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Web Extra: Peter Mansbendel's Masterpieces

Written by Lori Moffatt.

The woodcarving legacy of Swiss woodcarver Peter Mansbendel (1883-1940) has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, thanks in part to the research of Texas woodcarver Doug Oliver, whose website, www.petermansbendel.com, provides details about Mansbendel’s contributions throughout Texas.

Senior Editor Lori Moffatt caught up with Oliver by phone from his home in Flower Mound to discuss his upcoming Mansbendel biography and the rewards of savvy sleuthing.

“My initial discovery of Mansbendel was a fluke,” says Oliver. “I’m a professional woodcarver, and I have long been a fan of British woodcarver Grinling Gibbons, who worked from the 1650s to 1720s or so in England. His work was featured in Hampton Court Palace, Buckingham Palace, and in many estate homes in England.

“I have Swiss heritage, and one day I was messing around with Google and did a Google search for ‘Swiss woodcarvers in Texas.’ And out of the blue, up pops a catalog by Al Lowman (from the Texas State History Association) about a 1970s exhibition of Mansbendel’s work at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. I was intrigued to learn that this fellow Swiss woodcarver was an admirer of Grinling Gibbons, too.

“The catalog had some information about the homes that featured his work, but in most cases just listed the original owners’ names and a date. So I asked myself, how could I find out where they were? Maybe from someone who’d been in Texas a long time? I thought of Dallas realtor Ebby Halliday, and I wrote her a note. She told me that the Shepard King home I’d been looking for is now the five-star known as the Mansion on Turtle Creek.

“The Kings were big into cotton, and later oil, and they had traveled to the Petworth Estate in England, which had numerous works by Grinling Gibbons. And when they returned to Texas, they hired Peter Mansbendel to copy some Gibbons’ woodwork for their home. There are more than 1,100 pieces of wood carved by Mansbendel, including a Baroque mantel in the library and dining-room beams carved with angels, cherubs, and griffins.

“So that was a big discovery. And then Ebby suggested I do some research with Preservation Dallas (www.preservationdallas.org). Because Mansbendel’s most active period in Texas was between 1915 and 1940, most of the Dallas houses were in the Highland Park and Lakewood neighborhoods.

“This sleuthing was totally new to me, and it was turning into a really fun thing. And then someone at Preservation Dallas said, ‘You know, I think he lived in Austin.’ And that really turned me on.

“From there, I found the owner of Mansbendel’s longtime home in Hyde Park. He is an architect, and he led me to other places that feature his work. I probably made 15 trips between Flower Mound and Austin, visiting all the places I could find. I eventually went to Houston, San Antonio, Bryan, Corsicana, and all over San Antonio. I met his grandson and granddaughter, who were able to fill in some holes, even though they were very young when Mansbendel died.

“At some point, architectural historian Peter Maxion became aware of my work through the Austin History Center, and he suggested I write a book. I already had the website going, so a book was a natural progression.

“I’m intrigued by the fact that Mansbendel worked with so many famous architects at a period when architectural art and decoration was coming into vogue in Texas, and also with the fact that he was such a Renaissance Man. He was a woodcarver, painter, and a singer in the German choral group known as Saengerrunde, as well as for St. David’s Episcopal Church. He was the Art Director and an actor for the Austin Little Theater, and also one of the original Barton Springs Sitter’s Club. Peter kept company with artists and architects such as Fortunat Weigel, Arthur Fehr, and Godfrey Flury, whom he met through the Saengerrunde. One of the things I admire most about Mansbendel was his ability to master so many styles.

“I’m finished with the first draft of the book, and I’m still maintaining the website, and adding new research. In fact, if anyone thinks they may have a Mansbendel piece in their home, they can send me a photo and I’ll check it out.”

Contact Doug Oliver through www.petermansbendel.com.

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