Story written by Nancy Deviney
The large two-story yellow brick house looked somewhat out of place where it stood on a slight rise a couple of blocks from the highway. And, although it was well maintained, we never saw a car or person on the property. But, as luck would have it, one day before Christmas, we saw a notice in an area newspaper offering tours of this mystery house called the Berclair Mansion. I immediately made plans to attend and set off for the scheduled tour on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon.
As I walked up the steps to the Mansion, I heard the hum of a vacuum cleaner behind the front door. Obviously, the tour was not yet ready to begin, and I took a seat on one of the many rocking chairs on the wide front porch. It wasn’t long before several carloads of ladies arrived from Sinton, and we were invited inside.
It was delightful to step into this wonderfully preserved home and get our first peek at this mystery house filled with 16th and 17th century antiques, some straight from European castles. And, it was amazing to learn that these works of art had been inside this house in Berclair, Texas, for over 65 years.
Miss Etta and Scarlet O’Hara . . .
The Berclair Mansion was actually built in 1936 by a 75 year old widow named Etta Wilkinson Terrell. Miss Etta and her numerous siblings grew up in the Wilkinson family home near the site of the present day Mansion. She married C. L. Terrell, a Victoria cattleman, and in 1898, this family home burned to the ground.
When Mr. Terrell died in 1919, Miss Etta returned to Berclair and made a promise to herself to build a grand home near the same spot as the family home, and that this new home would be fireproof. I couldn’t help but think of Scarlet O’Hara and Tara as I heard this story.
Etta’s promise turned into a 22 room, 10,000 square feet fireproof house with 10 bedrooms and six bathrooms. But the most amazing feature of the house was the 60 tons of structural steel used to build the home. And, beneath the wooden floors are sub-floors of cement. In 1936 it was the largest steel structure single family home in the United States. It is thought that the house, which also includes an attic and full basement, cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to build.
The Beeville Art Association . . .
Our tour guide at the Mansion was Debbie Parsons, a member of the Beeville Art Association. She led the Sinton ladies and myself through the maze of rooms on the first floor stopping frequently to point out the Tiffany clock built originally for Louis Tiffany, the wall size mirror that once graced the palace of Prince Roland Bonaparte in France, the urn made for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the objects d'art once belonging to Kaiser Wilhelm, and the many original paintings hanging throughout the house.
Back in 1936 when the Mansion was completed, Miss Etta invited her four sisters to live with her. Three of the sisters were spinsters, and the fourth was a widow with two children. Miss Etta died in 1957 at the age of 95, and her sisters continued to live in the house until the last woman died in 1968. She, in turn, willed the house to her daughter, Genevieve Moore. After the last sister’s death, the house was unoccupied, but with the furnishings intact, for almost 20 years.
Genevieve spent little time in the house as an adult and when she died in 1998, her will specified that the house and all its contents be destroyed. Legal battles raged among the distant relatives to save the house, and in December 1999 the house became the lawful property of the Beeville Art Association.
Peacock feathers and chamber pots . . .
The upstairs portion of the house had bedrooms for each woman, including Genevieve, and rooms to spare that were used for sewing and musical fun. The bedrooms reflect each woman’s eclectic taste and are filled with beveled mirrors, peacock feathers, high beds, lamps draped with fringed scarves, dresser drawers full of lingerie and nightgowns, and trays of lipstick, face powder, lotion, cologne and hair brushes . . . all just waiting to be used.
Handwritten measurements for each woman are laid casually on a table in the sewing room, price tags still hang on dresses in the bedroom closets (they shopped at Joskes) and chamber pots are under the beds. Sheet music, including Glad Rag Doll, and an accordion and cornet laid casually on a bed give the impression that the sisters will return at any time.
Once back downstairs (via the houses’ original elevator in the butler’s pantry), we saw the large kitchen with a wood burning stove (a requirement of the sister who did the cooking) and were told that the house was available for luncheons for parties of 20 at $25 per person or even weddings (for a mere $2,000).
To experience the wonder of this great house, call Debbie Parsons at 800-248-3859. Tours are held on the last Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 pm at a cost of $10 per person. Group tours are available upon request on other days.
Pictures complements of Beeville.net