- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Two Austin houses turn 175 this year.
You know one — the French Legation — as the “oldest house in town.” Locals and tourists love this Creole-style home that rests on a steep crest; it was built for Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, France’s chargé d’affaires to the new Republic of Texas. A museum since the 1950s, it hosted a 175th birthday fête on March 5.
You are probably familiar with the other handsome house — Boggy Creek Farm — because of its organic foodstuffs rather than its history. Yet builders likely finished both structures, the latter for settlers James and Elizabeth Smith, almost simultaneously in 1841 in what is now East Austin.
Epistolary evidence unearthed by Boggy Creek co-owner Carol Ann Sayle suggests that her home — almost identical in floor plan to the French Legation — was ready for a party not long after the embassy, a few miles away, was furnished.
On Dec. 24, 1841, a supper celebrating the wedding of James Smith’ son, Alfred, took place by the creek. One of the invited guests was President Sam Houston, not the sort of personage one would invite to an event staged in a frontier lean-to.
“President Houston walked with crutches from his carriage, as his ankle still hurt from the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836,” Sayle says. “He was assisted by a major of the Texas Army. The President pronounced the food ‘doings’ as ‘first rate throughout’ in a letter that he wrote later that evening to his wife Margaret, who was living in Houston.”
Longtime backers of the French Legation, Sayle insists that she and husband, Larry Butler, seek no competition with fans of the museum, owned by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Boggy Creek Farm will celebrate its 175th anniversary with docent-led tours and free refreshments on June 11-12.
The farmhouse’s story
North Carolinian James Smith was scouting Central Texas farmland as early as 1832. He and his wife, Elizabeth, brought their family to Bastrop in 1838. Their children included James’ two sons by a previous marriage and their four children together.
In 1839 — the year Austin was founded — the Smiths bought 50 acres east of the city from large plots laid out to feed Austin (see map). They also purchased a city block close to the current Texas Capitol, picked up 10 acres between East Fifth and East Sixth streets, and invested in land to the northeast.
The Smiths clearly believed in Austin’s future. According to court papers later filed by their son, Alfred Smith, during the winter of 1840-1841, he supervised 19 slaves who built the farmhouse at Boggy Creek.
“Everything needed for the house — siding, shingles, infrastructure, flooring, windows — was made on-site,” Sayle says. “Bricks for the piers were locally made. Window glass was imported from the U.S. The house, people, animals and the immediate property were protected from Indian attacks by a cedar picket fence.”
The prairie around the current house, one mile from the Colorado River, was shaded by live oaks. Wandering Boggy Creek, which then lay several blocks to the south of the house, was lined with pecans and cypresses. The Smiths raised cattle and pigs and grew wheat, corn, cotton and, reportedly, tobacco in the fertile, frequently flooded bottomlands.
“At that time, there were more than 400 farmers around the city of Austin and five lawyers,” Sayle says. “The numbers are different today.”
Some might call the house’s architectural style modified Greek Revival. As with the French Legation, four rooms surround a central hallway that could be opened to prevailing winds, in the tradition of the pioneer dogtrot. Sayle believes that master builder Abner Cook — responsible for the Governor’s Mansion, among other local buildings — might have been involved in its design. Indeed, having arrived in the tiny town in 1839, he would have known the Smiths well.
On Jan. 25, 1845, Smith was shot and killed by his field supervisor. Before his death, he was attended by Dr. Joseph Robertson, who, coincidentally, later owned the French Legation. Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, inherited the farmhouse and its 50 acres. She and her children harvested record crops of wheat there, but she eventually moved into the city and lived on East Sixth Street.
The Smith family held onto the farm until 1885. Investors owned the land until 1902, when Herman Siegmund purchased it. His family farmed or rented it out until the late 1930s, when Bertha Siegmund Linscomb bought out her siblings.
“She made major physical changes to the farmhouse,” Sayle says. “Including replacing the long front porch with the current one and moving the windows together to fit the current fancy for ‘picture windows.’”
Linscomb lived there until 1979. Butler and Sayle bought the vacant, crumbling house and “weedy, junky” land in 1992.
They restored the house and grew fruits and vegetables on the remaining land. At one point during a raging storm, a giant pecan tree twisted off of its roots and did major damage to the house, forcing a second restoration, which used cedar board siding and East Texas pine.
Unlike the French Legation’s roof, the one on the Boggy Creek farmhouse is not punctuated with dormers or gables. But like its westerly sibling, it features four fireplaces connected to multiple chimneys. The current owners have carefully documented which materials and arrangements appear to be original and which were changed later to fit the times. Since the 1980s, it has had a city of Austin historic landmark marker.
“I always refer to our house as ‘one of the two oldest in Austin, along with the French Legation.’” she says. “All I want is for this old farmhouse to be recognized as important to the city of Austin and her inhabitants, and thus protected for a long time as such.”
The Legation’s story
Much more is known about the French Legation, although some facts remain hazy. It was first systematically studied in 1934 during a national inventory of historic structures.
And before her death in 1939, one of its last occupants, Lillie Robertson, gave tours, not always factually reliable, of what she called the “French Embassy.”
Her work with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas helped motivate the purchase and renovation of the place by the service group, whose members can trace at least one relative back to Texas before Feb. 19, 1846, when President Anson Jones lowered the republic’s flag at the old Capitol and announced: “The Republic of Texas is no more.”
Yet the biggest cache of information about the Legation came to light in 1965 when the French Ambassador to the U.S. made a gift to the City of Austin of copies of Dubois’ dispatches to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Out of this came a delightful translation of selected letters, “Alphonse in Austin,” by Katherine Hart, founder of the Travis County Collection, and a weighty, two-volume academic study, “The French Legation in Texas,” by University of Texas scholar Nancy Nichols Barker.
Dubois was quite a character. The short, fastidious man fashioned himself a “count” — not the first or last European to claim a false title on the American frontier — and quarreled often with Texas officials and local businesspersons, including Richard Bullock, the hotel owner with whom the diplomat engaged in the famous “Pig War.” Before the French Legation was built, Dubois’ servants killed some of Bullock’s wayward swine, who were wreaking havoc on the Frenchman’s home and gardens.
Insults and violence ensued.
Dubois went on to spread his unpleasantness to diplomatic posts in The Netherlands and Mexico, but he left behind a jewel of a house, built when almost everyone else here lived in log cabins. Constructed in 1840 and 1841 on a breezy spot just outside the city limits of the time, the surviving building is carefully chronicled in Kenneth Hafertepe’s slim, elegant “A History of the French Legation in Texas,” which is for sale at the museum.
One of Dubois’ strategies for winning over influential Texans was hospitality. He brought with him many Continental delicacies, which he served at highly praised dinner parties. Dubois really wanted a showplace where he could entertain, so at a time when only two other Austin structures were two stories high, he commissioned what would have seemed like a grand house for the Legation — only the world’s major powers merited full French embassies and ambassadors — and Texas was barely a nation.
Why then? When Dubois had returned to Austin earlier that summer, he found it “almost deserted.”
“More than two-thirds of the inhabitants — some 600 people — had left at the close of the last session of Congress,” Hafertepe reports. Still, Dubois purchased the hilltop acreage from President Jones on Sept. 15, 1840. Hafertepe thinks the likely builder was Thomas William Ward, who worked as a builder in Louisiana before coming to Austin.
Long before the house, constructed primarily of Bastrop pine, oak and local stone, was finished, Dubois sold it to a Catholic cleric, Father Jean-Marie Odin, in December 1840, retaining the right to rent or lease it through April 1842.
“Dubois really wasn’t here much,” says Martha George Withers, director of the French Legation. “But we have a bill of sale about how to complete the house.”
In fact, according to Hafertepe’s book, there is no convincing evidence that Dubois ever occupied the house. The diplomat, in fact, was irritated that one guest, French impresario Henri Castro, founder of Castroville, camped out there while Dubois was absent in 1842.
So how do we know it was finished around the time that Boggy Creek Farm was hosting a wedding party in December 1841? There the evidence is sterling.
The Texas Sentinel for August 19, 1841, contains descriptions of the house’s furnishings — some are still at the Legation — by one of Dubois’ servants.
The charge’s “house in this city has been newly fitted up of late, and furnished with costly furniture, wines, provisions, etc. in readiness for his reception, in the event of General Houston’s election.”
Then, in a letter dated Nov. 10, 1841, Jones writes to his wife: “Our old friend Mr. Saligny has his house finished and furnished in almost regal magnificence,” adding that the “new furniture is Parisian and beautiful, the colors are orange, damask and gold.”
Its charm today is enhanced by decor from the period — some of it belonging to the Robertsons — and a series of sensitive restorations. Later, more formal gardens and a rebuilt kitchen and stable were added. The French Legation was from the start a more formal effort than the similarly sized and shaped Boggy Creek farmhouse.
“In the day, it was considered a mansion of a very high style,” Withers says of the Legation. “It was actually a wonderful, elegant little house, just outside of town, so you felt like you were getting away, but still could have people here for dinner.”
Dubois had left town for good by March 1842. Odin sold it to Mosely Baker in 1847, who then sold it to Dr. Robertson in 1848. Along with other citizens, Robertson — who was mayor when Angelina Eberly set off the cannon on Congress Avenue during the “Archive War” — intended it to house the short-lived Colorado Girls Academy.
It remained instead the Robertson family’s primary residence — including land from East Seventh Street to East 11th Street — until the death of Sarah Robertson, Lillie’s sister, in 1940.
During the late 1940s, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas tried to raise money to buy it, but turned instead to the state government, which used federal funds leftover from the state’s Centennial to purchase the historic spot. It opened as a museum in 1956, after a restoration effort that sliced off the Robertsons’ Victorian addition in the back.
Nobody, however, would dare question its historical import.
“It is reputedly first foreign embassy west of Mississippi,” Withers says. “It was a home for diplomacy, and four different diplomats lived here. Its guests also included more than one president of the republic.”