By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
As I sit gazing out the back door of the Sophienburg museum on this gloomy December afternoon, it makes me smile as I watch the yearlings romp and play. The does graze nearby in an old pecan orchard adjacent to the Dittlinger home. The jewel of the Sophienburg Hill Historic District, it is one of my favorite scenes — worthy of being captured on canvas. I have never been inside the Dittlinger home, but I have watched it through the changing seasons from my museum window. Today, its balconies and doors are decked out in Christmas greenery. It is captivating.
Begun in 1907 and completed in 1910, the two-story brick home was built by J. Wahrenberger & Son architects of Austin, Texas, for industrialist Hippolyt Dittlinger. It is difficult to place the home in just one architectural style. It is really a composite of Greek Revival and Italianate styles. I must admit, I had to look all of that up. In my limited knowledge of architectural styles, I will try to explain in very simplistic terms. Greek Revival is rather square and symmetrical with tall porches and columns, like the White House. Italianate style houses are of brick or stone, two or three stories tall with bay windows. They are easily distinguished by their gently sloping roofs and deep ornate overhanging eaves. The Dittlinger home has architectural details of both styles.
A large, two-story bay window is the focal point of the front of the house. The front porches stretching two stories gives the appearance that the house is much larger than its 3300 square feet (not including the attic and basement). The columns of the two-tiered porches are round. Mixed styles of columns are utilized throughout the entire design.
The roof lines are emphasized with a band of heavy ornate brackets under the eaves. The northwest side of the house has a carriage entrance with a porte cochere along with a servants’ entrance. The southeast side of the home has a two-tiered side porch. The second story enclosed porch, which served as a sleeping porch, was once an open veranda until it was roofed and glassed.
The mechanical and electrical systems built into the home were quite advanced for the era. A large coal furnace transferred heat through the first floor by means of ducts. The coal furnace was later replaced with a boiler and radiator system. There are no fireplaces in the home. It was also reported that Mr. Dittlinger considered it a sign of wealth not to have a fireplace.
The grand Magazine Avenue home still sits on about an acre and a half of land. There were several other structures on the property as well. Directly behind the main house stood the carriage house. It was a large wooden barn built as the planing mill while the main house was built. The lumber (long leaf yellow pine) arrived by rail from East Texas. Once the main house was finished, the barn became the carriage house boasting a tack room, horse stalls, carriage space, a single automobile bay, and a large hay loft.
Elsewhere on the property was a two-story concrete structure serving as the laundry house. On the lower level was a large water storage tank beside a concrete block stove. The water in the tank was solar heated by piping running across the roof and returning to the storage tank. There were four rinsing sinks in the center of the room. The original wooden laundry house burned down in 1919. After that event, a water well was drilled and a pump house built with a 75-foot steel tower and a 10,000-gallon cypress holding tank. Two smaller wooden frame homes were moved onto the site shortly after the completion of the main house. One was utilized by the Dittlinger’s daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Liebscher, for a short time after they first married. It was mostly known as the “Professor’s House” because it housed the professor who tutored the children. The second wooden house was “Bauer House,” where a family friend lived. Back behind the wooden houses was a chicken coop.
Between the main house and carriage house, there was once a garden. Numerous large pecan trees dotted the property. Many of the pecan trees on the site were planted as each of the Dittlinger’s grandchildren were born. The adjacent corner pecan orchard and Liebscher House facing Coll Street were also owned by the Dittlinger family at one time.
The home, the furnishings, and the Dittlinger legacy were maintained intact while the Dittlinger family descendants occupied it. The property has changed hands twice since. From the outside, the main house appears mostly unchanged. However, children playing in the yard and deer resting in the shadows bring life to the 112-year-old beauty… and it makes me smile.
Sources: Reflections; Sophienburg Museum & Archives; The Past Through Tomorrow: Preserving the Historic Home by Julie Rogers.