Mission Trails Historic Sites

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ethel Wilson Harris House

The Ethel Wilson Harris House is located immediately adjacent to the Mission San José Complex and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The house is significant both for its architecture as well as for its associations with Ethel Wilson Harris, a longtime preservation advocate for the San Antonio missions and a renowned local artisan who both produced and encouraged production of pottery and tile based on Mexican traditions. The house itself represents a showcase of her artwork as well as a unique example of Usonian-inspired architecture (Chavez and Rock 2000) (simple, one-story houses designed for middle class families by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright).

At the time of the house’s construction in 1956, Ethel Harris served as the park manager for Mission San José, a position she held from 1938 to 1963, and had been selling her pottery and tile art in the mission’s granary for many years.

Designed by Harris’s son Robert, the approximately 2,000-sqare-foot, two-story home is of frame, stone, and concrete construction and includes six rooms arranged in a square plan. Outstanding exterior features of the house that are similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style include an Arkansas “lodge stone” veneer exposed on the interior, cantilevered roof planes and wall overhangs, and generous use of glass in the form of window walls. The interior is characterized by “flowing spaces, high ceilings, and borrowed light openings” highlighted with Ethel Wilson Harris’s own ceramic tile work visible in the kitchen, living area, and main entry (Chavez and Rock 2000). Many of the tile motifs are characterized by her trademark symbol, the maguey or century plant, which appears in design elements throughout the home.

One of the most distinctive of the residence’s tile work pieces is a 16 by 29-inch installed panel entitled Huapango, depicting a couple engaged in the traditional dance from the Veracruz and Huasteca regions of Mexico. In addition to their design quality, the tile installations around the home represent a variety of traditional tile production methods including the cuerda seca (“dry cord” technique where outlines are drawn on the tile surface in manganese mixed with a grease that prevented the colors from running together) and Cuenca (where deeply impressed patterns are filled with colored glazes) (Chavez and Rock 2000).

The home also included studio space for Ethel Wilson Harris, and its proximity to Mission San José facilitated her continuous access to the facility. In addition to her efforts to promote preservation at the mission through her role as park manager, she was one of the founding members of the San Antonio Conservation Society and one of the first proponents of creating a connected Mission Parkway that would highlight both the missions and associated features such as the Espada Aqueduct and Acequia. Though not achieved during her tenure at Mission San José, the missions were united into a National Park in 1978 (Chavez and Rock 2000).

In addition to her tireless preservation efforts, Ethel Harris continued to produce and promote traditional Mexican art forms until her death in 1984. Her most prolific period of production was during the 1930s and 1940s when her work was exhibited at both the Chicago and New York World’s Fairs. During the 1930s, she worked for the Works Progress Administration in San Antonio and oversaw the installation of numerous tile pieces throughout the city, most of which have since been destroyed. The fact that her house includes remnants of her work from that period increases its historic significance (Chavez and Rock 2000).

Sources

  • Chavez, Mark A. and Roasalind Rock (San Antonio Missions National Historical Park)

    2000 - National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, “Ethel Wilson Harris House,” Copy on file at the Texas Historical Commission, Austin, Texas.
Location ID51
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