Now offices, downtown's Wilmot House still holds together a family's memories
It must have been quite an adventure growing up in Wilmot House.
The quiet, big-boned downtown mansion, designed in 1922, spreads out over 7,779 square feet of floor space on three stories. For many years, passers-by wondered who lived there, if anybody.
Poised on a hill at West Ninth and San Antonio streets, the house faces the once-neglected, now-restored Wooldridge Square Park. The rear of the building hangs out over the canyon of lost Little Shoal Creek, now immured by bridges and pavement under Nueces Street.
Thus, Wilmot House and its grounds are washed by wind and sun most of the year. A twisted oak offers shade over the southwestern corner of the lot.
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, John C. Horton III shared a room with his brother, the since-deceased Wilmot Roberdeau Horton, in the back of the main floor. All around them were nooks and crannies, even a fallout shelter and an improvised firing range in the basement.
“It was still a neighborhood around here,” Horton says. “I had friends down the street. We played in the park. My mother was wary of that. We’d slide on cardboard down the grass — the slope was steeper at the public library — and we walked to the Paramount Theatre and Pease Elementary School. I should have walked to Austin High School, but when you get your driver's license, you drive.”
Heightening their exploits, the Wilmot House was crammed with the collected wonders and oddities from several generations of the only family that has ever lived here, including an upright clock from George Washington’s boyhood home.
For a child, however, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Wilmot House inspired feats and jeopardies, inside and out, especially since John, his brother and his friends often had the district to themselves.
“There was not a whole lot going on downtown,” John remembers. “Bankers and lawyers, also state and county workers. But at 5 p.m. — nothing — you could roll a ball down the street.”
The next chapter
The house still stands at attention on its prominent corner, but no children will grow up here any time soon.
In 2015, John and one of his sons, Perry Horton, both engaged in the commercial real estate business, began the gargantuan project of renovating the old family house at 904 San Antonio St. — for office space.
“It stood vacant primarily because we were trying to figure out what to do with it,” Perry says, “and the expense involved in doing it.”
But first, there was the matter of the accumulated assembly of furniture, décor, books and such from decades of life there. For months, the Horton family held "904 Days," named after the address, each time with a dump truck and moving truck.
They divided up the choice pieces, but Wilmot House, named after the banker, medical doctor and former owner of the Driskill Hotel who commissioned it, had been filling up for almost 100 years.
It needed a thorough gutting before a respectful renovation, directed by one of the city’s top preservation firms, could turn it into a home. Not for a family this time, but for the small, growing household organic products company that moved in recently.
“This isn't a vanity project,” John says. “It recognizes the history of our family, but it has to pay for itself. If this wasn't an 'income property,' it wouldn't have gotten done. I wasn't going to live here.”
“Also, zoning pushed us to a commercial use,” Perry says.
John: “And we kept the integrity of house.”
Who lived there and how
John, 64, was born in Colorado Springs, Colo. His father, John C. Horton Jr., was a brigadier general in the Air Force who retired in 1959. That’s when the family moved to Austin to occupy his mother’s ancestral home.
John’s mother, Virginia Wilmot Roberdeau Horton, was born and grew up in Austin. She graduated from the University of Texas and, while a military wife and after her husband’s retirement, helped out with the American Red Cross, Austin Woman’s Club, Helping Hand and Daughters of the American Revolution.
“Virginia inherited the house,” John says, “or rather, bought it from her mother. It has always been in the family, never been outside of the family. My parents lived here from 1959 to when my mother was taken out of the house by EMS and never returned. My father lived here as long as he could. At age 93, he entered assisted living. It then sat vacant for many years. Too many years.”
The place came with history.
Dr. Edward Perry "E.P." Wilmot, who hailed from Pennsylvania, got into banking after he married Annie Gilfillan, whose father had been a banker. After moving to town, Wilmot ran Austin National Bank, which was founded in 1890. It grew into one of the largest banks in Austin until the heated bank mergers of the mid-1980s.
Before building Wilmot House, the family lived at 307 W. Ninth St. behind the still-standing Victorian home of Henry Hirschfeld, a co-founder of Austin National Bank.
The original blueprints of Wilmot House, drafted by the Page Brothers, a multi-generational design firm, date to 1922.
But Dr. Wilmot died in 1923, perhaps before the house was completed. At least four generations of Wilmots lived here afterward.
“Annie and E.P.'s daughter was Elizabeth Wilmot, who married Sully Roberdeau,” John says. “Annie lived here with her son Calvin. At some point, my aunt and uncle, George and Ann Meriwether, lived here. They are all gone now.”
The house itself
Jutting out over a key Austin intersection in a tight community that once housed churches, including an early African-American congregation, as well as the Austin History Center, once the central public library, the Wilmot House seems almost staged to command respect.
Yet it’s not easy putting a name to its architectural style: definitely not Victorian, but not modern either.
“It’s been called a transitional style,” John says with a smile and a sigh. “Or neoclassical or colonial revival. It's really a mutt.”
Those original blueprints were digitized by the firm of Clayton and Little, who oversaw the renovation, which itself was executed by Burnish and Plumb, Paul Clayton's construction company.
“They are so good at what they do,” Perry says, “peeling the layers off an onion, and such skilled craftsmen.”
As often was the case in the early 20th century, the finer, exterior bricks came from the Butler family company, while much of the interior masonry is made from what was called “Austin Common,” still quite beautiful to the contemporary eye. Today, a visitor might be surprised to find that the giant piers and beams in the bottom floor are made of compressed concrete.
While the front door and small porch were retained in part for historical accuracy, the main entrance now is in the back, which can be reached by steps or up a small electrical lift lined in sheets of dark metal.
Either way, one is pulled deep into the house by the wide, oak-floored hallway that appears almost ceremonial in its scale and finish. Upstairs, the original builders switched to longleaf pine for the floors, while the bottom floor, really a basement but quite usable, is finished in concrete.
A dominant room with wraparound windows on the south side of the main floor formerly served as the family’s library. Above that room is another stunner with raised ceilings and more streams of sunlight.
The front rooms appear large enough to hold a small cotillion and, in fact, John and his wife, Nancy McCray Horton, got married in one of them on April 24, 1982.
Everywhere one looks, one finds little oddities, such as a Y-shaped brick chimney, or strange buttresses that hold up the west retaining wall.
“It fell down sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s,” John says. “That’s when the buttresses were added. The big live oak has been here as long as I have, so it’s at least 50 years old. It seemed just as big back then.”
A coal chute on the north side of the building indicates the original heating arrangements, but the house was cooled mostly by attic fans and screens for decades. John’s mother added limited air conditioning.
John says the bomb shelter, which looks like a bank vault, was installed during the 1960s around the time the family’s kitchen was remodeled. The brigadier general, like some other Austin military leaders during the Cold War, didn’t want to take any chances. If evidence from other Austin fallout shelters is any indication, many of the supplies would have been purchased at Bergstrom Air Force Base.
BLAST FROM THE PAST: A fallout shelter in West Lake Hills
Perry, 31, has one brother named, you guessed it, John C. Horton IV, a mechanical engineer who also lives in Austin. Neither, however, lived in Wilmot House. They visited it often when their grandparents were alive.
Perry and his father did not choose to execute a strict restoration to the original designs and materials, as was the case with the nearby Hirschfeld-Moore House project. Instead, they added handy restrooms, expanded a full, modern kitchen, put in new windows and, of course, brought the structure’s accessibility up to code.
“We didn't stick to original colors,” Perry says. “But not a whole lot changed.”
In fact, the renovation project recently won a Merit Award from Preservation Austin, an advocacy group.
“The total gut helped,” Perry says. “We really respected the grand hallway. Take out the grand hallway and you ruin the house. When you come through the rear entry, you look down all the way down to the park. It now works as a public space on its own.”