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!

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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!

Mr. Mathis’s Crowninshield Award Video!

In 2003, Walter Mathis was awarded the Louise duPont Crowninshield Award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, our organization’s highest honor.  At the awards presentation in Denver that year, we showed a video giving a great overview of all of Mr. Mathis’s preservation work.  I was finally able to get a copy, thanks to Cortina Productions, who produced the video.  Watch the video here:

Fort Worth Named a Distinctive Destination

Every year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announces a list of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations, vacation destinations across the United States that offer an authentic visitor experience by combining dynamic downtowns, cultural diversity, attractive architecture, cultural landscapes and a strong commitment to historic preservation and revitalization.  Since its inception in 2000, Texas has been on the list five times: Fredericksburg (2000), Galveston (2003), New Braunfels (2005), Fort Davis (2008), and this year, Fort Worth.  (One of these days, San Antonio has GOT to make the list…maybe 2010 is our year!)

Learn more about the Dozen Distinctive Destinations here.