Gathering Texas History, Piece by Piece Bill Hill
William J. Hill, or Bill Hill as he prefers to be called, began his long and com mitted romance with Texas furniture as a cash strapped student at the Univer sity of Texas during the late 1950s. He was browsing in a resale shop on Red River Street near downtown Austin when he saw a simple pine bedside table that he could not do without. “I bought it then because it was cheap,” he said. “But it was really a great table.”
There was something appealing to Hill about the simple lines and fine quality of that century old handcrafted nightstand, which still holds a place of honor in his office in Houston’s mu seum district. He had grown up in Houston, but like most Texans at the time, he had not realized that the state had developed a high level of local ar tisanship that peaked by 1880, before railroads began bringing in imports from other parts of the country. even the legendary Ima Hogg, who was busy turning her home at Bayou Bend into one of the country’s great collections of American furniture, came late to hunt ing the treasures to be found hidden away in old houses scattered around certain parts of the state. After Hill went into the oil business, he began collect ing silver and other decorative arts, but he found himself particularly drawn to the furniture made in the area of Texas known as the German Belt, stretching north and west of San Antonio, taking in particularly the towns of Castroville, Fredericksburg, and new Braunfels.
German farmers flocked to Central Texas in such numbers that by 1850 they made up the state’s largest ethnic group from europe. Their tidy farms were a far cry from the vast ranches for which the state is better known. “They had these small plots of land, sixty to a hundred acres, and that’s all they needed,” Hill says. “They had their Sunday houses in town. They had lyceums and agricultural societies. They made beer.” And as Hill discovered, their best artisans made simple but elegant furniture in the Biedermeier style they had known in europe using native nut-colored woods likecherryandwalnut found inabundance in their new countryside.
The Texas masters of Biedermeier used simple designs that depended on the selection of woods and a subtle handling of surfaces for their quality. They mayhavebeenlivingontheedge of Indian country, but in Hill’s view these cabinetmakers were making furniture that rivaled the better-known work of craftsmen in the east. “Everyone talks about Pennsylvania German,” says Hill, “but to me the best Texas furniture outshines that. It just came later.”
Hill, a tall man whose commanding presence is softened by the mischievous twinkle in his eye, likes to describe himself as a “gatherer” rather than a collector. Historian David B. Warren, the former director of Bayou Bend and the co-author of the pioneering book Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, published in 1975, describes Hill as a “bloodhound” in his ability to track down furniture of quality. “One thing leads to another,” says Hill, “and next thing you know you’re looking for the next piece.”
Once his interest was piqued, Hill began to drive around Central Texas in search of fine old Texas furniture, stopping at stone farm houses to peer in to old barns. At one oldhouse, a faded yellow structure with the porch ceiling painted blue (for fly control), he noticed a promising wooden table sitting out in front of a trailer. The owner wanted to trade his small table passed down through the generations for a new dinette set, and Hill worked out an exchange.
As Hill learned more, he zeroed in on the work of Johann Michael Jahn, who had already earned the title Tischlermeister (master table maker) back in Germany before arriving in new Braunfels in 1845. Like his fellow cabinetmakers, Jahn undertook a variety of commissions, including laying walnut and pine floors. But his forte was creating the stately Kleiderschrank, or wardrobe, which was the quintessential form for German cabinetmakers.
Meanwhile Hill had been deepening his relationship with Bayou Bend, where he had joined one of the collecting committees, and with the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, where he eventually became president. At the Heritage Society, a collection of restored buildings that showcase Texas history, he became so involved that his presence was like that of a benevolent uncle. “Bill deserves an enormous amount of credit in terms of helping us build and refine our Texas furniture collection,” says Executive Director Alice Collette. The society dedicated its oldest structure, called “The Old Place,” dating back to 1823, to Hill. But his presence has been felt in all the buildings, including the Duncan General Store, a replica of a store that stood in the town of egypt in the late nineteenth century. Hill added much of the store’s authentic inventory, and he is so at home there you almost expect him to step behind the counter to weigh out a helping of hard candies or measure a bolt of cloth.
For Hill it is important that the Texas pieces he has gathered be recognized not just for their aesthetic qualities but what they have to say about the way of life they represent. “Collecting is fun,” he says, “but possession is not the main thing. It’s the knowledge you get and the stories you put together.” At the Heritage Society, he has been a stickler for keeping the look of each room true to place and period, down to hanging muslin rather than silk curtains, and avoiding what he calls the “dried-flowers-in-chamber-pots” school of decorating. “I want school children to see how people lived here. It’s not new england,” he says. “There is a background and history here.”
At Bayou Bend, Hill felt that the museum “should have more of a Texas presence,” says curator Michael K. Brown. Ima Hogg had established a Texas Room, but her most intense efforts in finding Texas pieces had been directed to Winedale, the collection of historic buildings located northwest of Houston. “We’ve had the goal of making the Texas Room a great showcase of the best of Texas,” Brown says. “But without Bill’s passion and commitment, we wouldn’t be very far down that road.”
Hill’s gift to Bayou Bend in 2008 of eleven examples of rare Texas-made furniture was regarded as one of the most significant gifts to any museum that year. Among the pieces were six attributed to Jahn and his workshop, including a highly coveted wardrobe of finely polished black walnut and pine. Perhaps the only piece of Texas furniture on public display to rival the star power of the Jahn wardrobe is yet another Bill Hill acquisition, a flamboyant walnut desk made by Austin cabinetmaker Adolph Kempen that is now on loan to Bayou Bend in a prominent spot in the Texas Room. As David Warren observes, it would be difficult to ascribe a Texas provenance to such a tour de force piece except for two things: an actual label, quite rare for Texas furniture, and a marquetry star that places a Texas imprimatur on the desk. It is a marvel of Victorian eclecticism, with its overall rococo look, the Gothic motifs in its door panels, and elements of the Renaissance revival in its incised ornamental details.
The desk, which Warren describes as an “anomaly,” carries with it one of those remarkable stories that Hill likes to gather along with his pieces. Made for a charity raffle about 1875, it was inherited by a nephew of the original owner who chose it following his uncle’s death after drawing lots with other heirs for his possessions. The desk appeared in Warren’s book, and when Hill saw it, he wanted it. “I looked for that desk for thirty-five years,” he said. The desk appeared on the Antiques Roadshow in 1999, which set him hot on the trail again, and he finally tracked it down to the owner’s house in Baytown just as floodwaters from a hurricane were rising toward the doorstep.
Placing the desk on display at Bayou Bend rather than keeping it at home or in his office is typical of Hill’s eagerness to share his passion for Texas furniture. As Alice Collette observes, “Bill gets great joy in finding wonderful pieces and then placing them in an institution so the public can enjoy them.”
“For some collectors, it’s all about the chase,” Michael Brown says. “But Bill follows it through, from the chase to seeing that the object is properly preserved and recorded to making it accessible to the public and scholars and eventually identifying a public institution where it would best be placed.” Before Hill arrived, according to Brown, “the Texas Room, while possessing charm, was lacking the depth of collections and cohesiveness that characterizes the great interiors at Bayou Bend. But now, thanks to Bill’s vision and generosity the museum is able to showcase seminal examples of nineteenth-century Texas design and craftsmanship.”
CAROL FLAKE CHAPMAN is a writer based in Texas.