ALTA VISTA: “MONUMENT OF SORROW”
By George Ruble Woolfolk
ALTA VISTA: “MONUMENT OF SORROW”
By George Ruble Woolfolk
There are many ways that the inorganic seems to take on the characteristic of personality. Perhaps in some mystic occult fashion, this applies to places men have fashioned as places of abode. Is it possible that the vicissitudes, the lifestyles, and the fortunes of homes follow the fortunes of time and place and men? And so it may have been with Alta Vista that had the misfortune to be born at the end of what many of the devotees of the cult of gentility considered a golden age. To be conceived in the twilight of bitter-sweet nostalgia and to be swallowed in a maelstrom so cataclysmic to those who dreamed it into existence has all of the tragedy of the Greece that had given birth to the pattern of its being.
Alta Vista found its beginning as the home of Helen Marr Swearingen and Jared E. Kirby, a wealthy planter and distinguished citizen. The land upon which it was built was given to the second Mrs. Kirby by her father Dr. Swearingen, the extent of which was one thousand acres near Hempstead. Relatives who visited the plantation as late as the end of the Civil War remembered that the magnificent home was surrounded by four plantations and several farms. Relatives also remembered that the family-owned four hundred slaves to serve this princely estate.
Alta Vista’s birthdate is a matter of some debate. However, the home was built sometime between 1858, the Kirby marriage, and 1861, a date suggested by the college for the age of the building in 1890-91. Who were the architect and the nature of their planning are not known? However, the extant picture of the house shows it to be a perfect example of the Greek Revival Architecture in the antebellum South.
The Greek temple, whose rich exterior colors had faded to white in the cultural transition from eastern Europe to the New World, stretched northward to New England and southward from Washington across the gulf plain into the Mississippi Valley and beyond to Texas. By the 1840s the English Architect, Benjamin Latrobe (appointed architect to the National Architect, in 1803) had established the guidelines for this abode so treasured by the Southern gentry for both family and public structures.
Alta Vista, whose lumber, legend has it, came from the sawmills of Montgomery, Texas followed the Southern model by being constructed of pine lumber. The front facade was of such length as to accommodate two Greek temple faces of three columns each.
The great house showed the common Southern adaptations to climate and life of the gentry with emphasis upon coolings and spaciousness. This could be accomplished with a central hallway (an internal breezeway) and long green-shuttered windows surrounding the high-ceiling rooms. Unlike the prototype there is a tradition that Alta Vista had bath tubs of wood lined with copper, though the normal toilet may well been detached from the house. The brick cisterns that are mentioned (and are common for the region) were obviously one of the sources of water supply, though a creek is known to have run close enough to the house for use as a water source. That there was a kitchen detached from the house is demonstrated in the fact that the first training school of the college was opened in the “old kitchen.” From these kitchens, food was carried to the house by slaves at meal times. The wide piazzas beneath the Greek porticoes on both levels of this two-story mansion were sensible adaptations of the southwestern expression of the southern proto type, adding to both functionality and gracious living.
The day would come when Mrs. Kirby would refer to the years of trouble after the war as a “Monument of Sorrow.” But all of this seemed very far away as she presided as mistress over this great house. These were for her and Alta Vista the happy years. It has been said of it in these years that Alta Vista “was filled at all seasons with intellectual and cultivated guests from all parts of the country” and that “thousands remembered the grace and dignity with which the young Mrs. Kirby dispensed its princely hospitality.” Even the war years did not diminish the lifestyle of this gracious place. Sheltered there were Colonel Kirby’s two children by another marriage and the three sons of his second union.
Then came the storms of murder and death; and more insidious, but no less voracious, the debt that systematically ate up the plantations and farms. Freedom was to take away the capital labor of slaves. The young widow fell back upon her family and the kindness of a Jewish merchant in Hempstead to solve the mounting problem of survival. This refuge that had harbored so much happiness did not fail its mistress in the annex terrible. Luckily in 1855 Mrs. Kirby had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia, one of the earliest in the nation to grant degrees to women. Her thesis, “He that hath an angel’s aim shall have an angel’s wing” had the ring of prophecy. Everyone from Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee down found the school in the debacle of reconstruction a refuge and outlet for talents. The angel aimed to train, and this gracious mansion found a destiny from which it was never to escape for the rest of its life.
Mrs. Kirby turned the Mansion into a fashionable school for girls. On the first of September, 1867, the old mansion received its first student, one young lady, to its fashionable rooms as a boarding student, the first of a long line of students that were to find shelter here. Mrs. Kirby had faith in this venture and soon the school prospered to the extent that another teacher had to be employed to meet the instructional needs of its clientele. The romantic tradition has it that the prosperity continued; but one of Mrs. Kirby’s students, Miss Harriet Smithers, remembers how badly Mrs. Kirby felt at the poor food and shabby appearance she made when a fortuitous arrangement of circumstances led the commission, authorized by the state to build an Agricultural and Mechanical College for Colored Youth, to buy her mansion and one thousand four hundred acres around it for the school for young blacks.
Alta Vista mansion found itself with new tenants. The President of A&M College at College Station, under whose management the new school was placed, had the fence repaired, bought two mules, saw to some furnishings in the mansion, hired a Mississippi named Minor as Principal and the Mansion was ready for its second run as a school house. The new school opened on March 11, 1878, and enrolled eight young men who did not stay long. Temporarily closed, the mansion was opened again in 1879 as a Normal School. Principal Anderson and the girls moved into the Mansion, and ere long the community school was moved into the former kitchen. As the Prairie View School expanded its dormitories and capital buildings the old mansion began the slow slide into the background. When it was no longer the abode of the girls and the Principal, the second Mr. Anderson, “L.C.,” in his discussion of the state of the plant, complained that the old mansion had stood for thirty years, “is now very dilapidated and rapidly becoming dangerous.” It was not too dangerous for a boys dormitory, a considerably higher cut on the hog from old Pickett Hall where they once roomed. L.C. Anderson called it a fire trap and suggested that it be destroyed as dangerous to the new building on the campus. The building reached some kind of low when in 1896 the mansion was condemned as unfit for use and unsafe. Mr. Blackshear felt there was something that might be done to keep it in use despite its condition.
The building was tenacious. The old mansion has seen its share of sorrow, frustration, human misery to roll with the punch. Student men were to remain in the mansion until 1922 when it neared the end of the line by being cut up into four apartments for faculty members. It was repaired and painted for its new role. As late as 1932 staff called the old mansion home. The following year, 1933, W.R. Banks had the building removed. Some of its doors remain in duplexes still on the campus, and some are scattered through the neighboring towns. The proud Kirby mansion slipped quietly into oblivion, unmourned save by the few that remembered its great days and the cultural achievement of which it was a part.