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Guest column: Zahn house should be rescued for Victoria's good

July 11, 2013 at 2:11 a.m.
Updated July 12, 2013 at 2:12 a.m.

This may have been part of a carriage step.  It is holding up the back end of the house.

by Gary Dunnam

Historic preservation has faced an uphill battle in Victoria, primarily because there is no protection for historic buildings with the exception of the 1892 Victoria County Courthouse. Texas is a very strong "property rights" state, and this feeling is strongly pronounced in Victoria. For more than 16 years as executive director of Victoria Preservation Inc., I worked to engender an appreciation for our architectural treasures and their value to our community.

Since my arrival in Victoria more than 42 years ago, I have paid particular attention to the little house at the corner of South DeLeon and East Santa Rosa streets: the Herman and Alvina Zahn House. The late Mary Filley loved this little house, which she and her husband, George, owned since 1961. Mary did extensive research on the property that revealed that the Zahn family had acquired the property in 1860. Max Zahn, their son, was born in this house the following year. It remained in the Zahn family until 1948, a total of 88 years. The 1873 Bird's Eye View of Victoria shows the house as it appeared at that date. At some point, the house was enlarged by extending it westward, adding rooms on the rear of the structure. The Zahn house was entered in the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 9, 1986.

There is a pleasant symmetry to the house. It has many Greek Revival features, including the three-bay facade which faces DeLeon Street and the four boxed columns that support the front porch. There are other notable examples of this style in Victoria but none as old. At 607 N. Bridge St. is the Frank Zirjacks home, now owned by Victoria Preservation. In the mid-1990s, the house was no longer needed by the previous owners, and it was donated to VPI and moved from 304 N. Glass St. to its new location at the corner of Bridge and North streets. It was renovated by VPI, thanks to a very generous contribution by Maude O'Connor Williams, and is now an attractive part of the original townsite of Victoria. It was certainly an improvement on the empty lot where Firestone kept its supply of large truck and tractor tires.

At 604 E. Santa Rosa St. stands the Stephen Fimbel house (circa 1870), which was purchased in 1897 by area grocer Max Bettin. In 1908, the Fimbel House was moved from 602 to 604 E. Santa Rosa St. to make way for the construction of the Jules Leffland-designed home that stands today. Once again, we have a structure that was "recycled" rather than razed. It adds its own charm to the "Santa Rosa Oaks Cottages" that grace that neighborhood. All the cottages in the grouping were rehabbed to make them more attractive and more marketable.

"Heritage tourism" is a popular buzzword these days. The fact is that heritage tourism is economic development. Tourism generates an excess of $55 billion annually in Texas. Heritage tourism is the biggest slice of that pie, and it is the fastest growing slice. These tourists love "old Victoria" with its tree-lined streets and interesting mix of architectural styles. While Country Club, Woodway, Springwood and other subdivisions have many beautiful homes in them, we are never asked to take tour groups through these neighborhoods. They want Santa Rosa Street. They want Vine Street. They want St. Mary's Catholic Church, Nazareth Academy and the 1892 Courthouse. I say, let's keep giving it to them. Victoria has a wealth of craftsman-style bungalows and turn-of-the-century houses just waiting to be called into useful service.

Our city government is keenly aware of our history and its appeal to tourists and industry. This is a good thing for Victoria. The relatively new Victoria Main Street Program is an effective tool for the commercial revitalization of our historic downtown area. Area businessman Torin Bales has purchased three historic buildings downtown and is in the process of giving each of them a much needed redo. This is great for Victoria. This type of endeavor takes money, but more than that, it takes vision and a desire to breathe life back into endangered historic structures.

When the architectural masterpiece, Penn Station, was being demolished in New York City, the following was written Oct. 30, 1963, in the New York Times:

"Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism. ... Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately deserves. ... And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

Well, the Zahn house is obviously not Penn Station. What it is is a very real reminder of one of Texas' oldest cities, which flourished on the brink of the devastating War Between the States. It is a testament to the brave and patiently persisting citizens who helped make Victoria what it is today.

It is the histories of structures like the Zahn house that make them more than mere architectural oddities. After years of neglect, a recycled-rehabbed-relocated-restored Zahn House could be just one more reason for tourists/visitors to come to Victoria, take a look around and leave some dollars here and there. We shouldn't let this one slip away from us. The ominous red tag on that modest structure is a terrible thing to behold. This place has value to Victoria. It should be rescued. Think of it as doing something for Victoria, for the greater good.

Gary Dunnam is a retired former executive director of VPI and Victoria County Heritage Director and has been actively involved in historic preservation since 1980.

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