March 28, 2024

A Home Full of Art and Antiquities: Jane Lewis on Villa Finale

To walk into Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens in San Antonio, Texas is to walk into Walter Mathis’ vision. Filled with over 12 thousand artifacts this home represents approximately 20 percent of the collections owned by the National Trust. Built by a hardware merchant in 1876 the Italianate mansion tells the story of an evolving city.

Walter Mathis, who bought the home in 1967, restored the site and an additional fourteen properties in the neighborhood leading the revitalization of the district. Today the King William Historic District serves as a gathering place for the community.

A woman with glasses, and a floral dress looks at the camera with a smile.

photo by: Courtesy Jane Lewis

Jane Lewis, executive director of Villa Finale.

If you aren’t able to travel to San Antonio many of the site's collections are displayed on the Google Arts & Culture platform where you can take a virtual stroll through the historic site and see the numerous objects, art, and more that make the house so special.

Jane Lewis, who has been the executive director of Villa Finale since 2012, is passionate about this home and the story it tells. We interviewed her to learn more about who she is and her work.

View of the gardens at Villa Finale. There is a metal gazebo with seats on a stone platform.

photo by: Villa Finale Museum & Gardens

The gardens of Villa Finale.

What first inspired your love of history?

I grew up in New Mexico and was surrounded by history. History of the people and the land was always fascinating: the Native Americans, the explorers, and pioneers. My mother was a historian and genealogist, and we were always on the lookout for interesting places and learning about our own family history.

What's your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

Before it became a National Historical Park, the Pecos Ruins (as it was called) was a crumbling adobe mission church on the Santa Fe Trail. My mom and I would climb over the fence to walk around the building ruins and imagine what it would have been like to live there. Inhabited since 11,500 B.C.E. by pre-Ancestral Pueblo people, the site on the mesa top would whisper stories of occupation and revolt throughout history.

View of some of the ruins at Pecos National Historical Park c. 2011.

photo by: David Heckman via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

View of the ruins of Pecos National Historical Park.

When people visit Villa Finale, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

The last owner, Walter Nold Mathis, bequeathed his estate to the National Trust so that people could see and experience a particular way of life. In our case, there are 12,850 pieces in the collection, all of which are on exhibit just as they were when Mathis occupied the house. Although the mansion is architecturally significant, the art and antiques overtake the visitors’ attention when they enter the building. With eclectic taste, Mathis collected widely and the collection spans Europe and the Americas in the 18-20th centuries with a particular focus on Napoleona. Woven throughout the objects are fascinating stories, both personal and historical, with many based on Texas fact and lore. Adhering to Mathis’ wishes, our mission is to preserve and showcase a cultural heritage of historical significance.

What is your favorite part of your site?

The entire site is incredibly beautiful, and I love the way it changes with the seasons. Not only can we change the focus inside the house with a rotation of decorations, but nature transforms the gardens throughout the year. Backing up to the San Antonio River and the RiverWalk, there is a never-ending panorama of natural flora and fauna to feast our eyes on.

View of the Riverwalk in San Antonio with beautiful trees on either side reflecting off the water.

photo by: Villa Finale

View of the Riverwalk from the Villa Finale.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

We are in the process of building a new visitor center on the site. Currently, we only have a very small Carriage House to serve our visitors and office our staff. The architectural drawings have been approved by the San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation and the City Zoning Commission, and we are awaiting final permits from the City in order to begin construction. Adding this facility will enable us to expand our programs and sustain our mission into the future with much-needed exhibition space, visitor reception area and offices!

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!