In a city practically built on historic preservation, there is only one National Trust for Historic Preservation site. Financier, war veteran, and avid art and antiques collector Walter Nold Mathis bequeathed his beloved Villa Finale mansion and collection to the trust in 2004, before his death the following year.
Villa Finale opened to the public on Oct. 1, 2010, and prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary in its King William Historic District locale to coincide with its yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mathis’ birth, Aug. 13, 1919.
Announced Tuesday, special programming for the year will include a new salon series, The Walter Nold Mathis Southern Hospitality Evenings. Guided tours of the home and collection displays will culminate in demonstrations of the antique music machines Mathis collected, with which he frequently entertained house guests.
Showing one particular model, essentially two violins encased by sound making apparatuses, Collections Manager Sylvia Gonzalez-Pizana said, “It’s the great-grandfather of the jukebox,” and said that in its prior life it entertained patrons of the pre-Prohibition Buckhorn Saloon in old San Antonio.
Gonzalez-Pizana and the more than 800 pieces of the collection are full of such stories, which visitors can learn through her regular guided tours that illuminate Mathis’ passions and interests and lend context to the multitude of objects around the home’s two floors.
The Southern Hospitality Evenings events and other quarterly Salon Series events are open to the public. “We’re committed to keeping Villa Finale programs as inclusive as they can possibly be,” said Farrah Varga, marketing and programs coordinator.
Special Salon Series themed programming for the celebratory year will begin this fall with Power of a Song, with performances celebrating the music Mathis loved, and Power of a Legacy, which will focus on the man himself, Gonzalez-Pizana said. All Salon Series events take place in the Napoleon Parlors surrounded by curiosities, countless busts of Napoleon, and the pride of Mathis’ collection, a rare death mask of the legendary French military leader.
The celebratory year will culminate in an oral history documentary currently in production, led by Jessie Kardys, a Mathis niece. In announcing the video project, Kardys shared remembrances she’s already collected from close friends of Mathis, including legendary San Antonio architects O’Neill Ford and Chris Carson, entrepreneur and King William neighbor Charles Butt, and former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who told her that Mathis “accomplished more than most mayors of San Antonio.”
The video will be ready for the 10th anniversary celebration next year, planned for Oct. 1, 2020.
At the festive press announcement Tuesday night, Edward Steves said he recalled helping his godfather move the collection into the house when Mathis purchased it as a ramshackle former affordable housing apartment building in 1967.
“Little did I know at that time that it was going to be a rejuvenation, not just of one house but this whole neighborhood. And really, of San Antonio in general,” Steves said, who as the great-great-grandson of the original owner of the Steves homestead down the street from Villa Finale, appreciates Mathis’ one-person “urban renewal program.”
Praising his great-uncle for giving “a gift” to the city, Chris Kardys said, “People told Walter he was nuts when he bought this place. But he was committed to doing this [restoration]. And that’s kind of what courage is.”
Villa Finale Director Jane Lewis, who began as a volunteer the day the nonprofit museum opened 10 years ago, agreed.
“Walter Mathis was a visionary. … His collecting may have been surrounding his personal interests, but he always did it with the idea that he wanted to leave it to the public.” Lewis said.
Villa Finale as it stands today represents the entire history of San Antonio, she said, from the property’s origins as farmland for the Alamo Mission, through its sale to the original owners by the Catholic Church in 1876, and the 1921 floods that devastated much of the city including the mansion, leaving it in general disrepair for the decades until Mathis purchased it.
“You can literally trace the evolution of the history of San Antonio through the house and the collections,” Lewis said. “We’re just thrilled to be able to share his legacy.”
Details on special anniversary year events, including dates and times, will be posted on the Villa Finale website. Information on tickets and memberships is available here.