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Written by Texas Highways

By Natalie Posgate

Twinkling angels line the walkway to the Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens’ Festival of Lights. (Photo courtesy of Moody Gardens)Bring the family to Galveston on November 12 for the kickoff of the 10th annual Festival of Lights at Moody Gardens. Listen to Christmas carols as you watch Santa make his grand entrance via parachute and then switch on more than one million Christmas lights, transforming Moody Gardens into a sparkling wonderland. Enjoy other entertainment such as live music, petting zoos, and the reappearance of Santa with his reindeer.

The festival continues from November 18 through January 1. Follow the mile-long trail of lights and animated displays, and take in the beauty of the grounds as you walk by the Aquarium, Rainforest, and Discovery pyramids, Palm Beach, the Moody Gardens Hotel, Offatts Bayou, and the Colonel Paddlewheel Boat. Bring ice skates so that you can hit the rink—or rent some on-site for $6 a pair. For ticket prices and information about other events throughout the festival, call 800/582-4673, or visit

The best little quilt museum in Texas set to open in La Grange

By Nola McKey

One of some 75 quilts in the Texas Quilt Museum’s inaugural exhibit, Texas Hay Rake was made by Michele Barnes of Grapeland. (Photo courtesy of Texas Quilt Museum)Housed in two historic buildings in downtown La Grange, the new Texas Quilt Museum is easy to spot. A bold mural on the west side of the taller structure—the 1893 Reichert and Kneip Furniture Store—announces the location with a finely detailed image of colorful quilts draped over a clothesline.

The 10,000-square-foot museum opens on November 13 and represents a longtime dream of Karey Bresenhan and Nancy Puentes, president and executive vice president of Quilts, Inc., which produces several quilt shows, including the annual International Quilt Festival in Houston. “We were determined that the museum would open this year, in conjunction with Texas’ 175th birthday,” says Bresenhan. “When you’re restoring old buildings, you just never know what you’ll encounter.  We faced a number of challenges, but the solutions our dedicated local tradesmen and artisans came up with have actually enhanced the end result. All in all, it has been a rewarding process, and we’re proud that we were able to preserve these fine old structures in La Grange for future generations of Texans.”

The inaugural exhibit, Texas Quilts Today, also coincides with the recent publication of Lone Stars III: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1986-2011 by Bresenhan and Puentes (the last in a trilogy published by University of Texas Press that chronicles 175 years of quilting in Texas). The exhibit will include about 75 of the 200 quilts featured in the book; the remainder will eventually rotate into the exhibit following this year’s International Quilt Festival (November 3-6). While this first exhibit features Texas quilts made in the last 25 years, future exhibits will spotlight quilts from around the world, as well as historic quilts that date to the early 1800s.

As fifth-generation Texas quilters, cousins Bresenhan and Puentes consider the museum’s historic setting a natural. Houston architect Barry Moore, who specializes in historical-preservation projects, has retained the adjoining buildings’ high ceilings, brick walls, and hardwood floors, as well as many of the original railings, moldings, and other architecturally significant features. The result? A stunning showcase for large works that range from traditional patchwork quilts to avant-garde “art quilts.” The museum’s grand opening takes place on November 13 at 1 p.m., at 140 W. Colorado St. Call

Photo: © The Daytripper with Chet Garner

While “Bryan-College Station” rolls off the tongue smoother than the Aggie War Hymn, and is known collectively as “Aggieland,” each city has its own distinctive identity. I set out for a day in Bryan, far from the bustle of College Station’s Texas A&M University.

Bomber jackets weren’t fashion statements for the WASP. They flew all types of military aircraft, including this B-17G Flying Fortress named “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” (Photo courtesy National WASP WWWII Museum/TWU Woman’s Collection)

A wooden sign three miles west of Sweetwater marks the site of a remarkable story of patriotic women who soared into bleached-out West Texas skies from herae during World War II. Avenger Field was the training facility for Women Airforce Service Pilots—better known as WASP—the first large-scale program in American history that involved women flying military aircraft.

altWhen we were planning the October 2011 issue of Texas Highways magazine, there was no way we could have imagined the devastation that would alter the lush landscape of Bastrop State Park.

The courtyard of the Spanish Governor's Palace on the west side of Military Plaza. (TxDOT/Jack Lewis)

By Gene Fowler

Two adjacent plazas in the heart of Old San Antonio teemed with life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, Main Plaza, or Plaza de las Islas—named for the Canary Islanders who settled around it in 1731—and Military Plaza, or Plaza de Armas, still bustle with activity and anchor the 13-block Main and Military Plazas Historic District. Thanks to a major redesign in 2008, Main Plaza offers a pedestrian-friendly space for concerts and other events. And in Military Plaza, the only visible evidence of the Spanish garrison built here in the 1720s—originally the presidio captain’s residence, now known as the Spanish Governor’s Palace—reopened this past spring after receiving a new roof and other improvements.

San Fernando Cathedral, begun in 1738 and completed in 1749, stands between the two plazas. The cathedral’s French Gothic façade was constructed from 1868 to 1873. The church’s original, 18th-Century walls can be seen inside the sanctuary; the original exterior of the church’s apse is visible from Military Plaza.

The inscription on a marble sarcophagus here states that some of the remains of the Alamo defenders are contained within. Historians disagree about the matter, but church records indicate that restoration workers in 1936 turned up a box of charred bones and fragments of clothing that appeared to be uniforms.

Pedestrian-friendly Main Plaza showcases local culture. (Photo by Randall Maxwell)

Other major historical events took place on and around Plaza de Armas and Plaza de las Islas. For example, according to Elizabeth A.H. John’s 1976 book Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds, Spanish officials and Apache leaders held a treaty ceremony here in 1749. Priests joined the soldiers, Apaches, and citizens in a ritual peace dance, followed by the burial of a hatchet, a lance, arrows, and a live horse. “There are conflicting hypotheses about whether the burials took place in Main or Military Plaza,” says Kay Hindes, City Archeologist with San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation.

Though Plaza de Armas appears to have lost its military presence in the late-18th or early-19th Century, the plaza’s important role in San Antonio history continued. Alamo defender James Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi at San Fernando Cathedral in 1831. David Crockett, after telling his fellow Tennesseans that they could go to hell and he’d go to Texas, orated an address in Main Plaza in 1836. Weeks later, after the arrival of the Mexican Army force that attacked the Alamo, Santa Anna raised a flag on San Fernando’s tower demanding “no quarter” for the Texian defenders.

As a noted outpost of the Old West, San Antonio was not short on saloons, and many of the gambling and imbibing emporiums lined the plazas. Historian Charles Ramsdell wrote in his 1959 book San Antonio, A Historical and Pictorial Guide that in the second half of the 19th Century, when Military Plaza no longer quartered soldiers, it became “the liveliest spot” in Texas. By day, a farmers market occupied the old Plaza de Armas. Come sundown the plaza became a torch-and-lantern-lit bazaar. From portable stoves, women known as the chili queens sold chili-con-carne, tamales, and enchiladas. Their legend attracted writers such as Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane, who joined other diners at long wooden tables. Crane wrote that the chili hit his palate like “pounded firebrick from Hades,” but more than a century later, historian Marian L. Martinello noted in her book The Search for a Chili Queen that many accounts did not mention the heat. (The dozens of vintage images in Martinello’s book reveal that the outdoor cafés operated in daylight, as well.)

During this same period, mesmerizing medicine men hawked their wondrous elixirs from carnival wagons with colorful performers and exotic displays, and strolling troubadours vied for attention with shell-game operators, curio peddlers, and silver-tongued shysters.

The curtain came down on Plaza de Armas’ starring role in San Antonio nightlife around 1890 with the construction of a new city hall in the center of the plaza.  The French Second Empire structure of native limestone still stands, as does the Bexar County Courthouse, a magnificent Romanesque edifice of red sandstone and granite, which arose on the southern side of Main Plaza four years later.

By 1915, the captain’s house on Military Plaza had fallen into such disrepair that pioneer preservationist Adina De Zavala identified the structure only by the Hapsburg coat of arms above the entrance and by the inscription, “año 1749 se acabó (completed in 1749).” Announcing her discovery, the San Antonio Express ran the headline, “Governor’s Palace With Imperial Coat of Arms Tells of the Spanish Rule.” Though the structure originally housed the presidio captain, it also served as the residence of the last ad-interim Spanish governor of Texas from 1816 to around 1820.

The palace had become a private residence by 1820. From the 1870s to the 1920s, it housed a cantina, produce market, pawn shop, and clothing store. The city bought the building in the late 1920s and restored it in 1930. New vigas, or ceiling beams, were created from telephone poles. A new outdoor patio was paved with pebbles from the San Antonio River. Black walnut doors carved by master craftsman Peter Mansbendel depict the saga of Spanish America in bas relief.

Plaza visitors never know when the hallowed ground may yield more mysteries. In 2003, archeologists uncovered a portion of the 18th-Century presidio wall at Commerce and Camaron, across the street from the Spanish Governor’s Palace.  Marian Martinello hurried to see the structure, one step ahead of the bulldozer.

“I approached the wall and touched it,” she wrote in her 2006 book The Search for Pedro’s Story. “At that moment, I sensed that the soldiers of Presidio San Antonio de Bejar and I were connected across the centuries by this place, this wall. ...I resolved to stand where they might have stood, walk where they probably walked. ...”

And thanks to the efforts of preservationists, we can walk there still.


Institute of Texan Cultures exhibit to showcase TH photography

The 11-foot-tall, neon Texas flag that welcomes visitors at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio plays a central role in a photography exhibit that goes up at the museum beginning Oct. 1. Texas Highways staff photographer J. Griffis Smith paired the flag with the silhouette of a cowboy and captured the iconic image (above)  in 1986. It’s one of 58 photographs in Griff Smith’s Texas: A Retrospective Through the Lens and Images From Texas Highways.

Smith, who’s now TH photography editor, has worked for the magazine for more than 25 years. During his career, he has crisscrossed the state and covered a wide spectrum of subjects, from majestic landscapes to intriguing people who have contributed to the tapestry of Texas culture.

“The ITC tells the stories of Texas and Texans, and with its rich diversity, Griff Smith’s Texas accomplishes this in spectacular fashion,” says Bryan Howard, director of exhibits at the museum. Call 210/458-2300.

—Nola McKey

Though never used as a military installation, this West Texas

trading post saw its share of drama

A Fort Leaton staff member lights luminarias in preparation for the site’s annual La Posada event. (Photo by E. Dan Klepper)

By E. Dan Klepper

Living in the Big Bend, among the remnants of Texas’ frontier past, it’s easy to imagine life here a hundred years ago. Little has changed across this hardscrabble desert, and, fortunately for history enthusiasts like me, many of the relics from Big Bend’s pioneer days have been rescued and restored. One of my favorite haunts, Fort Leaton State Historic Site, presides over southern Presidio County from its perch above the Rio Grande river valley. The sprawling adobe building with some 40 rooms lies on 22.5 acres off FM 170, three miles east of Presidio. Managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the site serves as the westernmost entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park. It also provides the
ideal setting for visualizing the dramatic arc that has defined the region over the past century-and-a-half.

When I heard that Fort Leaton had almost completed a three-year project that involved adding reproduction 19th-Century furnishings to the historic living and working quarters, I made plans to visit again. While the site had been restored years ago, the rooms had been empty until now. I timed my trip with the “unveiling” that took place last December, in conjunction with La Posada, the fort’s annual Christmastime celebration. Luminarias lining the top of the adobe walls along the fort’s perimeter greeted me upon arrival that evening. More luminarias flanked the walkways, and inside the structure, candles illuminated the newly furnished rooms, just as they had in the fort’s heyday. The festivities—including music and theatrical performances—were in full swing, but my sights were set on exploring the fort itself.

altBuilt in the mid-1800s, Fort Leaton served as the region’s major trading post for some three decades. Many people assume that it was a U.S. Army post and part of the military expansion that occurred during the same period across West Texas; however, the massive structure was constructed for business rather than fortification. Its recorded history—a concatenation of events ranging from boisterous to downright sordid—begins with the arrival in 1848 of trader Ben Leaton and Juana Pedrasa in Presidio del Norte from, most likely, Chihuahua. Leaton and Pedrasa never married but already had three children when they reached the state’s western Rio Grande borderlands, a region known at the time as La Junta de los Rios. Edward Hall, a teamster employed by Leaton, and two other traders named John Burgess and John Spencer, accompanied the family.

In need of property for a new trading post venture, Leaton bribed the local alcalde (presiding government official) to supply counterfeit titles to parcels of farmland, including the future Fort Leaton site. After evicting the Mexican farming families already living and working on the land, Leaton built his rambling trading post, dubbed it Fort Leaton, and set up shop.

I began my self-guided tour in the trading-post office. The newly renovated office features an accounts book, used to record the purchase and sale of goods, sitting open on a rustic reproduction of a period-perfect desk. The entries, written in ink and lit by candlelight, include whiskey, lard, goats, and dried pumpkin. Crates and barrels designed to ship goods like nails, doorknobs, soap, fabric, and ceramics line the floor of the room. Several of the lids had been pried open. The entire setting suggests that a clerk had just made an entry in the ledger and left the room. (Leaton couldn’t read or write, so he kept several clerks on the payroll.) But it was the large warehouse around the corner from the office that really gave a sense of the full-scale traffic of goods that passed through the post, symbolized by the stacks of large crates and barrels displayed just inside the imposing wooden doors and labeled with faraway origins such as Cincinnati and St. Louis.

The furnishings clearly define the former life of this place. Cabinets, trunks, day beds, blankets, mirrors, sconces, personal items, and decorative arts such as retablos and religious symbols adorn the rooms.

Next, I examined the living quarters. The new furnishings illustrated the simple but comfortable conveniences that a house of means could provide its occupants at the time. As I moved from room to room, I could see how this collection of residential spaces truly functioned. The furnishings clearly define the former life of this place. Cabinets, trunks, day beds, blankets, mirrors, sconces, personal items, and decorative arts such as retablos and religious symbols adorn the rooms. A team of curators, interpreters, artists, and craftsmen, under the direction of TPWD’s chief curator, Joanne Avant, had transformed the dining room, sitting room, family parlor, formal parlor, and kitchen into echoes of their past.

The new additions create a sense of activity and occupation within the rooms but maintain a respect for the beauty of the adobe’s minimalist architecture. The furnishings complement the austerity found in large, open spaces of whitewashed, handcrafted earthen bricks; generous windows and doorways sheltered by hand-carved shutters; and soaring ceilings with rope-hanging iron chandeliers.

The kitchen features copper pans and ladles, a metate (grinding stone), ceramic pots, and an adobe oven. The room is surprisingly small for the number of residents it served. In addition to an extended family of adults and siblings, 18 servants and laborers were counted as household inhabitants in an 1870 census. The dining room, with its long wooden table set for the evening meal, suggests that half a dozen family members and guests might have eaten here at any given time.

As I entered the grand, spacious formal parlor, also known as the ballroom, I began to think about the events that unraveled around the fort after Leaton’s death. The fort may stand as a testament to Leaton’s business acumen, but his perfidy and the treachery of the men who followed in his steps are also part of the history of these rooms. I confess that the darker aspects of this period in West Texas history attract me as much as its triumphs, and a visit to Fort Leaton never fails to draw some of the ghosts from the shadows. With La Posada festivities proceeding noisily in the courtyard just beyond the adobe walls, the candle flames from the ballroom’s chandeliers seemed to illuminate the duplicity once concealed within the rooms’ dark corners.

After constructing the trading post, Leaton made several trips to San Antonio during the late 1840s and early 1850s in order to file, and hopefully legitimize,  his fraudulent land titles. In 1851, on his third trip and accompanied by his family and Edward Hall, he died of an “unidentified illness,” leaving his property and possessions to Pedrasa and their three children. Pedrasa married Hall in 1852, and they returned to the fort sometime between 1856 and 1859 to reopen the trading post. Needing money, possibly to pay gambling debts, Edward Hall secured a cash loan from John Burgess, using the fraudulent Fort Leaton mortgage as collateral. But when Hall defaulted on the loan, he refused to relinquish the property. Burgess managed to acquire clear title to the property and sent a group of men to evict the Halls. At some point during the encounter Edward Hall was shot and killed. Burgess was able to move his family into the fort afterwards, but in 1876, an angry William Leaton, the youngest son of Ben Leaton and Juana Pedrasa, shot and killed Burgess. Despite Burgess’ untimely death, his family continued to occupy Fort Leaton for the next 50 years.

The tiny sitting room, located within the heart of the compound, was the last stop on my tour. The candlewicks in the chandelier were almost spent, and melted wax drooped like icicles from the iron rim. The room’s appointments—a wooden chair, a toy, a crucifix atop a small writing desk—cast long, odd shadows against the darkening walls. For a moment I thought I caught a glimpse of someone in the mirror that hung along the far wall. But just as I imagined the profile of a young woman settling into the glass, a sudden puff of wind blew through the window and snuffed the last candle out.

Also in Postcards: Griff Smith's Texas at ITC


In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town, which I set out to explore, beyond the bottle.

Eddie Wilson, who co-founded Austin’s famous Armadillo World Headquarters in 1970, sifts through decades of music-related ephemera as he prepares to write his memoir. (Photos by J. Griffis Smith)Eddie Wilson, proprietor of the famous Threadgill’s restaurants in Austin, may be the only person in American history to ever take off his trousers as he introduced a state governor to an assembled throng. That scandalous event, which was actually quite G-rated, occurred at an Armadillo World Headquarters reunion concert in the Capital City circa 1994.

Also in Postcards: A Collecting Obssession, Family fun, reinvented

Cool off in Texas’ show caves

By Lori Moffatt

While fall is right around the corner, temperatures in Texas often climb to triple digits well into September. But you can stay cool underground, where it’s often at least 20 degrees cooler than on terra firma. 

In the Boerne area, Cascade Caverns (830/755-8080; and Cave Without a Name (830/537-4212; offer in-triguing underground passageways and formations like “cave bacon.” Natural Bridge Caverns, between New Braunfels and San Antonio (210/651-6101;, offers several varieties of tours, ranging from a half-mile tour along paved, interior “sidewalks” to some that require slithering through narrow passageways.

Longhorn Cavern, which formed as water dissolved the limestone bedrock southwest of Burnet, draws visitors to Longhorn Cavern State Park (877/441-2283; Wonder Cave, formed by an earthquake along the Balcones Fault near San Marcos, anchors Wonder World Theme Park (512/392-3760; Inner Space Cavern, in Georgetown, was discovered in 1963 as engineers constructed a new section of Interstate 35 (512/931-2283; And for the ultimate late-summer chill-out, travelers headed to and from the Big Bend can explore the underground wonderlands of the Caverns of Sonora (325/387-3105;

See related: Family fun, reinvented, Cool off in Texas' show caves

At Villa Finale, preservationist Walter Mathis indulged

his love of history

Tours of Villa Finale highlight the eclectic antiques collection of longtime owner Walter Mathis. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

By Gene Fowler

As a collector of such Texas ephemera as 1930s singing-cowboy songbooks, Hillbilly Flour sacks manufactured by former Texas Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’ Daniel, and vintage “rattlesnake oil” medicine bottles, I understand how the collecting bug can burrow into a person’s psyche and set up house. So when I read about the 12,000-piece collection of antiques and objets d’art on view at San Antonio’s Villa Finale, the recently restored, 1876 Italianate mansion of the late collector Walter Nold Mathis, I reserved a spot on an upcoming tour.

Mathis, a successful stockbroker and investment banker, named his limestone home in the city’s historic King William neighborhood Villa Finale because he intended it to be his last dwelling on this side of the vale. He remained true to his pledge. Widely recognized as the catalyst for the neighborhood’s revitalization, Mathis purchased Villa Finale in 1967, spent two years restoring it, then went on to preserve 14 other King William homes destined for other owners. Before his death in 2005, he donated Villa Finale and his eclectic collection to the National Trust for Historic  Preservation. In October 2010, Villa Finale—the first National Trust Historic Site in Texas—opened to the public after a $1 million restoration.

Tour groups are limited to six people to create an intimate experience. After a brief orientation at the Villa Finale Visitor Center, which offers a preview of the home’s collections and explains some of the neighborhood’s history, we walk three scenic blocks to the home proper to begin the tour.

We proceed through the wrought-iron gates and past the twin lion sculptures flanking the walkway, and then we slip nylon booties over our shoes before entering the 6,500-square-foot home. Sylvia Hohenshelt, Villa Finale’s public programs manager, explains that everything in the home was photographed and documented before restoration so that it could be replaced exactly as Mathis had arranged it.

Objects came from around the world; Mathis made frequent buying trips to New Orleans and Mexico, but he kept his eyes open for items of interest wherever he traveled. In the long entry hall, I pause to study an unknown artist’s rendition of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which illustrates a parable from the Gospel of Luke. Next, we pass into two large parlors devoted to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. “Mr. Mathis admired Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaigns,” Hohenshelt tell us. “He acquired his first piece at age 11 and eventually built one of the largest collections of Napoleon memorabilia in the country.” Silhouettes, bas-reliefs, and portraits of Napoleon and his wife Josephine are accented by swords, helmets, and other relics, including Mathis’ favorite item—a bronze cast of the emperor’s 1821 death mask, which rests on velvet in a wooden box.

An 1840s Texas biscuit-making table, whose wooden top could be removed for cleaning, anchors the kitchen, and the adjacent dining room appears ready to welcome guests for an elaborate holiday meal. Filled with fancy glass, brass, silver, and gold dishes, vessels, and plates, the dining room also features an 1869 silver gilt-and-crystal table service made in France to commemorate that year’s opening of the Suez Canal. Mathis found the dining-room mirror, etched with the smoky patina of age, in a burned-out French chateau while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. According to lore, he paid the town’s mayor to hold it for him, then forgot about it when the war ended. Two years later, after Mathis had returned to Texas, the mirror (and two others in the Napoleon Parlors) arrived from France.

We marvel at the extent of the collection: Some 2,000 books on art and civilization crowd the bookshelves in the Villa Finale library, illuminated by the soft glow of a lamp fashioned from a santo of Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. Roman, Greek, and Spanish Colonial religious icons adorn the library walls, and its tables hold fancy snuff boxes and vintage matchbooks.

In the rear of the hallway stands a rare 1912 Violano Virtuoso, a combination player piano/double-violin that for many years issued its thundering decibels in the Alamo City’s legendary Buckhorn Saloon.

Upstairs, where each room is painted a different color, we find examples of Peruvian religious paintings from the Cuzco School, along with Mexican retablos, antique crosses, a Holy Water decanter, and Centennial glass from the 1876 fair in Philadelphia, as well as Mathis’ collection of shaving mugs, stickpins, and other personal items. Antique timepieces tick in a room painted Villa Finale blue, a patented shade described by Villa Finale curator Meg Nowack as “a powdery periwinkle blue.” The yellow room, which served as a sitting and entertainment area in Mathis’ lifetime, displays Bohemian glass and Wedgwood pottery, as well as a Staffordshire piece depicting Ben Franklin but identified as George Washington—indicating to curators that it may have been crafted by child labor.

In the green room, a guest bedroom in Mathis’ day, I was intrigued by family photographs and Mathis’ nine-generation-long legacy in San Antonio. For example, we learn that one Mathis ancestor, Juan Curbelo, was among the Canary Islanders who settled San Antonio in 1731. Curbelo’s great-granddaughter married John W. Smith, the last messenger to leave the Alamo before it fell. Another ancestor, Vicente Amador, was the man tasked with distributing plots of land that had been farmlands for the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) after the missions were secularized in 1793. That same land later became the King William District. Mathis’ great-grandfather William G. Tobin, maker of W.G. Tobin’s Chili Con Carne, was an early promoter of Tex-Mex foods.

Works in the collection by iconic Texas artists like Theodore Gentilz and Julian and Robert Onderdonk exemplify those deep Texas roots, as do Republic of Texas currency, pre-1850 maps, Mexican-American War paintings, and other Texana pieces. Villa Finale displays San Antonio artist Mary Bonner’s three-part frieze Les Cowboys, which drew critical raves in the avant-garde 1928 Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris.

Of course, Mathis’ home itself is something of a museum piece. Built in 1876 by hardware merchant Russell Norton, the house acquired its second story after 1882, when it passed into the hands of cattle king Edwin Polk. A third-story tower was added sometime before 1904. During WWI and WWII, the home served as a residence for Army wives, and during Prohibition, bootleg booze was cooked in the basement by Minnie Keilman, whose late husband had published a 1911 guide to San Antonio’s red-light district.

Mathis’ niece, Jessie Kardys, who held her wedding in the Villa Finale gardens, says her uncle “had a knack for finding treasures amongst junk.” Encouraged by San Antonio architect and preservationist O’Neil Ford to purchase and restore what Ford called “the finest house in Texas,” Mathis found a way to keep his collection intact—and indeed treasured by those who tour his final home.

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