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Speaking of Texas: Mansbendel's Masterpieces

Written by Gene Fowler.

The ornate work of Swiss woodcarver Peter Mansbendel, who was known for his sense of humor and whimsy, embellishes sites throughout Texas. (Photo courtesy of the UTSA Libraries Special Collections from the Institute of Texan Cultures)

Legions of visitors to Mission San José and the Spanish Governor’s Palace in San Antonio have admired the doors and other architectural details that Swiss-born Austin woodcarver Peter Mansbendel created for their restorations in the 1930s. Mansbendel, who often described himself as a “chiseler” and once declared that “real genius does not need to proclaim itself other than in its work,” left plenty of public work to prove his talents. In fact, Mansbendel’s hand-carved mantels, altars, doors, bargeboards, portraits, plaques, and myriad other creations beautify locations throughout Texas, including several buildings on the University of Texas at Austin campus, the Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse at Laguna Gloria, the Austin History Center, Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the W.H. Stark House in Orange, and the landmark Austin watering holes of Scholz Garten and The Tavern.

Born in Basle, Switzerland in 1883, Peter Heinrich Mansbendel apprenticed with a local woodcarver from the ages of 10 to 16, then traveled to England, where he studied the work of Grinling Gibbons, often regarded as Britain’s greatest woodcarver.  After completing his education in Paris at the Coquier-Roland School of Art, Mansbendel sailed for New York in 1907 and soon found work. Before long, he was director of the woodcarving department at the interior decorating firm of L. Marcotte & Company and taught clay modeling at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Love, however, lured him to Texas. At a tea in his New York studio in 1911, he met Austinite Clotilde Shipe, and the two began a short courtship. After marrying that same year, the couple settled in Hyde Park, Austin’s first suburb, which was developed by Clotilde’s father, Monroe Shipe.

For more than a quarter-century, until his death from throat cancer in 1940, Mansbendel worked in his studio in Austin’s former Swedish consulate. Using some 300 carving tools, many of them made in the Old World, he wrought from oak, pine, cypress, walnut, and mesquite an endless variety of architectural elements, household furnishings, and other artistic creations.

For one of his first Texas commissions, Mansbendel carved a mantel for Clara Driscoll’s Italianate mansion—set on a Colorado River lagoon on the western outskirts of Austin—which is known today as the Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse at Laguna Gloria. The wood used for the mantel is a beam from the Alamo that was presented to Driscoll by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in appreciation of her role as “Savior of the Alamo.” Mansbendel carved an Alamo scene in the mantel’s center, flanked by carvings of the State Capitol and the lagoon.

Texas architects and homeowners called on Mansbendel when their projects needed a distinctive touch.

As Mansbendel’s reputation grew, Texas architects and homeowners called on his services when their projects needed a distinctive touch. In the 1894 W.H. Stark House in Orange, Mansbendel’s work in-cludes a pair of mahogany beds. Other works by Mansbendel, including an Alamo scene carved on a beam, an elaborate coat rack, and a carved figurine of a tipsy monk that reveals the woodcarver’s whim-
sical side, are part of the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation collection.

Public examples of his work at the University of Texas at Austin include a walnut exhibit case in the lobby of the Briscoe Center for American History and carvings of past UT presidents at the university’s Texas Union.  And at the Austin History Center, the local history archives of the Austin Public Library, visitors can view Mansbendel’s walnut portrait plaque of Stephen F. Austin.

Mansbendel created some of his best-known works, for San Antonio’s Spanish Governor’s Palace and Mission San José, during the nation’s Great Depression. According to legend, the seashells, dragon, baby’s face, medicine man’s mask, and other symbols carved into the palace’s cypress doors tell the story of Columbus’ voyage to the New World and Spain’s subsequent reign in the Southwest.  Al Lowman, a former president of the Texas State History Association, once wrote that the scrolls and leaves in the mission’s massive, black walnut doors were crafted in a Moorish tradition that refrained from depicting living creatures.

Mansbendel likely could have enjoyed a more glamorous career had he remained in New York, but he seems to have taken to the Lone Star State like a native son. The Mansbendels sang in the choir at St. David’s Episcopal Church, and Peter served as art director for the Austin Community Players. Saturday-night soirees at the Mansbendels’ Hyde Park home would often include such friends as ironwork artist Fortunat Weigl, architect Arthur Fehr, commercial artist Godfrey Flury, and Willie Dieter of the Calcasieu Lumber Company, who kept the carver supplied with the choicest woods.

Thanks to the efforts of Flower Mound woodcarver Doug Oliver, who has documented Mansbendel’s work since 1995 for a forthcoming book, interest in the Swiss woodcarver’s legacy is enjoying a renaissance. “He turned out an amazing amount of work,” says Oliver, “and he worked feverishly in the late ’30s as he knew his health was failing. Peter Mansbendel was a true Renaissance Man and a genius master woodcarver.”

From the November 2012 issue.

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