Baylor University has been an important symbol of Waco since 1885, but the surrounding area has an equally rich history that can still be seen on the streets of the city. The country’s elite populated the Waco area right after Baylor was founded, cropping up along the streets of Waco beginning in the 1850s.
Some of these historic homes are now under the care of the Historic Waco Foundation, a group devoted to educating people about the past and preserving the homes for the future. The house with the most unique architecture and colorful history, according to Donald Davis, the executive director of Historic Waco Foundation, is the East Terrace House, an Italianate Villa-style mansion situated above the Brazos River at 100 Mill St.
“The preservation of historic homes is very important. They are great examples of different architectural styles available to affluent members of 1800s society,” said Eric Ames, curator of Digital Collections at the Baylor University Libraries and author of the book “Waco: Images of Modern America.” “The homes that Historic Waco Foundation oversees are very well-preserved. They offer a good chance to look back at that era.”
The massive undertaking of preserving homes that are almost 200 years old has proved to be a challenge for the Foundation. These homes have seen two centuries of Texas floods, rains, blazing heat and bitter cold. Until recently, they hadn’t been properly preserved. Some porches are too fragile to walk on, and the paint had previously been chipped away. Roofs have been chewed by squirrels or destroyed by tree branches. In East Terrace House, water lines six feet up the walls were visible due to its location on the river which has historically been prone to large floods.
“One of the biggest problems is keeping them painted,” Davis said. “It’s been ignored for so long that to do it the right way would cost $30,000, and to do it to East Terrace, even more.”
The Foundation has painstakingly kept the homes in pristine, original condition to be able to retain their status as historic landmarks. At East Terrace, for example, it has kept some of the original furniture, although 90 percent of the initial furnishings were lost during the time the house served as a hospital and storage unit. The rest of the furniture brought in is consistent with the time period. Even down to the vibrant Victorian paint colors, Historic Waco Foundation has put hard work into retaining the house’s original charm.
“We did a paint analysis about 10 years ago. All of these houses had been painted a pretty neutral color,” Davis said. “An expert came through and scraped different rooms to the original surface to find out what color paints were there when the house was built. We are gradually painting the rooms back to their original colors.”
When touring a historic Waco home, guests will only find an authentic, Victorian home. No rooms are roped off and nothing is off-limits. Guests are encouraged to view the home in all of its former and current glory.
Construction on the East Terrace House was finished in 1874 according to WacoHistory.org. It was built by Tennessee entrepreneur John Wesley Mann for his wife, Cemira. He moved to the Waco area in 1858, served in the Civil War and, afterwards, moved his family into his Italian villa. Mann had raised horses in Lebanon, Tenn., but when he found that the Waco area was unsuited for horses he moved on to raising mules. He owned several companies, one of which manufactured the bricks used to build the Waco Suspension Bridge.
The extravagant home was built in the Italianate Villa style, an uncommon design in the South at the time amongst the plethora of Greek Revival style plantations. Davis said every house that Historic Waco Foundation oversees was built in the Greek style, except for East Terrace. Mann’s bride and her family were from New York, and she preferred the style of the homes on the Hudson River, where the Italian villas were far more common.
“He promised her that if she’d marry him, he’d build her the castle of her dreams,” Davis said.
As their prominence in the community and their family grew, so did the Manns’ house. In the decades after the original was built, a dining room, dormitory, attached kitchen and ballroom were all added to the extravagance of the mansion.
After the Manns passed away, their son Howard took over the residence after divorcing from his wife. He rented out many of the rooms in the mansion, which was too large for one man to live in. One room was rented out to Dr. Tremblay, who converted the house into Tremblay’s Psychiatric and Chiropractic Sanitarium, one of the earliest hospitals of that era.
“We had some paranormal investigators look at the house, and they loved that,” Davis said. “They were sure they were going to find ghosts of some of the patients there. They didn’t, although they said they found some ‘suspicious activity.’”
When Howard Mann passed away in 1948, the land East Terrace House was situated on was purchased by F.M. Young, a manufacturer. The house sat empty for two decades, serving as a storage unit until the 1960s when the house was given to the Waco Historical Society. At the time, most local historic homes were owned by different entities constantly competing for funding. They were conglomerated later on under Historic Waco Foundation to alleviate competition.
Davis said the Historic Waco Foundation loves to educate the public on the homes in the area as well as customs of the Victorian era. In October, in the spirit of Halloween, East Terrace House will host “Sitting Up with the Dead,” a museum exhibit displaying Victorian funeral customs, complete with a horse-drawn hearse, an undertaker’s table from the time period and a Victorian casket.
Historic Waco Foundation oversees multiple other historic homes with their own unique histories, all of which are open for tours, including East Terrace House. Visit their website for more information on donations, tours and hours of operation.