Life on the San Antonio River

A profile of Circle Ranch Co-Owner Josie Negley Gill,  from Texas Monthly Magazine.

 

NOTE: This article initially appeared in Texas Monthly:

A family breathes new life into a historic King William home with their eclectic style.

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Nine-year-old Tres Davidson and his seven-year-old brother, Wells, fling open the screen door of their family home in San Antonio’s historic King William neighborhood. The boys take off running; about fifty yards away, they reach the edge of the San Antonio River, which flows past the back of their house. The two brothers, along with their older sister, Adele, who is eleven, can often be found outdoors, playing under a centuries-old Montezuma Cypress tree in their backyard, collecting massive bur oak acorns that fall from their neighbor’s tree, or riding their bikes with their mother, San Antonio native Josie Negley Gill.

Gill grew up in the Olmos Park neighborhood but wanted a different experience for her three children. “I wanted to be somewhere that felt totally new and unexplored to me. It was so important that I be in a neighborhood that was also truly walkable and urban, and the fact is, this neighborhood was built before cars, so everything about it is walkable,” she says. “When I first saw the inside of the house, in 2010, it was dark and covered in layers and layers of window treatments. Buying the place was a leap of faith, but I did, and moving into this house and into this neighborhood changed my life.”

Josie Negley Gill, on the front porch of her home, has a straightforward aesthetic philosophy. “My home is pure and simple—it’s what I like. I don’t adhere to anything other than, does it appeal to me? I don’t care if it’s Ikea or something I inherited: if I like it, I use it,” she says. “Labels don’t matter, value doesn’t matter, trends don’t matter. It’s just whether I want to look at it. I would say my style is an utter mishmash, but above all, it’s happy and it’s personal. I want a joyful house, even if it might look crazy to some. For me and my children, it’s full of life and hundreds of family stories.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The brick home was built in 1892 by T.R. Hertzberg, a 75-year-old businessman who had fled the Prussian Revolution as a young man. Hertzberg later sold the home to a judge named Sidney Brooks. Many others have lived there since. “I don’t think of myself as the owner of this house; I think of myself as its steward. I’m taking care of it now, but it will certainly outlive me, and others will build their lives here someday.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The San Antonio River is just a stone’s throw from Gill’s backyard, and it is a central part of the family’s life. Besides riding their bikes along the path every weekend, they routinely walk to breakfast or to dinner at places like Halcyon and Liberty Bar or to A La Mode for gelato. “I love absolutely everything about living next door to the river—I love the ducks, egrets, cormorants and herons. I love watching it rise when it rains, the way it smells like the country whenever I get close to it,” Gill says. “There is a primal satisfaction I think we have as humans living near water. We can’t live without it, so it calms us just to look at it.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MINTA MARIA

Gill left San Antonio when she was fourteen to attend boarding school in New Hampshire, finally returning in 2008. She spent two years house-hunting before finding this one. It wasn’t easy to look beyond the dated Victorian decor, but Gill could see the potential and felt drawn to the house: it was “the one.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The formal living room is just beyond the front door and adjacent to the family room. Gill can claim an array of influences that have helped to shape her style, from her parents, traditional English furniture collectors, to her grandmother Carolyn Brown Negley’s sophisticated contemporary style and her grandmother and namesake on the other side of the family, Josephine Gill Hudson, who had a more “wild-card style” that evolved throughout her life.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

When Gill’s grandmother on the Negley side passed away, Gill inherited an eighteenth-century chest of drawers that had been in her grandparents’ house. When Gill got it home, she found a collection of photos in the bottom drawer that spanned the colorful (and glamorous) course of her grandmother’s life. “What was so special is that she kept only the ones that were most important to her, so it was like I had a series of moments in her life, personally curated by her,” Gill says. She hung all the photos on a wall in her downstairs guest bathroom. “I love the story and history in this powder room, and I probably get more questions from people who come to my house for the first time about those photos than anything else in the house. I was so lucky that she kept them all those years.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MINTA MARIA

“When my grandmother [Negley] passed away and my cousins and I got together to distribute her personal belongings, we drew numbers from one to ten as a starting point,” Gill remembers. “I drew number one and although she had many things that were significantly more valuable, this painting of her is the thing that I wanted most. Even though it had nominal value, to me it was priceless: my grandmother Carolyn in her pink dress right before she was married, before she had children, before World War II took both of her future brothers-in-law. It was something I’d coveted from the time I was a little girl.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

Adele reads after school under a portrait of her mother, painted by Cruz Ortiz, who started doing portraits a few years ago. He named it “La Josie con los Green Chucks.” “I wanted to wear something that would stand the test of time but still feel like me. The ball skirt was a copy of an Oscar de La Renta I had made for my sister’s rehearsal dinner twenty years ago and the Zara jacket is my favorite article of clothing. The green Chucks are on their last leg, but I love them and I love pairing unexpected things that way. The portrait is my phoenix from the ashes moment, and I love the thought of a grandchild wanting it for his or her home one day like I wanted my grandmother’s.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

Above the living room’s fireplace are portraits of various family members, including an oil painting of Gill’s mother at age fourteen and her horse, a drawing of one of Gill’s grandmothers as a young girl, and a portrait of Gill’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Edward Burleson, who fought in the Texas Revolution. Every bit of wood used in the elaborate millwork throughout the house as well as that in the construction is long leaf yellow pine and heart pine, with the exception of the two oak fireplace mantles downstairs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

On most of the surfaces scattered throughout the house a curated collection of found objects and family heirlooms coexist in stylishly unexpected ways.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

Wells and Tres share a room filled with their treasured collection of rocks found along the river, antlers picked up on the family’s West Texas ranch, and other interesting little odds and ends. Fans of Japanese films by Hayao Miyazaki, the boys collect memorabilia from his movies, which hang on the walls or rest in various nooks and crannies.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The family’s backyard is often swirling with activity, and it isn’t uncommon to see a gathering of twenty or more sitting around the long tables nestled under the enormous oak tree at the center of the yard. “We love nothing more than eating as a family, and we think a lot about where our next meal will be, or what we want to cook,” Gill says. “The lifeblood of this home is communal cooking. There is always lots of cheap wine, kids, and pets. It’s never formal or fussy, just good food, good friends, and good conversation.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The three Davidson children, Wells, Adele, and Tres, are captured in a rare moment of stillness before setting out on another adventure along the river.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The framed artwork that rests on the dining room fireplace mantle was found by Gill on Etsy. She likens them to the famous dogs playing poker painting, albeit a “cooler version.” The one she loves best? The “James Dean Deer.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

“My absolute favorite part of the stairs are the finials that your hand naturally goes to to propel you up or down the stairs,” Gill says. “They have this incredible grain to them, showing how old the wood was, and they are worn so incredibly smooth from thousands and thousands of hands resting and grabbing onto them.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The canopy bed in Adele’s room was made for Gill’s mother when she was ten. Her grandmother found the Pierre Frey fabric, used for the ceiling and headboard of the bed, in Paris. The green pinch-pleat draperies were modeled after a photo Gill saw in Domino magazine. The gown hanging on the wall is what she wore as a nine-year-old page in the Order of the Alamo coronation. “Every San Antonian who does Fiesta is always left with the eternal question of what to do with the dress after Fiesta,” Gill says. “I just keep mine hanging there in her room as a sort of art object, and she loves it.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

A consummate entertainer, Gill has a diverse (and extensive) collection of tabletop and glassware stored throughout her home and set among various keepsakes and souvenirs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The house has a landmark designation, and the marker by the front door details the original owner/builder, T.R. Hertzberg, the architect, M.T. Eccles, and the judge who bought the house from Hertzberg, Sydney Brooks. Brooks’s son, Sidney Brooks Jr., died while training as a pilot for World War l at what was then an unnamed air force base in San Antonio. Since he was the first casualty of the war from Bexar County, the base was named after him and became Brooks Air Force Base.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

With two fireplaces and two wood-burning stoves, the home has a grand total of four chimneys ascending from its rooftop.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

The grouping of pink and purple photos are from a series done by artist Joey Fauerso for an installation at Artpace in 2014 called “Guadalupe After Images.” Gill aims to collect art that is almost exclusively local and by people who are still producing it. “As my art history teacher in Barcelona [during a study abroad year] always said: ‘You must collect the artists of your time,’” Gill remembers. “I think for him that meant, don’t wait for the safety of collecting someone who has already been canonized, but see what people are making today around you and if you love it, collect it. Don’t make the safe choice, but make the choice that speaks to you.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

Two of Gill’s favorite San Antonio–based artists, Israel Rico (top) and Cruz Ortiz, hold court in the living room. “These pieces are ‘puro San Antonio,’ as we say here. How great is the image of love being a bean and cheese but without the cheese? Who wants that? Nobody can mix language like Cruz does, and it’s an artistic expression in and of itself.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY MINTA MARIA

Posted by Chris Gill

  1. Hi Chris,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. What a remarkable job your daughter has done in making the house a beautiful and livable home. She must be some gal to love cormorants! She’s following in her father’s footsteps with the array of family photographs.

    My best to you and Laura,

    Mike

    Reply

    Reply

    1. Thanks Mike!

      Reply

  2. Denise Cartwright June 13, 2017 at 11:54 am

    Dear Chris,
    What a fabulous article about Josie! I love her eclectic style, blending the old and the new.
    Your grandchildren are beautiful.
    You are blessed!
    Fondly,
    Denise Cartwright

    Reply

    1. Thanks Denise!

      Reply

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