March - April 2008 Feature Park
Sebastopol House State Historic Site
Sebastopol House an 'Oasis' of Yesteryear in Heart of Seguin
To gaze upon the dazzling white, imposing, columned façade of the Sebastopol House is to imagine the grandeur and stylish furnishings that await inside. But visitors to this mid-19th century architectural marvel will be surprised to find a dearth of crystal chandeliers and polished woodwork, and instead, rather stark white plaster walls, common fixtures and modest furnishings reflect its former middle class inhabitants.
Sebastopol House plays an important role in helping 21st century visitors to this Seguin landmark understand what it was like more than a century ago for a family of modest means to live in 19th century Texas.
"It's an important house," says Georgia Davis, superintendent of the state historic site. "It's like an oasis - a 2.2-acre pocket of history and wholesomeness in the middle of a city of 25,000."
The impressive, 4,000 square-foot residence sits behind a rosebush-lined white picket fence on a major business artery between downtown and Texas Lutheran University. It was built between 1854 and 1856 for Col. Joshua W. Young, by slaves from his nearby McQueeny plantation who employed an innovative form of 19th century concrete called limecrete patented by a Georgia physician. Dr. John E. Park, who arrived in Seguin in 1847, mixed gravel, water and lime to create his "concrete."
An exhibit at the ground floor-level of the split-level home said to be designed by local architect Tobias Meininger describes the five levels of construction that utilized limecrete, pine and various hardwood lumber to build foot-thick walls and 14-foot ceilings. Here, one can actually see what the original, crude and crumbly limecrete construction looked like prior to being plastered.
For almost 100 years, beginning in 1856 with Young's sister Catherine Legette, who raised her children here, and ending with the Zorns, Sebastopol was occupied by three large families that had 27 children among them. Joseph Zorn, Jr. was the most prominent of the three, rising to the office of mayor of Seguin which he held for 20 years, but never attaining any notable wealth. The Indiana native and Civil War veteran moved his family to the house in 1874. His youngest offspring, Calvert, lived in the home until 1952.
"The families who lived here were not fabulously rich, nor incredibly famous, but normal people who lived in a normal house in a different place and time," notes park ranger Liz Palfini. "So, I think a lot of history that visitors take home with them is what it might have been like for them if they'd lived back then."
Sebastopol features a spacious U-shaped gallery in the front and what appears to be a flat roof, but is actually an entablature built atop the Green columns that hide a pitched, cedar-shake rooftop. The home, which was saved from demolition in 1960 by the local conservation society and subsequently restored in the 1980s by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, remains the best example of limecrete construction of the dozen or so remaining limecrete structures in Seguin. Noted architect Frederick Law Olmstead was so impressed with the Concrete City that he dubbed Seguin the "the prettiest town in Texas" in his 1857 Journey Through Texas.
The landmark home is open to drop-in visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and for pre-arranged group tours by reservation. There is no fee to take the guided tours. Sebastopol celebrates its biggest event the first Saturday in May. This year's MayFest! will take place May 3. There will be period crafts demonstrations, a touch tank of aquatic creatures, a climbing wall, archery and other children's activities.
Downstairs rooms contain the park offices and one of the site's most interesting exhibits, "Remember Me," which includes artifacts found by archeologists during excavations. The display includes porcelain dish fragments, a hand-painted German soup bowl, dinner plates, a shell button, a medicine bottle, sewing machine oil bottles and a rose-colored cameo stud.
Upstairs sits the family parlor with exhibits featuring an 1896 Zorn family photo and other memorabilia, the family's antique furniture, some of which bears evidence of the family's frugalness in repairing the pieces over and over again.
Also on the same level are two rooms housing visiting exhibits that change twice a year. Currently, "Extensions of the Human Hand" features well-preserved antique tools from local builder Charles Koehler's collection that are likely the kind of implements used during the time the home was built. The tools, some of which date to the 1700s, include wooden drills, metal hole-cutters, axes, an adz, saws and a "gentleman's brace" that could be fitted with bits for drilling holes in wood.
Guided tours of the historic home last from 45 minutes to an hour and can be customized according to visitors' areas of interest, according to Palfini. "Visitors get a really different experience than they do at many historical places. It's not a canned talk every time."
So, no matter whether you're interested in how Sebastopol fit into pre-Civil War history, the carpetbagger years that followed or the Great Depression, you can expect this marvelous time piece's role and its occupants' lives to provide insight into Texas' colorful past.
While visiting Seguin, take the opportunity to visit the burial site of the town's namesake - Juan Nepomuceno Seguin - as well as the Texas Revolutionary hero's commemorative statue; antique shops, museums and restaurants of old downtown Seguin; the World's Largest Pecan; and Art Deco gems such as the Texas Theatre and City Hall.
Sebastopol House State Historic Site is located one mile south of Interstate 10 on Zorn Street off Alternate Route 90 (Court Street) in Seguin. For more information about the park visit the Sebastopol House State Historic Site web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle