2015

Although the first month of the new year is nearly ending, it’s never too late to wish you all a happy 2015!  Since this is the our first blog post of the year, I would like to take some time to tell everyone a little bit about our programs in February, beginning with our signature Music for Your Eyes tour on Thursday, February 5th!

IMG_5081Now in its fourth year, this specialized tour has been one of our most popular programs.  Not only do guests have an opportunity to see the home in the evening (the tour begins at 6:30pm), they are hosted by two of our paid staff who engage the audience about music, art, humorous anecdotes and so much more.  The staff provides demonstrations of the music machines in the house – not performed during our regular guided tours – ending the tour with a sit-down performance by our 1921 Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano located in the home’s Napoleon Parlors.  If you haven’t taken this tour, it is definitely a must!  (The program is repeated several times throughout the year.)

drawing 2Our first family oriented program will be on Saturday, February 7th, Drawing on Experience: For the Love of Art.  The Drawing on Experience program began in England as a way for educators in museums, galleries, science centers and teachers to provide a framework for using drawing as a medium for learning from collections and exhibitions — Villa Finale’s curator, Meg Nowack, brought a version of the program here to Villa Finale to share with children and their parents.  The children and parents will get a brief tour of the home after which they will select an object to draw together inside the house!  This is a great bonding experience for kids and parents or even grandparents!

DSC3043copy2webcopy5Finally, we get in a “loving mood” on Friday, February 13th with “Isn’t It Romantic?” at Villa Finale featuring the vocal talents of Ken Slavin.  The intimate concert of popular love songs made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter, to name a few, will take place inside Villa Finale’s Napoleon Parlors.  Mr. Slavin will be accompanied on our 1921 Bechstein-Welte by pianist, Barry Brick.  Guests on this special evening will enjoy appropriate refreshments – we can’t forget the champagne –  prior to the concert and at intermission.  Treat your sweetheart, family member, best friend or treat yourself — many of us are just romantic at heart!  For more information about Ken Slavin, click here.

There is much more to come at Villa Finale, including our popular programs for French Cultures Month in March.  More information about the programs mentioned above is located at the end of this post.  Thank you for your support, and stay tuned for more exciting programs and events in 2015!  (Please call Villa Finale Visitor Services for more information or for admissions at 210-223-9800.  Admissions must be paid in advance.  No refunds or exchanges.  Space is limited for these programs.)

Music for Your Eyes tour – 2/5/15 (6:30pm – 7:30pm)
$20.00 general admission; $15.00 members / students

Drawing on Experience: For the Love of Art – 2/7/15 (10:00am – 11:30am)
$5.00 for one child & parent, $2.50 each additional child, general admission
$4.00 for one child & parent, $2.00 each additional child, members

“Isn’t It Romantic?” at Villa Finale featuring the vocal talents of Ken Slavin – 2/13/15 (6:30pm – 8:00pm; gate opens at 6:00pm)
$27.50 general admission
$25.00 members / students

You can always visit our wesbite www.VillaFinale.org for more information.

It IS Exciting to Watch Paint Dry!

With a fresh coat of paint and a newly completed trellis, here is the latest update on Villa Finale’s Visitor Center.

–Sylvia Hohenshelt

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

Visitor Center Update: February 23, 2009

Here is our latest video on the progress of our Visitor Center. We wanted to give you all a better idea of where exactly it is located and how much things inside have changed since our last update. Enjoy!

Visitor Center: A Work in Progress

Meg and I have been hard at work designing exhibits for the visitor center.  We have two exhibits in the works: one permanent based on Villa Finale’s four main themes, and a temporary exhibit which will serve as a preview for the collections found within the main house.  To give you a better idea what to expect inside the visitor center, we have created this short (and very rough) video for your viewing “pleasure.”  Enjoy!