A fifth-grade boy was following his gushy classmates in a line across the dining room toward a light-filled solarium when his gaze went to a fancy crystal chandelier hanging from the coffered ceiling.
“Wow,” he said only to himself.
It’s not a surprising reaction to the Koehler House, an imposing Victorian-style mansion built between 1901 and 1902 by Otto and Emma Koehler, founders of the Pearl Brewing Co.
Sitting atop a grassy hill on nearly two acres at 310 W. Ashby Place, the house has 12,665 square feet of space on three levels, with a ballroom at the top and a one-lane bowling alley in the basement.
Last year, San Antonio College sold the house it had owned since 1971 to downtown developer Weston Urban for $2.3 million.
“We love the idea of returning it a bit to its roots … a social gathering spot, with the potential for events and a wonderful place to have supper with your family,” said Randy Smith, president and CEO of Weston Urban.
That process is underway with a pending request for rezoning and future plans to submit designs to the Historic and Design Review Commission for approval to renovate and repair the home to serve as a comfortable and social gathering place.
On a recent afternoon, teams of students who attend Great Hearts Monte Vista South across the street from the Koehler House bounded from room to room.
It was their first time inside the enigmatic house that the children have watched and wondered about while having recess, filling the void with their imagination and ghost stories.
As a backdrop for playtime at a classical school, the Koehler House was the perfect setting, said Monet Lessner, headmaster of the school. “They’ve been playing in the field here since kindergarten,” she said.
But the fifth graders are about to graduate from the school. With the remodel set to get underway and a new recess site secured, Smith, whose children also attend Great Hearts, wanted to give the students a look inside.
The tour came with learning opportunities set up at various stations throughout the house — related science, math, art and history lessons taught by professionals in their field and staffers from the Office of Historic Preservation.
Also, some playtime.
“This house was built 122 years ago,” he told a group of kids before leading them to the basement. “They didn’t think about some of the things we think about today when we’re building houses, like for instance, let’s make stairs that are hard to fall down. So this is the only part of the tour I’m gonna ask you to be super-duper careful. The stairs are a little tricky.”
At the bottom of the narrow stairwell, Smith asked the children to transport themselves back in time, imagine they are German and make beer for a living. “What would you put in your basement?” he asked.
Empty bottles, said one.
Three wrong guesses later, he led them to a bowling lane, murals with bowling gnomes flanking it, where each got a turn trying for a strike, Smith resetting the pins after each roll.
On the second floor, Adam Reed, an architect with the San Antonio-based firm FPC, gave the students a fitting lesson in transforming such a grand old home showing its age into a space worthy of weddings and other special events.
Up another set of stairs, Katherine Fontenot, director of construction for Weston Urban, met the students in what was once a ballroom. She led them past the prohibition era two-way glass behind a bar. “Stalker central,” said one of the kids.
Verity Linville, age 11, admired the elaborate molding and trim throughout the house. She wonders less now about ghostly occupants than the lessons its walls might hold.
“All the designs are really pretty, and I am just wondering how many times they messed up on doing this,” she said.
Smith said he expects the work to bring the home to its former glory to be complete by 2025.