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South Texas' Berclair Mansion

Written by Bill Clough.

Who has not dreamed of wandering down a prosaic path to discover something magical? To find a mansion where no mansion should be, to lean your head against its wrought-iron gate, sensing that to go inside would be to pass through the looking glass into a kingdom of fine art and artifacts all out of place and time?

The dream becomes reality a dozen miles northeast of Beeville, in the village of Berclair, a community of 250 people just inside Goliad County. The town, on US 59 beside Blanco Creek, is small enough to pass through in a minute or two, with only a diminutive sign inviting a driver to look north.

Then you see it, the Berclair Mansion: two stories of pale yellow brick, presiding over the town with dominion and grace, but out of proportion to its surroundings—as if a 10,000-square-foot edifice destined for Houston or Dallas got lost along the way.

But what lies inside is the mansion’s charm—22 rooms of priceless antiques from 16th- and 17th-Century European castles.

How they got here resembles a Romantic novel: The plot has five sisters, a fire, contentious litigation over a will, a world-famous painting, three decades of abandonment—and a ghost.

The heroine is Etta, born to Robert and Mary Wilkinson on Matagorda Island in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. She was the second of eight children. The family moved to Goliad County in 1862. Thirty-one years later, Etta married James Crogan Ludlow Terrell, a cattleman who amassed 25,000 acres of South Texas ranchland. In 1898, Etta had been married for only six years when her parents’ Queen Anne home in Berclair burned to the ground. Its heat scarred a part of Etta’s memory that never quite healed—until perhaps 38 years later.

By 1936, James had been dead for 17 years, and Etta was living with family in Berclair, where they had built a new home after the fire. She decided to build another home for herself and her four sisters—Bertha, Lorene, and Carlyle, none of whom ever married, and Regina, like herself, a widow.

In planning the home, Etta made one requirement of architects Westfall and Wade of Corpus Christi: Make it fireproof. They complied. Structural engineer Worth-Cottingham, also of Corpus Christi, used 60 tons of cement and steel to build what the current owners believe was, at the time, the largest steel-strand home in the United States. The mansion was constructed on the site of Robert and Mary Wilkinson’s former home.

Etta’s vision extended far beyond the architecture. No interior decorators for her. She started collecting antiques to furnish its 10 bedrooms, five baths, two grand halls that stretched the length of the house, grand reception room, dining room, sewing room, and two living rooms, one formal, one informal.

She filled the home with priceless pieces: a mirror that once reflected the image of Prince Roland Bonaparte, a descendant of Napoleon; an urn that witnessed Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897; Dresden-style china; rosewood furniture from the Governor’s Palace in San Luis Potosí, Mexico; a clock whose case was made in France for—not by—Louis Tiffany. Don’t photograph; definitely don’t touch.

Each sister had her own room, decorated in her own taste; each collected her own cookbooks, quite often identical (numerous duplications stand on shelves in a room adjacent to the kitchen). The kitchen had a wood-burning stove because Bertha, who did most of the cooking, would not consider a gas stove. It must have been an odd scene—Bertha cooking over a wood stove in a kitchen lit by electric light. No electrical service existed in Berclair when Etta built the house. The electric company told her it would cost $3,000 to put it in her house, but for about $2,000 more, it could be brought to the whole town. She paid the extra to bring service to everyone in town.

Unlike those in many historic homes, the Berclair mansion rooms are not roped off. That visitors are encouraged to walk through the rooms carries on a tradition: Etta often invited schoolchildren to visit and encouraged charity organizations to tour the place. Four thousand guests enjoyed her hospitality the first year.

After Etta’s death in 1957, at the age of 96, her sisters continued to live in the mansion. Sometime after the last sister, Carlyle—also known as “Dimples”—died in 1975, the house was boarded up, and it stayed that way for more than 27 years.

Oddly enough, in those years no burglar broke into the house, no vandal defaced it, and no thief helped himself, despite two Minton urns left on the front porch on either side of the door. It was as if the mansion had disappeared.

It came close. Regina’s daughter, Genevieve Moore, inherited the mansion, but stipulated in her will that the home be demolished. Fortunately, Genevieve’s heirs did not agree, and neither did the courts.

In 1999, the owners gave the home to the nonprofit Beeville Art Association, which turned it into a museum. The process proved difficult and expensive. The association needed a lot of money, quickly. The answer, it turned out, was hanging on the wall. Etta had decorated the downstairs grand hall with original paintings. One, The New Dress, painted in 1912 by an English artist named Arthur John Elsley, had been considered missing by art historians. When the Beeville Art Association auctioned it at Christie’s in London, it brought a net profit of $171,000, and the museum was on its way.

While the grounds were being restored with the help of inmates from a nearby prison, theories emerged about why the mansion remained untouched all those empty years. An inmate paused to ask an Association volunteer, who was overseeing the work, “Who is that elderly lady who keeps looking at us from that upstairs window?”

The mansion was deserted at the time..

The Berclair Mansion has guided tours from 2-4 p.m. on the last Sun. of each month, and on every Sun. in Nov. and Dec., except Christmas Day. Admission: $10. Luncheon available for $15 per person; dessert and coffee, $5. Call 361/358-7810 or 800/248-3859; www.Beeville.net/BerclairMansion/ .

From the February 2006 issue.

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