Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Villa Finale Museum & Gardens has been a vital part of the historic King William neighborhood since San Antonio preservationist Walter Nold Mathis purchased the property in 1967. Mathis worked tirelessly to restore the 1876 Italianate mansion to its former glory while also serving as the catalyst for subsequent rehabilitation efforts in the area.
Upon his death in 2005, Mathis’ Villa Finale – Italian for “final home” – and astonishing art collection were bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, establishing Villa Finale as the only site in Texas owned by the trust.
In 2010, Villa Finale opened as a historic house museum.
The eye-popping array of decorative and fine arts ensconced in the home includes paintings and prints by celebrated Texas artists Julian Onderdonk and Mary Bonner, bronze sculptures by famed 19th-century French sculptor Antoine Louis Barye, and richly detailed 16th- and 18th-century paintings from the Cuzco school. The vast collection of 19th- and early 20th-century Napoleon memorabilia includes 843 objects and fills the parlors to bursting.
This stunning assemblage includes a bronze death mask of Napoleon himself – one of the most prized objects in the collection. In fact, when Mathis was asked what object he’d save if the house went up in flames, he answered the death mask – by far the most-photographed item in the collection.
With more than 12,000 objects, the collection is truly mind-boggling, and most visitors are unable to pick a favorite item. What many also don’t realize is that 20 percent of the National Trust’s entire collection resides at Villa Finale.
Villa Finale’s history goes well beyond the collection: After a respectable start as a family home for a series of owners, Ville Finale was purchased by local lawman-turned-lawbreaker Billy Keilman in the 1920s and began its life as a brothel and illicit basement distillery. He was killed only a year after he purchased what would become Villa Finale, but his dubious legacy lives on.
In May, we hosted our first-ever “Billy Keilman’s Social Club,” a 1920s-themed game night exclusively for adults, and opened the basement for guests. Thankfully, Keilman did not make an appearance at his own party, but that’s not to say we don’t take an interest in the afterlife at Villa Finale. In October, the house played host to a historic seance, and more than a few spirits paid a visit to our parlors during the candle-lit communion. As the house has had numerous owners over the years, we weren’t too surprised when some guests reported hearing footsteps upstairs – perhaps Keilman was one of them.
But adults don’t get all the fun at Villa Finale. Educational programming for children and families has become an important part of the house museum’s annual lineup and is a vital part of our mission and vision. An annual architectural scavenger hunt draws children from all over the city to our beautiful neighborhood, as does our “A Spooktacular Halloween at Villa Finale,” an old-fashioned carnival in the tradition of 19th-century Halloween celebrations. The now-annual presentation of A Christmas Carol also draws participation from talented locals and uses the house as a stage.
We’re always innovating at Villa Finale, so every year we add new educational programming to our calendar, using the house and the collections to create connections and inspire imagination. This year, we centered a printmaking workshop for kids on our extensive collection of Mary Bonner prints, resulting in some pretty incredible artwork.
Every room at Villa Finale is a feast for the eyes, and we want people to explore every inch. We offer both guided and self-guided tours of the collection as well as special evening tours (some capped with champagne), all designed to help visitors enjoy the museum in a nontraditional way. More than a house museum, Villa Finale is an art museum that just happens to reside in a historic home. We are far from ordinary, and we work hard to give our visitors an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Click through the photo gallery for more images.
Our annual celebration of Mathis’ birthday will take place on Aug. 11 – a perfect way to become familiar with Villa Finale. Stop by for a free tour and an ice cream treat, and try to time your visit to the top of the hour, when we’ll be playing the antique music machines.
Villa Finale began its life as a peek into Mathis’ world, and though it has evolved into so much more than that, we still pay our respects to the man who started it all.