Ethel Wilson Harris, a noted artisan of San Antonio and champion conservationist, was born in Sabinal, Texas in 1893. Harris became one of San Antonio’s most influential women in the realm of arts, culture and preservation. As an entrepreneur she founded what would collectively be known as the San Jose Tile Workshops, which included Mexican Arts and Crafts (1931-1941), San Jose Potteries (1934-1945) and Mission Crafts (1941-1977).
Harris became the technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts Division of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in San Antonio in 1939. As a conservationist, Harris was a charter member and president of the San Antonio Conservation Society as well as the co-founder of Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA). Her home, on the grounds next to Mission San Jose, still stands and serves as a reminder of her efforts to preserve the San Antonio missions as Manager of San Jose Mission State Park.
Chapel on the Dunes
After the purchase of her Port Aransas house at 620 E. Avenue B in 1937, Aline B. Carter commissioned her friend Ethel Wilson Harris to construct a small chapel on the high dune to the south. A decade earlier in 1925, Harris had built an observatory on the roof of Aline’s home in downtown San Antonio. Additionally, Harris converted Aline’s home library into a small chapel with arched ceilings and furnished it with chairs built by her husband Arthur Harris. The chapel in Port Aransas would also feature an arched ceiling and simple design. There it was to be a sanctuary for islanders after the devastating 1919 Hurricane destroyed most religious buildings. In keeping with that spirit, the chapel design was simple and universal. As a source of inspiration and meditation for all, Aline desired white stucco walls.
Harris fulfilled these aims largely by herself over the course of many months of construction and transport. Aline’s son, Frank Carter, recalled the arduous process of collecting building materials. The Carter family gathered the flagstone from the Hill Country. Other materials were brought by Harris. Frank noted “[t]he woman [Ethel Wilson Harris] that put [the flagstone] in…she practically did it by herself. She could throw a fifty pound sack of cement over her shoulder and take off like a mule.”
The white stucco structure built with wood beams and stud framing stood on a concrete foundation. Per interview with Barbara Witte-Howell, great granddaughter of Ethel Wilson Harris, their family recalled the story of how difficult the construction became. Harris had to transport and haul sand to the Island due to the unsuitability of the local sand to mix with the cement and settle. All material came across the channel via ferry, or, quite often, by shrimp boat or passerby.
According to Susan Toomey Frost, regarding the origin of the tiles on the risers, she notes “that San Jose tiles were used for accents and risers in the Harris House at Mission San Jose.”
As for the ironwork above the altar and door, the origin may be less certain. Though Ethel Wilson Harris frequently collaborated with metal artisans Theo Voss and Kurt Voss of Voss Metal Works, “Mexican Arts & Crafts also had its own metal artisans who could have made the ironwork.”
Therefore, there is no certainty as to which source Ethel employed for metalsmithing for the two small chapel windows. It may be further noted the Maverick Carter House has several Voss Metal Works fireplace screens and other commissions from the mid-1920s, however, a full decade would pass between that work and the construction of the chapel.
For additional reading please see:
Frost, Susan Toomey. Colors on Clay: The San José Tile Workshops of San Antonio. Trinity University Press, 2009.
Casura, Lily. “A Force of Nature: Ethel Wilson Harris.” ExpressNews.com, San Antonio Express-News, 25 June 2017, www.expressnews.com/sa300/article/A-force-of-nature-Ethel-Wilson-Harris-11243497.php.
“Colors on Clay: Gallery Guide.” Mexic-Arte Museum, Mexic-Arte Museum, 2011, www.mexic-artemuseum.org/images/uploads/education/Colors_on_Clay_Gallery_Guide.pdf.
San Antonio River Foundation. “W.P.A.-Era Mural to Return to River.” Tile Heritage, San Antonio River Foundation, www.tileheritage.org/San Antonio River Foundation.html.
“Ethel Wilson Harris House.” Mission Trails, The City of San Antonio, www.sanantonio.gov/Mission-Trails/Mission-Trails-Historic-Sites/Detail-Page/ArtMID/16185/ArticleID/4427/Ethel-Wilson-Harris-House/ID/51.
Hillburn, Elizabeth. “San Antonio River Walk Tile Plaques – San Antonio TX.” The Living New Deal, 1 Mar. 2014, livingnewdeal.org/projects/san-antonio-river-walk-tile-plaques-san-antonio-tx/.