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James and Jessie West Mansion
Posted by: Groundspeak Regular Member ggmorton
N 29° 33.621 W 095° 04.433
15R E 299080 N 3271864
Quick Description: An old mansion.
Location: Texas, United States
Date Posted: 8/21/2006 11:39:48 AM
Waymark Code: WMMZ1
Published By: Groundspeak Regular Member GPX Navigators
Views: 80

Long Description:
The James and Jessie West Mansion is a sprawling, 2- story masonry villa constructed in 1929-1930 in an Italian Renaissance style variant. The house largely retains its historic setting, facing Clear Lake surrounded by a freshwater lake, wooded grounds, and early outbuildings and structures. The 17,000 square foot mansion is essentially unchanged on the exterior and major interior spaces, and retains a high degree of architectural integrity. The house is one of the most substantial and well crafted houses constructed in Texas in the 1920s, and retains most of its historic paneling, limestone and cast concrete detailing. It was occupied by the West family from 1930 to 1941. After a long period of neglect, the mansion was deeded to Rice University in 1959 and rehabilitated in 1969 for use as the Lunar Science Institute. Although the University owned approximately 93 acres and a complex of houses, buildings, and recreational facilities, only 3.8 acres are nominated. This acreage encompasses the mansion, stone wall, ornamental pool, statuary, and pergola, all Contributing elements.

The James and Jessie West Mansion is approximately 20 miles southeast of Houston on the north bend of Clear Lake in the City of Pasadena, southeast Harris County. It is within viewing distance of Galveston Bay, approximately two miles east. The mansion dominates its flat, wooded park-like setting that originally included approximately 30,000 acres. A private freshwater lake built by Mr. West is approximately 100 feet from the house on the north while NASA Road One and a low stone wall separate the grounds from the community of Clear Lake on the east. A field and asphalt parking lot are on the south of the house, added c.1969 for the Lunar Institute. All other buildings and structures are several hundred feet from the mansion to the south. A 9-car garage, tennis courts with gazebos, swimming pool with changing rooms, barn/stables, and staff and manager quarters and houses comprise the remaining support buildings and structures. These are not part of this nomination, however. Remains of a formal garden extend in a northeast direction from the mansion's north facade and approach the shoreline of the lake. The garden includes an ornamental pool, statuary, and pergola supported by Doric columns and a semi- circular brick wall with arched doorways. Major historic plantings remaining on the site include live oaks and large Japanese yew trees. Low hedges are along the perimeter of the house with Chinese tallow trees, aspidistra, ligustrum and other vegetation placed as lawn ornamentation.

The West Mansion, designed by Houston architect Joseph Finger, is an irregular shaped, 2-story, roughly U-shape building, with the shorter north wing placed at a 45-degree angle from the main block. The house is of hollow tile construction surfaced with stucco. This material is similar to other contemporaneous houses designed by Finger and constructed during this period. High quality cut limestone and cast concrete are used extensively as trim, and ornamental metalwork is used for fittings and lanterns. The hipped roof is clad with ceramic tile extending over broad overhangs with exposed rafter ends.

The principal (west) facade is composed of a central pavilion and three side pavilions. The formal entrance to the house is on the west side of the mansion in the central pavilion. The central pavilion also carries a porte-cochere with balcony above, supported by paired square Doric columns. Double front doors and flanking lanterns with fine filigree-like metalwork highlight the first floor. A door, centered on the second floor, is surmounted by a classical balustrade at roof level. To the north (left) of the formal entrance is a 2-story pavilion with secondary entrance. An arched, quoined entry is off center and flanked to the south by five symmetrically placed 4-light, steel framed casement windows and to the north by a small square window. Second floor fenestration is irregular. The northwest face of the Palm Room pavilion has a divided-light French window with sidelights and transom at ground level and a pair of casement windows at second floor level. To the south of the formal entrance is the recessed service entrance with a triumphal arch-motif wall defining a small courtyard. The southernmost pavilion has symmetrically placed, small, light casement windows surmounted by paired, 8-light casement windows above. Quoining is used to define the corners of this and most other facades.

The south facade is also asymmetrical. The projecting, center pavilion has an 8-light window with bracketed architrave above, and two 20-light casement windows separated by Doric pilasters. To the left are smaller, light windows at ground level and three additional 20-light casement windows on the second floor sleeping porch. To the right is a chimney, flanked by leaded glass windows at ground level and casement windows above. The inset east porch continues at the southeastern corner of this facade.

The east facade consists of three French windows, the center one having a broken segmental pediment flanked by broken triangular pediments. The second floor includes leaded glass, octagonal, clerestory windows corresponding to the lower windows, and a raised parapet topped by classical urns. To the north of the central pavilion are three, round- headed French windows with quoined architraves at the ground floor level, surmounted by an inset porch supported by paired Doric columns. The skewed, northeastern Palm Room pavilion has a 3-bay, bow window at ground level and two 8- light casement windows above. Similar, symmetrically placed casement windows continue on the northwest second floor, while the ground floor has corresponding French windows separated by paired, Doric pilasters. A terrace with classical balustrade runs from the Palm Room pavilion at the north to the dining room end of the south pavilion. The south pavilion extends from the main block with an inset porch supported by paired Doric columns below and symmetrically placed, 8-light casement windows on its north and east facades.

The interior of the West Mansion is richly detailed. The entrance vestibule is flanked by men's and women's bathrooms and Art Deco ceilings in a stair step motif. The Stair Hall has an exceptional, curved, symmetrical, divided flight staircase with fine metal railings. Niches are placed at the south end of the hall and on each side of the central window above the stairs. Paired, wooden, Doric columns are placed at the foot of the staircases.

The Living Room is a vast, 2-story room akin to the Great Halls of European prototypes. The floor area measures roughly 25 X 40 feet, and the room rises a full two stories. Walnut paneling covers the lower 2/3rds of the wall area, and imposing, carved Caen stone, Renaissance-style fireplaces dominate the north and south walls. Three octagonal clerestory windows break the upper east wall, and a 3-bay balcony opens to the west. The wooden, beamed ceiling features fine, ornamental floral and other motifs. The paneled Music Room/Library just north of the Living Room also retains fine paneling, although its mantel is gone. The door leading to the Living Room has a segmental, broken pediment with a cartouche and Grinling Gibbons-like carving. The Den beyond the Music Room retains its knotty pine paneling, but portions of its north wall have been removed to accommodate modern, sliding bookcases. The walk-in safe, however, remains. A gallery referred to as the Cloister leads from the Living Room to the Palm Room, and it retains its groin-vaulted ceilings and capitals, stenciling and tile floor. A small hall likely reconfigured in 1969 provides access to one of two remaining 1920s bathrooms in the house. This room has black plumbing fixtures and fine black, rust, and orange tiles.

At the northern terminus of the building is the Palm Room, an enormous room nearly 50 feet in length. Large French windows on the northeast, northwest, and in a bow window on the southwest, light the room. Zigzag patterned marble floors with tiles shaped as parallelograms and triangles cover the floor. The fountain in the bow window has been removed but the fine Cubistic bas relief overmantel remains. Its iconography is uncertain but two birds and stylized plants and fruits are discernible.

The southern end of the ground floor provided dining and service functions. The kitchen and butler's pantry with its silver sinks have been gutted and converted to office use, but the magnificent Dining and Breakfast Rooms remain substantially intact. The Dining Room measures approximately 20 X 35 feet. The ceiling is now lower than originally designed, but the acanthus, egg-and-dart and rosette motifs remain intact. The historic mantel consists of an entablature with the West coat-of-arms and rosettes supported by foliated, scroll bracketed pilaster. Walls are plaster, as elsewhere in the house, and floor tiles are laid in a herringbone pattern. The Breakfast room is octagonal in shape with built-in corner cabinets surmounted by anthemia. Its gold leaf ceiling with blue Arabesque forms a shallow dome. The enfilade placement of doorways from the Breakfast Room to the Palm Room provides a 150 foot interior view.

The second floor plan is much less complex than the ground floor rooms, originally including nine bedrooms, nine bathrooms and a large sleeping porch. The configuration of bedrooms and corridors remains largely intact, except for those on the south wing above the Dining Room, but most of the large bathrooms were converted into offices. Evidence of historic marble and tile work in five of the bathrooms, suggests a rich variety of historic colors and materials. One of the bathrooms at the juncture of the main block and Palm Room wing is polygonal in shape and retains its fine Moorish style wall tiles and plumbing fixtures in a lapis lazuli blue. The northernmost bedroom retains fine stenciled ceilings with a floral motif, and the octagonal Guest Hall, similar in scale and configuration to the Breakfast Room, is also unchanged. The second floor of the main stair hall is an open gallery, viewing the Living Room from above. The northern and southern staircase have metal railing of alliterating square and twisted, half-inch balusters.

The James and Jessie West Mansion was originally constructed in 1929-30. During the West occupancy, no significant changes occurred. Between 1941 and 1969, the mansion was unoccupied and suffered from neglect and vandalism. A $580,000 rehabilitation by Rice University was carried out in 1969 for the new institute. Most bathrooms and the kitchen and service areas were gutted, the Master Bedroom reconfigured, and public restrooms added, and other operational changes made. Modern lighting was installed in most of the rooms. At the same time, most of the paneling, stenciling, and ornamental plastering was repaired. Some of the original craftsmen returned to do this work. The house is now well maintained with few signs of deterioration.

The nominated property includes only 3.8 acres, the mansion, garden structures and objects, and stone wall. All other outbuildings and structures are outside the nominated- acreage. The mansion was sold by Rice University in 1994 with special deed covenants to recognize the historic significance of the property. The property is now vacant.

The James and Jessie West Mansion is one of the largest and most opulent dwellings built in Texas during the 1920s. The Italian Renaissance villa is finely crafted, and originally was the centerpiece of a 30,000 acre ranch. James Marion West (1871-1941) was a major figure in the early Texas timber industry with extensive ranching and oil interests as well. The property is eligible under Criterion B in the area of Industry as the building most closely associated with James Marion West, Senior and his accomplishments, and Criterion C in the area of Architecture for its distinctive architecture and work of prominent Houston architect Joseph Finger (1887-1953). The property is significant at a state level.

James Marion West, Senior, was in many ways the quintessential rags-to-riches Texas millionaire. Born in Waynesboro, Mississippi, in May 1871, West's parents moved to the community of Pennington in Trinity County, Texas in 1880. His father, Silas Wesley, and mother, Maffle Clark, eventually settled near Groveton establishing a family farm. Silas West farmed the property until his death in 1909.

At 14, West began pushing trucks at a sawmill owned by the Trinity County Lumber Company. By the time West completed school in the Groveton public schools he served as foreman of the planer at the Trinity County company and later superintendent of another plant owned by Peter Josserand near Groveton. West gradually accumulated his own timber lands and established the West Lumber Company at Westville, roughly four miles west of Groveton, in the mid 1890s. Westville, named for James West, centered around the West's sawmill and at one point reported a population of one thousand with community center and church.

In these early days of the developing Texas timber industry, West controlled a substantial part of the timber holdings and bought and developed other lumber mills in East Texas and Louisiana. After Westville, he acquired sites at Bedford and Potomac, twenty miles east of Westville, which offered abundant stands of yellow pine that doubled in value in 1905-1906. He sold his property later to Lynch Davidson of Houston and began a series of transactions to acquire more property. In 1908 West traded Jesse Jones of Houston all his stock in the National City Bank that he had founded for the Orange Sawmill Company in Orange, Texas. The sawmill processed approximately 125,000 board feet daily and held another 300 million feet of stands along the Sabine River making it one of the largest in operation in Texas at the time. In the same year, West purchased the Hawthorne Lumber Company in Hawthorne, Louisiana, along the Kansas City Southern railroad. This sawmill soon burned, never to be reoperated by West because of the expense of reforestation.(Lumber Trade Journal, January 1910) Later in 1908, West's fortune changed when he acquired from C.L. Smith some 200 million feet of Louisiana long-leaf pine and a sawmill with a capacity of 85,000 daily. Many in the lumber industry considered this tract the finest of his holdings.

James West Senior became known for the size and value of his many timber dealings. His most famous deal occurred in conjunction with Colonel R.C. Duff of Beaumont which is reported as the largest deal ever closed in the lumber industry in Texas. This transaction with William Carlisle & Company of Onalaska, Texas, encompassed more than one billion feet of stumpage, numerous sawmills, and a railroad. The property included 143,000 acres of timber in Polk, Tyler, and Trinity counties, reportedly the most valuable timber land in the state.(Historical Review of Southeast Texas, Vol. II) By the early 1920s, West's lumber companies cut 400,000 feet of lumber each day, operated 24 lumber yards and employed over 1500. This amounted to approximately 6% of the entire lumber work force at the height of the lumber industry in Texas.

In February 1910, the Lumber Trade Journal described James West Senior: The deal brings into renewed prominence a man destined to take front rank with he eminent industrial leaders of the South, James M. West. By his friends and all who know him, Mr. West is regarded as a man in every sense of the word, an as one fitted by nature to assume executive charge of industrial propositions of great magnitude. Big physically, nature endowed him with a capacity and courage unsurpassed by any of his fellow immortals of Texas history. His personal career has been remarkable for its, unbroken progress from a humble employee of a sawmill to a place in the front rank of the industrial captains of the period.

T.C. Gooch in Texans and Their State later described West as, "One of the big things in Texas is lumber; one of the big men in lumber is J.M. West."

Besides his interest in lumber, West accurately perceived the need to diversify as the lumber industry began to slow down in the 1920s. One of his first ventures was in the emerging oil industry. West acquired oil and gas holdings in the Pierce Junction and Thompson Fields with his sons and Hugh Roy Cullen by 1928, and later a field in the Clear Lake area. He also eventually headed the West Production Company. Another business venture included acquiring ranches. West owned the 120,000 acre Fort Terrett Ranch in Culberson County and the 209,000 acre Longfellow Ranch in Brewster and Pecos counties. West also owned real estate including the Beatty Building in Houston and Tribune Building in Austin. He maintained a penthouse in the latter.

During the early 20th century, West served in many social, civic, and business positions. The following is a partial list of activities and organizations:

Board of Directors Texas Tech College Board of Directors Southwestern University Officer Gage Cattle Company Member The Houston Club Member The Lunar Club President Hawthorne Lumber Company President Orange Lumber Company President Fort Terrett Ranch Company President National Iron and Steel Company President South Texas Hardwood Manufacturing Co. Vice-President National City Bank Affiliate B&P Order of Elks Affiliate Knights of Pythias Affiliate The Hoo Hoos (prestigous lumber organization Director Lumberman's National Bank Member Methodist Episcopal Church Treasurer Davis-Fowler Company (Houston) Consistory 32nd Degree Mason

In 1939, James M. West received an appointment to be chairman of the Texas Highway Commission by Governor W. Lee (Pappy) O'Daniel. The Texas Senate, however, failed to confirm West for the appointment. In response, West purchased the Dallas Journal and Austin Tribune in order to report his side of the controversy.

Jessie Dudley (1871-1953) a native of Washington County, Georgia, married James West in 1897. The couple had three children: James Marion West, Jr., known as "Silver Dollar West," Wesley Wendell West, and Mildred, who later married Frank Lee Hewitt, Jr. In 1905 the West family moved to 2106 Crawford in Houston to be near the center of the West businesses. This c. 1900 Queen Anne house was demolished c. 1943. In the early 1920s, West began to accumulate land in southeast Harris County eventually amounting to approximately 30,000 acres. This became the site of the James and Jessie West Mansion in 1929-30.

James and Jessie West selected Joseph Finger (1887- 1953) as the architect of their new home. Finger, an Austrian born and trained architect, came to the United States in 1905. After first settling in New Orleans, in 1908 he moved to Houston. Finger designed some of Houston's finest commercial and institutional buildings between 1920 and 1940. Among his best work are the Houston City Hall, Houston Municipal Airport, Jefferson Davis Hospital, and Clark and Courts Building. All of these used the progressive, Moderne style of the period. Other more eclectic designs include the Spanish Colonial Revival residence of Wade and Mamie Irvin House at Morgan's Point and the chateauesque design of the Joe Weingarten House in Houston's Riverside Terrace neighborhood. Finger was active in a number of civic, religious, and social groups. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects, the Temple Beth Israel, the Benevolent Paternal Order of Elks, the Concordia Club, and the Glenbrook Country Club. He was 41 years old when he designed the West Mansion, and it was his last work to exemplify the spirit of the 1920s.(Houston Post, 77-87) Finger died in 1953 at the age of 66.

Other individuals and companies involved in the construction of the West mansion ,are Mason C. Coney, landscape architect from Houston. West's own South Texas Lumber Company provided building materials, with mill work done by the Houston Co-Operative Manufacturing Company. Bering-Cortes Hardware Company provided the hardware, except for the ornamental iron work done by Berger & Son. Southwestern Construction Company constructed the house and Ed Love painted the residence.(Houston Chronicle, 9-21-30)

The Finger's design for the Italian Renaissance villa followed the pattern of the beautiful villas of Italy. (Houston Post, 7-22-28) When constructed, the Italian Renaissance style was rarely used in Texas as more preferred the related Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial. In Houston, the best manifestation of the style was at Rice Institute, widely publicized and known in the Houston area. The Wests also broke from local tradition by building outside of Houston. While mansions were often constructed in rural areas on Long Island or Westchester County, New York, in the 1920s, most large houses in Texas were built on a smaller scale in country club settings. The West Mansion was easily one of the largest houses in Texas during the late 1920s and 1930s and remarkable in its design and craftsmanship. Stephen Fox, Houston architectural historian, noted that "The exterior of the...villa is superlative, especially the cast concrete classical decoration."(1990), while the Houston Architectural Survey (1980) noted the house's Palm Room, "Furniture and fittings were all in the zigzag Moderne style, the finest Art Deco interior to be executed in Houston." Another account called the new house, "the most beautiful residence on the gulf coast between New Orleans and the Rio Grande Valley. No money was spared to make it as comfortable and pleasing as modern science could devise."

The architecture of the West Mansion is extraordinary. The immense, 2-story paneled Living Room with polychromed, stenciled, beamed ceiling, the Renaissance Dining Room, the Library with Grinling Gibbons inspired carvings, the central, divided flight staircase and the 150-foot enfilade Palm Room to Breakfast Room progression all bespoke the large size and richness of the mansion. The exceptional zigzag detailing, eleven technicolor and lavishly appointed bathrooms, and modern kitchen and pantry with silver sinks were testimony to the progressive ideas of architect and clients. The multi-colored bathrooms featured iced drinking water and special shower sprays. The stylistic eclecticism might seem extravagant today, but was at that time indicative of broad tastes and interests. The principal rooms were in relatively conventional styles, except for the Palm Room. More modern decor was permissible in game rooms in that era, as seen in the Palm Room and the Art Deco Hunt Room of Montpelier in Virginia.

The mansion served as the centerpiece of a much larger complex including a large car garage, tennis courts, swimming pool, staff quarters, barn and stables, and lavish gardens with a classical pergola. Near the mansion, West built an approximately ten acre fresh water lake to offset his dislike of the nearby salt water. Across the fresh water lake, James West provided land in 1927 to the Houston and Harris County Girl Scouts to be used as a camp site. Later known as Camp Tejas, Joseph Finger donated his time to design a camp complex. In 1942, after the West family departure, Humble Oil Company granted exclusive rights to the girl scouts to use the pool.(History of Camp Tejas, date unknown) The camp moved in the late 1950s (c. 1959) and Hurricane Carla destroyed most of the buildings in 1961. The camp is believed to have then moved to the property known as Casa Mare or Deepdene (demolished 1992) along Galveston Bay.

The West Mansion, a Harris County landmark since its completion in 1930, remained a family home for less than a decade. The Wests sold most their property to Humble Oil in 1939 for $8 million and extensive royalties, but kept the mansion and surrounding property. Two years later West died while on a business trip in Kansas City, Missouri. His estate reportedly paid over $11 million in federal and $2.6 million in state taxes. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. West moved into Houston leaving the estate intact, including all furnishings. Later reports, stated that Mrs. West removed only a few items and left with magazines on tables and sheets on beds.(Citizen, April 1987) James West's will stipulated that the mansion never be used as a residence again. Jessie West died in 1953 at 1721 River Oaks Boulevard in Houston. Her front page obituary noted that she was "A kindly, deeply religious woman," with philanthropic interests through the West Foundation and the Methodist Church.

For three decades the mansion remained unoccupied and largely furnished. Because of the absence of owners, the property fell into disrepair and suffered from vandals. Humble Oil in the meantime developed the surrounding area into the Clear Lake community. In 1961, Humble Oil who had acquired the mansion, donated 21.48 acres to Rice Institute in 1956 and later another 1000 acres for the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in 1961. Rice Institute purchased from Humble Oil another approximately 78 acres in March 1962. The mansion continued to be vacant until 1969 when it was remodeled to be the Lunar Science Institute, renamed the Lunar and Planetary Institute in 1978, for a cost of $580,000. This work included replicating missing tiles and iron work, restoring paneling and stenciling, and correcting structural problems. The garage and barns were aclapted for office space. The gardens were maintained as originally designed.

The Lunar and Planetary Institute provided NASA assistance within the scientific community in interdisciplinary research on lunar, planetary, and terrestrial programs. The Institute offered visiting scholar programs, workshops, seminars, computer programs, and educational publications to promote public awareness of NASA programs and scholarship. It operated as a consortium of the Universities Space Research Association. The Institute occupied the mansion until December 1991.

The James and Jessie West Mansion is believed to be the only home remaining that is associated with the Wests. There is no record of his early Trinity County home and two other houses in Houston are now demolished. Therefore, the West Mansion is most closely associated with the Wests during the time when they held statewide importance. It is eligible under Criterion B in the area of Industry at the state level and primarily associated with James Marion West Senior. The West Mansion is also significant for being one of the few great country estates built during the 1920s in Texas that retains its integrity. The property is also important for being the work of Joseph Finger, one of Houston's premier architects of the early 20th century, and the only property he designed in the Italian Renaissance style. These points make the property eligible under Criterion C for Architecture at the state level.
Street address: Texas USA

County / Borough / Parish: Harris

Year listed: 1994

Historic (Areas of) Significance: Person, Architecture/Engineering

Periods of significance: 1925-1949

Historic function: Domestic

Current function: Vacant/Not In Use

Privately owned?: yes

Primary Web Site: [Web Link]

Season start / Season finish: Not listed

Hours of operation: Not listed

Secondary Website 1: Not listed

Secondary Website 2: Not listed

National Historic Landmark Link: Not listed

Visit Instructions:
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