August 17, 2015

All in the Family: Walter Nold Mathis, Villa Finale, and the Preservation Legacy

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation

By Jane Lewis, Executive Director, Villa Finale

After purchasing what is now known as Villa Finale, Walter Nold Mathis (left) lovingly restored both the exterior and interior (right) of the Italiante-style home.

In 1967, San Antonio civic leader Walter Nold Mathis was looking to purchase another home after discovering his house in the Monte Vista Historic District of San Antonio was in the path of new US Highway 281. His friend, well-known preservation architect O’Neil Ford, told him about “the finest house in Texas” located in historic King William, a once-grand neighborhood founded by German immigrants that had fallen on hard times. Mathis toured the 1876 Italianate mansion located on the San Antonio River, now known as Villa Finale, and immediately fell in love with its many fireplaces, high ceilings and overall charm.

After purchasing the home and restoring it to a single-family dwelling -- it had been subdivided into affordable apartments since the late 1920s --Mathis realized the three homes across the street from Villa Finale were in a state of serious neglect. So, he purchased those three properties plus a dozen more over the next few years.

Mathis completed some if not all of the restoration work on the properties before selling them to mostly young couples who were not only interested in historic preservation but who also had the energy to complete the work themselves. Many times he would fund the mortgages himself in order to get the most historic home enthusiasts into the neighborhood, who otherwise might have been turned down by their financial institutions.

Throughout the nearly forty years Mathis lived in Villa Finale -- the name given by him in honor of it being his last home -- the King William Historic District went from being a run-down urban neighborhood to one of the most desirable places to live in the entire city. Walter Mathis was indeed the catalyst that spurred the revitalization of King William, an undertaking that earned him the Louise E. duPont Crowninshield Award in 2003, the highest honor awarded to an individual by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Upon his death in December 2005, Mathis bequeathed his entire estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens is the only National Trust Historic Site in Texas, delighting visitors with its vast collections of fine and decorative arts, right in the heart of a vibrant historic neighborhood.

We asked three of Mathis’ family members, Josie Bain Fauerso (niece), Elizabeth Fauerso (great-niece), and Clark Kardys (great-nephew), to share their memories of this preservation advocate and explain his contribution of Villa Finale to the legacy of preservation.

In his will, Mathis donated Villa Finale to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which turned the site into a house museum.

What is your favorite memory/story of Walter Mathis and Villa Finale?

Josie Bain Fauerso: My favorite memory of Villa Finale was in 1978 when my husband, Paul, performed Chopin's F Minor Ballads on the Bechstein-Velte grand piano in the Napoleon parlor to a small group of family and friends. The piano is a rare German grand piano which is also a reproducing piano with the unusual ability to replicate original performances.

Another fond memory was of the first King William Parade. It was basically everyone in the neighborhood walking down the street with their dogs! Uncle Walter always knew how to make any event seem important. His open house was a cherished occasion. I am glad he lived to see that little parade develop into the amazing event the King William Fair is today.

Elizabeth Fauerso: We grew up going to Villa Finale and Christmas was always a particularly festive time. Uncle Walter would give us strange treasures as presents such as Mardis Gras beads, crystal paperweights, and old photographs.
As a child it always felt like we were stepping into a wonderland, but it wasn’t like a museum. It was a living, breathing place that we were allowed to play in and explore. Very special for a child.

Clark Kardys: My favorite times with Uncle Walter were after he had retired and he could be more often found at home. "Come in, my boy!" he would say with his gentle Southern accent. I enjoyed taking him lunch from his favorite Mexican food restaurant, El Mirador, or out to the movies.

As a child, I thought his home was awe-inspiring but also overwhelming. As I grew older and he explained more of his collections and their history, I discovered a greater appreciation for his passion for history and his love of South Texas.

I looked back at the pictures from my parents' wedding in 1970 shortly after he finished renovating Villa Finale and seeing how empty the home seemed (despite being well appointed) before he amassed many of his collections. I was honored to know the effect he had in restoring and preserving a wonderful part of the city we both loved.

The Bechstein-Velte grand piano sits just behind an antique desk in the Napoleon Parlor.

What were your feelings when Walter Mathis made the decision to leave Villa Finale to the National Trust?

JBF: I've always been proud of Walter Mathis' ability to assemble a record of distinguished work in historic preservation and a home and collections worthy of being the National Trust's first and only property in Texas.

EF: I thought it was a great act that would help to ensure the preservation of Walter’s singular aesthetic, his fascinating collection, and the history of our family. My daughter will never meet Walter, but in being able to go to Villa Finale I can share our family history with her in a way that is very special.

CK: I was excited to learn that Uncle Walter left his home to the National Trust. Anytime someone with such a wonderful estate passes, one always wonders who will have the energy and wherewithal to preserve it as he had done. It would have been very tragic to see it sold off. With Villa Finale being the first National Trust site in San Antonio and Texas, I knew it would be preserved for generations to come.

Many antiques and rare collections are part of the house museum's exhibits.

How did you imagine Villa Finale would be different after it became an historic site (house museum)?

JBF: Walter's home was filled with beautiful antiques, rare collections, significant art, and family heirlooms. It seemed like a museum when he lived there, so it has just been a process of opening the doors and sharing the experience we always had when we were there with many more people.

EF: I was pleasantly surprised that the renovation of the space was about cataloging and cleaning vs. a re-imagining of the collection. I am so pleased that Walter’s eye is still represented in the way that his collection is displayed. It is one of the most important things about the collection, not just the things themselves, but how they are displayed, categorized, and how they relate to each other. There is a narrative there that reflects Walter’s love of history and his sly wit.

CK: Under the care of the National Trust, I looked forward to the regular opening of the entire home. The enormity of his collections meant that a thorough exploration of all his collections was a multi-year proposition. With the whole of the house open every day, and through the work of devoted curators, I hoped to discover the stories behind literally every painstakingly cataloged piece, rather than just those Uncle Walter had the energy to talk about after a long Tex-Mex lunch!

There were also areas that were more private. I saw his many flying medals from his two tours as a B-26 pilot in World War II and in the post-war occupation. As a boy, I would ask him about the war hoping to hear exciting war stories. Instead, I only heard, “Of all the flight crews in my squadron, only one made it back.” Though he didn't wish to share his heroism or suffering, I knew the National Trust could preserve his legacy of service to the city, the state, and the nation.

What makes you most proud of Walter Mathis and Villa Finale today?

JBF: The staff has always made us feel welcome and have established a great respect for Walter and his final vision, Villa Finale.

EF: I think he would love to see that the house and grounds are being used for really interesting programming, for culinary events, filled with music and loved and respected by the community.

CK: I am proud that it is an absolutely unique gem in the country and a focal point in the vibrant historic neighborhood he started restoring in 1968. It is endearing to his memory to see the impact he had across the city and the state.

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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