Being tasked to sell an older home can sometimes involve one in a bit of an enigma.
Minutes from the Pearl redevelopment sits a home from San Antonio’s Gilded Age: 609 E. Carson, an officer’s home. A grand example of Victorian style, the home is individually designated historic and located within the historic district known as Government Hill (formerly “Snake Hill,” a telling moniker). This residential area serving famous Fort Sam Houston boasts many structures from the late 19th century. Gleaming wood floors, gingerbread siding, a porte cochère, and a carriage house all recall the days when the clippity-clop of horse hooves was heard on San Antonio streets, and residents sported parasols and bowler hats.
I met the home’s owner, Carolyn Huebner Rankin, a 40-year resident, while marketing a property on Mason Street in the late 1990s. Forging a bond, we talked about the community over many hours in the study of the Carson home, and she shared her knowledge about the home’s history.
When it came time for her to sell the home earlier this year, I was the listing agent and took seriously the task of providing accurate, documented information about the home. Hence my trip down the “rabbit hole.”
As the story goes, 609 E. Carson was the former faculty house for West Texas Military Academy (WTMA). Located on an attic stairwell beam, one finds a purported yet unverifiable “builder’s mark.”
The mark reads: “?~1890/January 22 1960?” with the essence of the backstory being that it was built in 1890 and should last until 1960, seemingly an unusual declaration for a builder. Discovery of a building permit would verify the build date. The search begins.
The owner had earlier researched the Texana Room records in the downtown Main Library without result, so I turned to the City’s archives office, connecting with Nat Norton. Placing a Freedom of Information Act request resulted in Norton finding a 1955-era tax assessors record with the “year built” filled in as 1890. Interestingly, the current tax record shows a build date of 1932. No building permit was found, but we’ll hope the earlier county records are accurate since they match the oral history.
One tunnel of the rabbit-hole leads to the record of the home’s ownership by the family of Ruby and Pearl West passed down from their mother. Pearl West was apparently a socialite of some renown in town. A handwritten note from the Wests gives a nod to the 1890 build date of the home. The Wests owned the Carson home from 1921 to 1964. Their segment of the story is for someone else to share.
A parallel tunnel searching deed records finds a connection to a J. Tom Williams, dated 1902. Williams was an instructor at WTMA, according to documentation from TMI-Episcopal, as the school formerly called Texas Military Institute is now known. WTMA was located on Government Hill from 1893-1911. A history provided by TMI-Episcopal is an interesting read. Of note, the future Gen. Douglas MacArthur was a graduate.
While this doesn’t confirm the faculty house scenario, it does add credibility. The Carson property is visibly shown in a haunting undated photo, graciously provided by TMI-Episcopal, from what appears to be the parade grounds in front of the old WTMA. The properties were on neighboring lots. Williams was headmaster of TMI for a time at the Alamo Heights location.
Further documentation of approximate age is available in the form of a Sanborn Fire Map dated 1904 that shows both WTMA and the 609 E. Carson home. This further confirms a date of construction at least prior to the date of the map.
The design of 609 E. Carson, according to local lore, was attributed to Alfred Giles, a famous architect of the time. Giles is renowned for his numerous and famous contributions across the city and state, including the Steves and Groos houses in the King William District and the Gillespie County courthouse in Fredericksburg. A remarkable example of Giles’ work one street north is Lambermont, located at 950 E. Grayson St. However, Mary Carolyn George, an expert on Giles’ work, suggests the Carson property is not of his aesthetic. This section of the puzzle remains unsolved.
Looking a bit earlier at deed history of the land only, one finds further connections to significant contributors to San Antonio’s evolution. Apparently, two local developers of the King William District, Confederate Army Maj. Hardin B. Adams and B. Wickes, were former owners of the lot on which the residence sits. There are Adams and Wickes Streets in King William, giving at least some indication of the stature of those two individuals. Both the King William Association and the San Antonio Conservation Society have offered to research possible connections, but these things take time and likely don’t directly involve the Carson structure.
Exploring the rabbit hole produces no carrot in the form of a building permit. Happily, the provenance did partly reveal itself. Fascinatingly, the rabbit tunnels show the intertwining of the movers and shakers of early San Antonio and their legacies left for our enjoyment todaysuch as 609 E. Carson. This is a story that needs further research, which my full-time profession may never allow. For now, it’s hoped that some may be introduced to a bit more of our city’s history.
When passing by old houses in town, we should remember that each one of them has a story to tell, rabbit holes and all.