Between the rush of pedestrian and automobile traffic along South Alamo and Madison streets, nestled behind the built-up urbanism of a growing metropolis, is a small, unassuming home that could tell great stories of sweeping events and unfolding history of San Antonio.
After the American Civil War, life carried on in South Texas during the Reconstruction era, and the South became more diverse. Persons immigrating to the United States provided a new perspective and offered refreshing ways to see a new world order. Without hesitation, the European waves of immigration continued to flow into Texas like an unstoppable train.
Shortly after the railroad arrived in San Antonio in 1877, William Goetze emigrated from Germany to Texas. According to Mary Burkholder, author of “The King William Area: A History and Guide to the Houses,” Goetze was trained as a cabinet maker and later became a carpenter.
The early immigrant Germans stuck together. This is evident in Goetze’s long-tenure with one company, speculated to have been with the well-known construction firm of John Herman Kampmann, already an established builder working in King William. Goetze was apparently a loyal employee and worked for the same contractor for the remainder of his life. As a cabinet-maker, much of the millwork for Kampmann played an instrumental role in developing a contextual baukunst –or, literally, translated, “construction art” – emerging in San Antonio.
According to UTSA Professor Maggie Valentine, it is this setting where German craftsmen began to put their building and design skills to work. In her book, “John H. Kampmann, Master Builder: San Antonio’s German Influence in the 19th Century,” Valentine provides a narrative that highlights a time when San Antonio was going through seismic change. This moment created an opportunity for young Goetze who arrived as the Menger Hotel was expanding. When Kampmann became manager in 1887, Goetze was likely among his crew, a familiar German who helped with the installation of a new bar at the Menger – a replica of the taproom in the House of Lords Club in London, with the solid cherry bar and cherry-paneled ceiling. And as is widely known, Theodore Roosevelt visited the Menger in 1892 on a javelina hunt. He returned to recruit his Rough Riders at the hotel in 1898.
Before the Menger Hotel’s emergence as a legend, hard-working individuals shaped this town from a hamlet to a city. Goetze arrived and found employment essentially at the right time and the right place. From the mid-late 19th century until World War I, the German cohort in San Antonio controlled the political, economic, mercantile, and banking industries. But for Germany’s entry into the Great War, their influence would have steadily increased. Its diminished role corresponds closely to America’s victory over German Imperial aspirations in Europe. By the 1920s, outward German dominance in San Antonio waned. What was left are remnants of this past.
If you are attentive, you notice their legacy in the smallest details. The Germans certainly left their mark. No other precinct in San Antonio — perhaps no other major city in the South — than the King William District (named in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Emperor of Prussia 1797-1888), is where much early Texas baukunst still survives.
Implementing his skill as a cabinet maker and carpenter, Goetze began to build his home on a small dusty side street named East Johnson, with the San Antonio River dividing “east” from “west” Johnson. Today, visitors can stroll along the East Johnson footbridge and gaze at the picturesque views of downtown buildings. Goetze exhumed limestone blocks from the nearby riverbed — the remnants of the old Guenther Flour Mill, where the ruins are still visibly seen — and began to build his house.
The Goetze House, as the City of San Antonio has designated it, was built in an “L” shape with a water well centered on a rear veranda. The front porch was fashioned using a unique four-post column millwork — no other home in San Antonio exists with this six-columned four-post arrangement, underscoring Goetze’s creative baukunst: his technique of fusing design with a utilitarian purpose — precise German engineering of a porch. Together with raised mortar joints, the styling of the columns and roof shape harken to northern European architecture replanted by Goetze in South Texas.
Anytime anyone endeavors to deal with a house this old, he/she is likely to uncover relics from a storied past. The Goetze House has produced a disproportionate share compared to its larger neighbors. Among the artifacts found in the house were intact glass-blown beer bottles, a civil-war era toy carriage, and mottled ceramic fragments that date to an even earlier time in Texas history. According to City Archeologist Kay Hindes, it was not uncommon to find bottles like these in, or under, limestone stone houses. So-called “root cellars” could accommodate a variety of porcelain and glass storage vessels where temperatures were more constant.
Another find, painstakingly restored, was an indigo-blue etched glass motif affixed in the original transom of the front door. Remarkable as it may be, the etched glass managed to survive nearly a century-and-a-half intact, under many layers of paint that protected it. Glass etching, of course, was developed in the 15th century, but the artifact found at the Goetze House dates to the 1860s, according to Adrian Cavallini of the local Cavallini Company, Inc., a studio that restores and makes a variety of stained glass.
The small panels at the Goetze House were made using an acid wash technique for etching, which yielded a cutting action that was finer and more exquisite than other techniques. Adding to its provenance is the fact that the only other dwelling that has this etched pattern is found at the transom glass at 431 King William. It is striking in design, the lines evocative of 21st-century modernity. The historical link was first discovered by observation, then confirmed by hard-nosed research provided by Patricia “Pat” Ezell. It was the same William Goetze who purchased 306 E. Johnson from Edward Steves, according to Ms. Ezel’s search in municipal Bexar County archives. It appears the motif was used by Goetze for its vibrant hue of indigo blue, which turns “electric blue” when viewing the glass from within looking out. This technique revolutionized colored glass making in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At a time when King William — if not the whole of the city’s other historic precincts — continues to struggle with demolition by neglect and the rezoning of residential houses on the fringes of neighborhoods of distinction, more research and restoration techniques would seem welcome. The city’s renewed attention to its core would also raise awareness of these intrinsic, if not priceless, urban artifacts. As discoveries like those at The Goetze House are made, even the smallest element can bring about valuable awareness and, in turn, help to maintain the genius loci of a place.
Long before King William became an arts community, home to the monthly First Friday Art Walk and a stream of galleries and independent restaurants and shops, immigrant groups called this place home. It is not even a debate that without this historical residue, and years of hard work on the part of residents and preservationists, the King William District would not have remained a vessel to be discovered. This treasure-trove of houses containing their own unique artifacts also helped the district become listed on the national register back in the early 1970s.
If San Antonio is to remain a unique place to live, work and visit, honoring its past in the tiniest details can become meaningful for its larger, improved future. In the manner of William Goetze, seizing innovation and preserving our discoveries are vitally important if future generations of San Antonians are to enjoy being a part of the city’s historical continuum.