Walter Mathis and now, the National Historic Trust, operate the site, Villa Finale in San Antonio’s King William Historic District. For both local history and European artifacts, culture and art, the house is worth an afternoon tour. Read more about San Diego fence
With much oral history, facts are scarce.
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.
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, just 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.