The German Free School; built in 1857German Free School HistoryThe German Free School is the headquarters of the German-Texan Heritage Society, and is...
The German Free School; built in 1857German Free School HistoryThe German Free School is the headquarters of the German-Texan Heritage Society, and is located in Austin, Texas at 507 E. 10th Street. The building is open for tours on Thursdays, from 12 pm to 4 pm, or by appointment.Why a German Free School?When a great number of German immigrants settled in Austin in the 1850s, they discovered to their dismay that there were no free public schools available. Most of the settlers were well educated, either as craftsmen or in fields like botany, geology, medicine, surveying, music, the arts and many more. They considered a good education of all children absolutely necessary for a healthy, progressive society. They decided to do something about it.Following the example of Germans in San Antonio, a public meeting was held in Austin and steps were taken to establish a school which had as its purpose “education of youth, the promotion of useful knowledge and the advancement of sciences…without regards to religious opinions”. They founded the “German Free School Association”. When the school opened in 1858, it was the first chartered school in Austin. Boys and girls were admitted, as were Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Freethinkers. No clergyman was allowed to teach. Languages used were English and German.Since financial help from the government was smaller than hoped for, the school was not tuition free except for orphans, children of widows and others in need, but it was free of religious instruction. The German Free School held classes until about 1878, shortly after Austin started its public school system.The Original BuildingThe location chosen for the new school house was just east of downtown on Mulberry Street, west of Waller Creek on a bluff which made it easier to defend in case of an attack by Indians. Wilhelm von Rosenberg donated the lot and $1,000 in gold to cover expenses. Construction began in the fall of 1857 and took place on Saturdays with volunteer labor. The outer walls were raised using the rammed earth technique, then new to Austin, wherein a wooden frame was filled with crushed limestone, water and lime, rammed down and let dry. The frame was then raised, and the process repeated.The original building was 20 x 100 feet, one floor, with a flue on both ends for two pot belly stoves. Since the house is on a slope, only the north part has a basement which was stocked with sauerkraut, dried meat and water in preparation for that Indian attack that never occurred. Windows on the east and the west side allowed for a breeze. The roof consisted of cypress shingles from Louisiana. Wide pine planks were used for the floor. A folding door divided the rectangular space into two rooms, one for boys, the other one for girls. Undivided, the school house could serve as a public meeting hall.The outside was painted yellow with red and black decorations under the windowsills. (Black, red and gold [yellow] were the colors of the banner flown then by Germans back home who fought for democracy. It is also the flag of present day Germany.) There was a cistern on the north part of the lot, a playground and an area for gymnastics. There is no known drawing or photograph of the 1857 original structure.The Two Story AdditionIn 1872, the principal, Julius Schutze, arranged to have a two story addition built on the north end of the building. It served at times as additional class rooms, but also as living space for his growing family. The second floor was accessible by an outside staircase similar to the Sunday houses in Fredericksburg. What is now a balcony was then used mainly as a screened-in sleeping porch.The walls of this section were not rammed earth but limestone. Their northern exposure causes reoccurring fungus problems. A fire in 1919, which destroyed the roof and much of the interior of the original building, saved most of the 2 story addition which now has the only original door left. It leads to the balcony. The house was repaired and kept up well enough to house tenants until major renovations were begun in 1948 which included the setting up of the four columns.Texas State Historical MarkerChanging OwnershipThe history of title to the property on 507 E. 10th Street (previously Mulberry Street) is very colorful and includes a Sheriff sale and many lessons on fancy financing, not unusual for downtown real estate.The German Free School Association was the first owner. In 1883, the Germania Verein, an insurance company, bought the property. However, when they attempted to evict Julius Schutze, and his family,he came up with a creative financing scheme which made him the new owner. He was not only a teacher there, he also published a newspaper from the house, the “Texas Vorwaerts”. Julius Schutze died in 1904; his widow, Julia, lived in the house until 1910 when she sold it for $3,500 to D. A. Porter.Ownership changed frequently through sales or inheritance, being used mainly as a tenement house with an “objectionable” reputation at times, until Kelly H. Stevens purchased it in 1948 for $9,750.Stevens, who had no German heritage but knew the history of the building, deeded the property to the German-Texan Heritage Society in 1991 and lived in it until his death a few months later.Restoration and Changes after 1948When Dr. Kelly Stevens bought the property, it was in poor condition. He spent almost twenty years on the improvements. He remodeled the inside, most likely adding walls, so that he would have a bathroom, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a parlor. The spacious room with windows to the north became his artist studio. He did not believe in air conditioning and only installed a central heating unit to please his sisters, but it did not work. However, the fireplace between the parlor and the studio heats both rooms efficiently.The mantle around the fireplace came from a house that Andrew Jackson built in Tennessee in 1790 which had later belonged to Stevens’ grandfather. The closet door in one of the bedrooms (now the library) had been rescued from a house on 6th Street, and it is said that Robert E. Lee walked through it while in in Austin. The parlor was furnished with Victorian style pieces supposedly made by German craftsmen in New York. They were given to GTHS in Stevens’ will.Changes to the outside were mostly a matter of restoration, since making the house a historic landmark was applied for and achieved in 1956.Stonemason David Ruiz replaced the limestone on the 1872 section. The crumbling wide brick staircase leading to the upper landing was replaced by one which came from St. Mary’s Academy on 6th Street when it was torn down. Other parts of famous buildings in Austin which were destroyed found a new purpose in the old German Free School, like a coin from the old UT main building resting now in the SE corner of the house. Glazed ceramic tiles from Stevens’ travels were placed in the plaster on the walls when it was redone. The wood over the door to the basement is from the original school house.Stevens had the yard terraced Italian style, widened the stone walk ways and had a wall built along 10th Street to stop the building from sliding downhill. The cistern was removed. The downstairs part of the 1872 addition was turned into an apartment which Stevens rented out to law students and personnel from the Texas State School for the Deaf. As long as Kelly Stevens lived in the house, his many dachshunds were part of the fixtures. At his death, five of them considered the Old German Free School their residence.1991 and ThereafterThe German-Texan Heritage Society (GTHS) made the property their headquarters and began to use it as a German-Texan Culture Center. Immediate improvements were the installation of locks on the doors, a security system and a central air conditioner and a heater that works.One bedroom became the office, the other one the library. The rest of the house serves as classrooms and facilitates cultural events. The bathroom was made handicapped accessible.The upkeep, repairs and restoration of this venerable old house are a constant cause of fundraisers and “please” for donations, giving the structure a meaning it never had before.The German Free School NowBesides being the headquarters of GTHS, the house is used as a school for German language classes, including a Saturday German school for children (Samstagsschule). There are exhibits, gardens, a library for German genealogy, German-Texana, and related German texts, a speaker series, a German film series, and annual cultural celebrations such as Maifest (Mayfest), Oktoberfest, and a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). All of these events aim to fulfill the mission of GTHS which is to promote the awareness and preservation of the German cultural heritage of Texas.To honor the legacy of Kelly H. Stevens who trusted the German-Texan Heritage Society to take care of the historic site in memory of the settlers who built it, GTHS maintains a collection of many paintings and other works of art by Kelly Stevens and some of his deaf friends. Only a few of them are on display at any one time.