Villa Finale

I have a personal belief that Walter Mathis and his home, now a historic trust site, Villa Finale, I tend to rewrite the local history in a way that points to Walter Mathis as the one who – singlehandedly – saved San Antonio’s King William district.

I was part of the first group of volunteer docents to give guided tours through the recently renovated and restored home. His home was the first such undertaking in the now historical district, and Walter Mathis eventually saved, overhauled, then restored 14 homes in the neighborhood.

With much oral history, facts are scarce. (Scarcity of factual data never bothered me – I write horoscopes and fish.)

The land that Villa Finale sits on was part of an original Spanish land grant to the Canary Island pioneers. In the not too distant history, the land was arable agrarian land for The Alamo. The Mission de Bexar. Yes, that Alamo.

As a running side bar item, 1690: Mission Concepcion was founded, near modern Louisiana. In 1731, it was moved to the current place, near the confluence of San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River, a mere two miles south of Villa Finale, and Mission Concepcion has been in continuous service as an active Catholic Parish, ever since then.

The street that runs a few blocks east of Villa Finale is South Alamo. Runs in front of The Alamo, then follows a course that runs north-south, then east-west, then turns north-south again. The local joke is that cattle paths were used to choose streets. In this case, though, it was a waterway. The strange twists and turns of the local topography was dictated water sources, both natural and manmade.

Walter Mathis would trace part of his family lineage back to the Canary Island pioneers, proving that Villa Finale was destiny.

Standing in the front, looking at the house itself, the style is mid-1850 Italianate. The stylized front porch and tower were not added until the decade between 1895 and 1905.

The fun part, for me, I heard two different salaried curators claim the house was built in 1863 and 1873, and from the material, the accepted date was 1873, built by an Englishman named Norton. It was four square, basically 4 rooms with a fireplace in each room, the typical quarried limestone with an unfinished surface. Mr. Norton had the front door shipped over from England, intact, a huge, carved door frame and door, with an imposing look. In a neighborhood that was largely – named King William – mercantile German class, he was the solo English holdout.

Norton lost the house to foreclosure, and it changed hands two more times, with the last family in the 1890s not leaving without a fight.

During that time, the back section of the house, a large kitchen and cellar, was added.

And we haven’t even stepped inside yet.

There are two magnificent lions flanking the front walk. Walter Mathis was a Leo, but no, those were Victorian affectations, as were two ceremonial cannons. Mr. Mathis told tales about the early days when the neighborhood was rough, he would wake to find his cannons dragged across the yard, resting against the fence, as they were really too heavy to lift over.

Standing in the front yard, on the front walk, it is near-impossible to imagine that it was a seedy, or “bad,” neighborhood. One of my clients, grew up maybe two miles south, as he was growing up, he was admonished to “Stay out of trouble, stay out of King William!” Looking a the stately trees and elegant mansions, it’s hard to believe.

San Antonio has two primary industries, military and hospitality. At the end of World War One, the name for the district was changed, the King Wilhelm was none too popular. Returning troops were frequently billeted in the grand mansions, and Villa Finale itself was cut up into 8 apartments.

By the early 1960s, the neighborhood was in a sad state. In the ensuing interval, facts are sketchy, but Villa Finale had been a bawdy house, an illicit casino, a speakeasy, and a bordello. Walter Mathis denied the bordello to his dying day, but I heard it from a sweet little old lady in the neighborhood. She was instructed never to walk on that side of the street – her parents were afraid she would be pressed into service.

In the mid-sixties, Mr. Mathis could tell his then-current home was in the path of the city’s first big freeway project, 281. He moved his nascent arts and architecture collection into storage and began searching for a new home. The ‘Villa Finale’ name was chosen because he wanted it to be his last home. It was.

He bought the place in 1967, starting renovations immediately, but he lived downtown in a hotel until partway through the project.

The “Fire & Casualty” insurance companies often did plats of the land. In one from 1894, Villa Finale had no porch and no tower, while both did show up in the 1905 plat. The porch and tower were added were added in the interim, but not enough data surveys to be more exact. The insurance companies did the plats so there was a map for ingress for the volunteer fire departments, in the event of fire.

At the front porch, the Norton entrance is marveled, then guests are instructed to pull on booties, durable yet protective slippers to help preserve what Walter Mathis built. The ceiling on the front porch is painted sky blue, and while it is patent folklore, the reason is to keep the mosquitoes away. Allegedly.

The entrance, the hall and entrance is marked by an overwhelming amount of art. It was his wish that everything be left where he placed it. There are over 12,000 objects in the collection. For the last few years of his life, a National Historic Trust person acted as a personal curator and carefully noted most of the tales associated with the various collections.

On December 8, 1941, Walter Mathis went over to Randolph Army Base and signed up as pilot. He went on to fly (purported) 96 mission over occupied Europe -WW2 – facts and myths.

I have an uncle, West Point graduate, flew in the big one, too, back when it was Army Air Corp, and he explained no pilots were allowed more than 25 missions. Fact and myth are easily confused.

One of the most famous collections is the Napoleon Collection. Entering the hallway, then leading to the first door on the right, careful not to touch anything, under the tower, there, is the beginning of the collection.

It’s worth noting that Mr. Mathis wanted a home filled with music. To that end, in the middle of the front room, under that tower, there is a, forgive my bad German, “Bechstein-Weltz” reproducing piano.

“Like a player piano?”

Yes, and no. It is a German machine that looks like piano, has mechanical innards, and ran – runs – on an air compressor that Mr. Mathis located in the basement.

I’ve been told that the piano still runs, think of it as a steam-driven piano. The difference is that a great composer or pianist would sit down and record a performance on a roll of paper, and that was played. Cabinet, far left, stage left, over in the corner, had scroll and rolls of paper for the piano. Turn of the century iPod. The paper rolls were the mp3s.

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Asked what single object he would grab, if the house was on fire, Walter Mathis was proudest of his “genuine” Napoleon death mask. “One of six,” is the party line.

Apparently, there is a History Channel special about the cottage industry of Napoleon Death Masks. Worthy of some attention. Seems like there might be more than just a half-dozen. It’s worth noting that this was one of the few originals, probably less than a dozen like it – provenance with museum curators is tricky business.

Napoleon was a favorite, and towards that end, Villa Finale is now part of the Franco-Bexar group, as there are more Napoleon memorabilia here than in most museums. As a military man, Walter Mathis admired Napoleon’s tactics.

The cabinets, the table-tops, the furniture itself, most, if not all, Empire-Revival. French, from around 1840. The “Egyptian” flavor is woven into the art, after all, Napoleon did “conquer” Egypt and some of the Pan-Arab world.

Because I was being trained when the house was being restored, I got to see a few things off the wall, like a ceremonial sword and scabbard arrangement that hangs high, like an Xmas tree star, over one set of Napoleon lithographs.

“Sheer panic in the curator’s eyes when she pulled that one down; it really is held together with twine.”

The windows now have UV coating the prevent fading. New paint, and everything has been cleaned and replaced in its original pace, per the behest and bequest.

Most of the furniture in the front rooms has been recovered, by Mathis, with one exception, there’s a green ottoman/footstool that is in the original material from the 1840s. Note the large mirror over the mantle. Next room, more Napoleon collections, mirror over the mantle, odd military objects, a collections of dog figurines, various tokens, souvenirs, and my favorite, a pair of ivory-carved triptychs, which unfold and show Napoleon’s victories and his wife, which shows her greatest accomplishment, marrying Napoleon.

“I hope you find the humor there,” I add.

Back into the hall, along one wall, there are two pictures from the “pasta” school of Italian art, one clearly shows a medieval St. Mark’s Square, in Venice. I called it the “pasta” school because I could never remember the name of the group. In those two paintings, every, there seems to be hundreds, but every figure is busy doing something.

Split between the paintings is a “cranberry glass” fountain, looks like an hourglass, only, with San Antonio’s hard water, it’s now all crusted up. The site is waiting on a grant to get this piece preserved. It still has water in it, and supposedly worked until his death.

Turn around, big painting on the wall, “Lazarus and the Money Changers,” bible story. The painting spent the better part of a year in Austin, getting conserved. Means an expert in Austin spent months cleaning the large image with a proverbial Q-tip and jeweler’s loupe. Before it was restored, I can point to two images, a monkey and a cat, and neither were visible before the conservation.

There are six or seven bronze sculptures int he front hallway, too. Four of them are actual “Barrié,” a well-known French “animalieé,” excuse my bad French spelling, doing this from memory. From where I stand, I have two bronzes at my fingertips. The real Barrié, the horse looks like a real horse, while the one next to it, it looks like an idealized horse. Turn back around, flanking the fountain are two gold-looking candelabras with stags wrapped around the center column. More from Barrie. Unusual in that he did very few candelabras and even fewer wild animals, like the stags.

The route is a vague figure eight, now, back into the doorway that is opposite from front Napoleon parlors, it’s the Library.

The wall is lined with books, and from eye-level on up, the books are fancy, frequently leather-bound, pretty editions of classics. Books that were picked for looks as much as content. However, from six feet, and under, the books are history, historical, and some auction-house catalogs. To this day, the estate stil receives various catalogs from international art houses.

When the house was being renovated by the Historic Trust, instead of pulling all the books off the shelves, then boxing them up, carting them off, bringing them back and re-shelving them, the books were left in place. Less chance of damage.

The chandelier was rescued from the Mary Bonner estate, and the ceiling had to be reinforced to support that behemoth of a lighting fixture. I was there when the fixture was down, to be rewired and brought up to current code, and the electricians, it took three large men, to haul that chandelier back into place. Weighed over 300 pounds.

In one corner of the library, there’s another series of Barrie sculptures, there’s another set of lions flanking the fireplace, and in one corner, I ask, which saint is it?

San Antonio, TX? It’s Saint Anthony. This is a meter-tall figure that rescued from a church in Mexico, and Mathis turned him into a lamp. Always the preservationist, the saint’s figure is attached at the base but the lamp doesn’t really touch the figure. Over the doorway, leading to the next room, the dining room, now, there is a collection of Eastern Orthodox saints, most with complete silver cladding. I can’t tell, don’t recall, if they are Russian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, or Greek Orthodox. One of them. All look about the same, to me. The sliver cladding was to protect the icons from constant touching, part of that faith’s belief.

The floor of the library has the most unique persian rug I’ve ever seen. While it’s background motif is sky blue, the language across the top of the rug is Farsi (Persian), and the images depict Adam and Eve getting expelled from the garden of Eden.

Mr. Mathis was quite fond of religious art; however, he was not allied with any church, not after his Episcopal tore down a building that he wanted to save. Paved it for a church parking lot. He never went back.

The dining room has a several notable collections. There is a huge amount of silver, two upright wooden urns for place settings, as well as three separate chests, full. There’s a stand-up display that has a number of cow-creamers. My name’s Kramer, cow-Kramers, I like them. All silver.

On his mother’s side, he was related to the Bell Family, the great silver dynasty in San Antonio. Up on one shelf in the dining room there’s a favorite piece, it’s a shell-shaped piece of silver with a tiny model of a sailing ship, at the pinnacle. It’s a gravy boat.

The art hanging at one end of the dining table is ‘Sybil and the Tarquin,’ the last of the pagan roman emperors, and she was a seer.

I like to point out that I’m not known for my good tastes, and when I pass judgement, keep my tastes in mind. Frequently, I shouldn’t be allowed to dress myself.

The centerpiece setting is mismatch of color and culture. It is burgundy cut-glass, inlaid with semi-precious gems, gilt gold and silver with camels and lions. The story is, this is the very centerpiece that rode through the Suez Canal, on its opening, with Queen Victoria, in her barge.

Finally, there’s selection of painting along one wall, and they include a rare Julian Onerdonck from Williamson County. In his era and to this day, he is still widely regarded as a premier Texas Impressionist painter.

The mirror hanging in the dining room looks like the same frames as in the Napoleon Parlour and sitting rooms. The tale told, passed on to me in training, is that the mirrors were gifts. Mr. Mathis was marching through recently liberated France, and he happened upon a bombed out mansion, owned by the town’s mayor. Mathis was digging around in his pickets, scraping together a few dollars, to pay for the mirrors, and the mayor begged Mathis to accept them as a gift for freeing their country from Fascist German oppression.

The mirrors showed up in Houston, a few years later, with freight due. Unclear on what it was, Mr. Mathis reluctantly accepted the bill, and he was overjoyed to find his treasures — the people of France remembered him. The last mirror was left un-re-silvered, possibly just for the telling of the tale.

Out the dining room door, into the hallway, again, peek around the corner at the base of the magnificent stairwell, and there’s the Violano Virtuoso. This was from the old Pearl Brewery’s bar, the Buckhorn Saloon, from 1883. By the sixties, this unusual piece had made its way to Walter Mathis’s collection. I’ve seen it work, more than once. It has two player-violins, and a player piano, all in a single case. Plays a waltz. Either disturbing, musically, or amusing, from a gadget point of view. Wind up and listen to it play a waltz.

Up the stairs, in the stairwell itself, the downstairs is primarily European while the upstairs starts the Americas collections. The first is the art while climbing the stairs. It’s from South America, a centuries old school, the combination of the Spanish masters and the local color shows up with the amount of gold gilt used, throughout. Some strange interpretations, too.

(to be continued….)

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