Brackenridge Villa - San Antonio, TX
Posted by: Groundspeak Premium Member Raven
N 29° 28.097 W 098° 27.949
14R E 551793 N 3259987
A marker at the entrance of Brackenridge Villa on the campus grounds of the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.
Waymark Code: WMWZGG
Location: Texas, United States
Date Posted: 11/04/2017
Published By:Groundspeak Premium Member Benchmark Blasterz
Views: 4

Located on the campus grounds of the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, Brackenridge Villa -- formerly known as the both the "Old Sweet Place" and "Fernridge Villa" -- was a residence of Colonel George Washington Brackenridge, a man who made his fortunes during the Civil War and later became a philanthropist as well as advocate of women's suffrage and women's educational opportunities -- just like his sister Mary Eleanor Brackenridge, who coincidentally was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Villa actually consists of two separate adjoining sections, separated by a solarium: a one-story elongated Greek Revival house built in 1854, known as "The Old Sweet Place" (built and owned by James R. Sweet, who was a City Alderman of San Antonio at that time), and a 3-story Victorian mansion, built for George W. Brackenridge in 1886 (two decades after he bought the property from Mr. Sweet in 1869).

The University of the Incarnate Word ("UIW") sits on the original grounds of San Antonio's congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The Sisters came from France in 1869 to fight a cholera epidemic and were looking for a place to build a new convent and Motherhouse in this region of the state. In 1897 one of the three original Sisters who had emigrated from France, Mother Madeleine Chollet, negotiated with George W. Brackenridge to acquire 280 acres of his estate -- as well as his mansion! -- for $100,000. The mansion was quickly converted into a Motherhouse (see an old 1990 picture of the mansion in the gallery), only to be re-used a short while later as a refugee residence for clergymen trying to escape the early beginnings of the upcoming Mexican 1910-1920 Revolution (the Sisters had decided to relocate to an new adjacent Motherhouse nearby, due to its growing congregation).

A plaque at the front entrance of the Brackenridge Villa reads (in both English and Spanish):

"In 1897, the Sisters purchased
the 283 acre Fernbridge estate from
Colonel George W. Brackenridge as
the site for a new Motherhouse
for the growing Congregation.

The house was renamed the
Brackenridge Villa by the Sisters.
After 3 years as the Motherhouse,
the Brakenridge Villa offered
hospitality to chaplains, visitors,
and bishops in exile during the
Mexican Revolution.

What the plaque does NOT reveal is how this mansion came into being, its controversies due to its geographical location, and -- more importantly -- how George W. Brackenridge believed he had swindled the Sisters but was ultimately bested by the situation at hand. Below are the full details, per a local newspaper article (which includes additional photos of the house, both old and new, as well as several interior shots):

Banker and philanthropist George W. Brackenridge bestowed the rather fussy name Fernridge upon his estate a couple of miles north of downtown, a reminder of his rich Scots Presbyterian heritage — “bracken” being the Scottish word for fern.

But some remembered it as “the Old Sweet Place,” and most San Antonians in the late 19th century, including Brackenridge himself, knew it simply as “Head-of-the-River.”

By any name, the historic site has played a crucial role in the city’s history and development.

Known today as Brackenridge Villa, the estate sat on prime acreage that encompassed the headwaters of the San Antonio River — pure water from a spring bubbling out of the ground, later known as “the Blue Hole,” which had attracted Indians, conquistadors, soldiers and pioneers over the centuries.

Mary Maverick, whose husband, Samuel, signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836, recalled guiding a horseback party of visitors from Houston to the headwaters in 1839: “Ladies and all were armed with pistols and Bowie knives …. We galloped up the west side and paused at and above the head of the river long enough to view and admire the lovely valley of the San Antonio. The leaves had mostly fallen from the trees and left the view open to the Missions below town. We galloped home, down the east side, and doubted not that Indians watched us from the heavy timber of the river bottom.”

Historian William Corner called it “the birthright of the city” because the river was San Antonio’s main water source.

A natural wonder, Head-of-the-River would remain a political flashpoint until 1897, when Brackenridge sold it to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.

The sisters had come to San Antonio from France in 1869 to fight a cholera epidemic, establishing what would become Santa Rosa Hospital (today Christus Santa Rosa).

They would plant the seeds of a university on that estate north of the city — at what is today the corner of Broadway Street and Hildebrand Avenue — with its two houses situated side by side..

Fernridge was renamed Brackenridge Villa by the sisters in honor of its former owner. (Brackenridge, who founded San Antonio National Bank, one of the first banks in the state, also donated 199 acres of river-fed property to the city for use as the park that still bears his name.)

“Brackenridge Villa is the shining star of our campus,” said Sister Mary Henry, director of the University of the Incarnate Word Heritage Center.

In the early 1850s, city Alderman James R. Sweet purchased two lots from the city at public auction for $1,475, which raised some eyebrows and ignited public debate and legal proceedings.

City engineer Francois Giraud, who built the 1851 Ursuline Academy (today the Southwest School of Art), warned city fathers not to sell the tracts into private hands because they contained “the North Springs,” which provided San Antonio’s water.

Sweet, who later would be elected mayor, bought a third lot in 1853 and came away from legal wranglings with more than 25 acres about 2.5 miles north of the city, which included the headwaters.

Sweet contracted in 1854 with builder John H. Kampmann, whose resumé includes the Menger Hotel as well as the Steves home in King William, to construct “at the head of the San Antonio River a dwelling house.” The price: $5,200.

“The Old Sweet Place,” wrote Corner, a 19th-century historian, “is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in Texas, its woodland grace and parklike beauty so heightened by the perpetual mystery of its profound and noble springs.”

Low-slung and horizontal, with a hipped roof, central breezeway and a deep, columned front porch, the stone and stucco house is set on a basement with windows at garden level.

“It’s what we think of as an old Texas house,” Henry said.

According to Maggie Valentine’s 2014 book “John H. Kampmann: Master Builder,” the overall effect of the design is “typical of the one-story Greek Revival building popular in the United States, but much more informal than the two-story Greek Revival plantation houses found throughout the South.”

The Sweet home, Valentine wrote, “was the first permanent house built in what would become the city of Alamo Heights and was a good expression of Kampmann’s regional vernacular style.”

Brackenridge bought Head-of-the-River in 1869 for $4,500 in his mother Isabella’s name.

According to Marilyn McAdams Sibley’s 1973 biography “George W. Brackenridge: Maverick Philanthropist,” he was an “a man of contradictions”: “A Republican in a solidly Democratic state, a financier in cattleman’s country, a prohibitionist in the good-time town of San Antonio.”

Brackenridge was “domineering, caustic, tactless and given to fearful outbursts of anger,” Sibley wrote. She might have added that he was a Unionist in a Confederate state, a descendant of influential American Revolution-era Presbyterian ministers who had turned his back on his faith.

He was a buttoned-up banker who never vanquished the whispers that his fortune was amassed running cotton through the Civil War blockade in South Texas. He also was a progressive who supported, philosophically and financially, education for blacks and the vote for women.

Brackenridge never married, but lived at Fernridge with his mother and his sister Eleanor, who would become a pillar of the burgeoning women’s movement.

Almost immediately after purchasing Fernridge, he locked horns with the city, whose leaders and residents still believed the headwaters should remain in public hands.

Brackenridge offered to sell the estate, now more than 200 acres, back to the city — for $50,000. City fathers balked. The state got involved. When the smoke cleared, Brackenridge retained clear title. He would parlay his river property into ownership of San Antonio’s first waterworks, which would become another source of civic dispute.

During the 1870s, Fernridge became a destination for every local and visiting poet, preacher and politician, a salon centering on the Brackenridge women’s social position.

In 1886, Brackenridge expanded, completing a large, three-story Victorian mansion set next to the Old Sweet Place — now connected by a many-windowed solarium.

No expense was spared. Just off the exquisite mahogany paneled foyer is the dining room, modeled after Emperor Maximillan’s in Mexico City, according to a 1979 monograph prepared by longtime Incarnate Word public relations director Dick McCracken, who died in 2016.

Among the Dutch tiles and French mirrors, Persian rugs, hand-crafted sideboards and china cabinets, diners could marvel over walls upholstered in elephant hide. The cost was $39,000 — just for the dining room! That would equal well over $1 million today.

Brackenridge built the house, whose other features included a magnificent central staircase that spirals up three floors and a library of rare books, for his mother. But she died shortly after the home was completed, and “her death left the ornate mansion strangely empty so far as he was concerned,” Sibley wrote.

In 1897, after previous negotiations with the city to buy Brackenridge’s waterworks property and the Fernridge estate fell through, Brackenridge, you might say, met his match.

Mother Madeleine Chollet was one of the original three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who had made the long trip from France to Galveston by ship, then on to San Antonio by stagecoach. She inquired about buying 40 acres for a convent and motherhouse.

After what seemed to have been some pretty heated back-and-forth, the two sides agreed on 280 acres at a price of $100,000, financed over 25 years at 5 percent interest.

“The price seemed exorbitant at the time,” Sibley wrote, “and there were those who believed then and later that Brackenridge did not expect the note to be paid, that he fully expected to reclaim the property.”

He underestimated Mother Chollet, who, according to Sister Mary Henry, could not read or write English. The sisters not only paid off the note within terms, but had the last laugh.

The deal was for everything in the estate, but Brackenridge soon realized he’d left his book collection at Fernridge and petitioned Mother Challot to get it back.

“Mother Challot met him at the door, where she politely but firmly reminded him that she had purchased at his insistence all the property,” Sibley wrote.

After threatening a lawsuit, Brackenridge realized he’d been beaten: “Those old maids stole my library,” he reportedly told people at his bank.

“Brackenridge Villa was the motherhouse for the sisters, but just for a couple of years until a motherhouse could be built,” Henry said. “Then it became a residence for priests; during the Mexican Revolution, it was a refuge for nuns and priests.”

In 1983, a fire broke out in the Victorian house, causing nearly $2 million in damage to both structures. Insurance only covered about half, so the buildings were boarded up. Through a management arrangement with the university, as well as donations by benefactors, alumni and foundations, a $1.8-million restoration of Brackenridge Villa was completed in 1985.

According to Sister Margaret Patrice Slattery, author of “Promises to Keep,” the 1995 history of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, there was never a question about rebuilding Brackenridge Villa.

“To tear the structure down was unthinkable because of its symbolic importance to the sisters and its more widespread historical significance to the city,” she wrote.

With its original wood plank flooring, 14-foot ceilings, glowing brass chandeliers and portraits of historic nuns and bishops, a sense of history pervades the Old Sweet Place today. Its main parlor has hosted dignitaries ranging from Sam Houston and Ira Sankey, “the Sweet Singer of Methodism,” to the Italian long-distance runner Lawrence Brignolia to former president Ulysses S. Grant.

Surrounded by a bustling university campus, just a stone’s throw from “the romantic spot where the San Antonio River is forever being born,” according to poet Sidney Lanier, the conjoined homes are used for receptions and special events today.

Henry said the sisters would like to include Brackenridge Villa on campus historic tours because the old structures are symbolic of the labors and efforts of the sisters over more than a century.

“Over time, since 1869, more than 3,000 women have been members of our congregation,” she said. “We’re formulating ways to invite the community into our narrative, and in that vision are ways the house can be used to help tell our story because it is such a big part of it.”
Group that erected the marker: The University of the Incarnate Word

URL of a web site with more information about the history mentioned on the sign: [Web Link]

Address of where the marker is located. Approximate if necessary:
4301 Broadway St.
San Antonio, TX USA

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