by Andrew Gaul
When the prominent capitalist and philanthropist Harry Landa bequeathed his personal residence and five surrounding acres to the city of San Antonio at his death in 1946, he specified that the property be used as a public library and a children’s playground. The Hannah Landa Memorial Branch Library located in the Monte Vista Historic District, one of twenty-four local branches of the San Antonio Public Library System, stands as a monument to Landa’s late wife, as well as a tribute to his legacy of leadership and service in the South Texas community.
Harry Landa was born on December 20, 1861 to Joseph Landa, a German immigrant, and Helena Friedlander, a young English girl from Albany, New York. Brought up in a home across the square from the Comal County Courthouse, Landa learned, along with his brothers and sisters, to honor the Golden Rule. His father’s maxim, “Do justice, be useful, love mercy and serve righteously God,” would serve him well throughout his life (Landa, 13-18). When he reached an acceptable age, the family sent Landa away from his home in New Braunfels with five-thousand dollars, two mules, and a wagon. Because Landa’s parents had profited greatly their milling company on the Comal River, they could start out their son with a veritable springboard of business sense and solid finances. Yet it was not Landa’s family legacy that would bring him to prominence. With his South Texas charm and Midas touch for economics, Landa profited from many endeavors from grain and feed store owner, to bank president, railroad tycoon, ranch man, and myriad other positions. Landa performed what seemed to be business miracles in Texas, and made many friends in the process. His social connections allowed Landa, among other things, to sip whiskey with the Secretary of Agriculture during prohibition, marshal loyalty parades with General Pershing, and secure entrance to almost any social venue (Landa 80-85). Landa, along with his mother, used his connections well when they procured the first two rooms ever rented in San Antonio’s St. Anthony hotel in early 1909 (“A History”). The events to take place during that stay would impact the rest of Landa’s life.
At this most formal gathering place, Landa first saw and resolved to marry, Miss Hannah Mansfield of Tucson, Arizona. Using his influence with his friends, the bellman of the St. Anthony, and two high-society women, Landa secured entrance to a ball Miss Mansfield attended. He worked his way toward her, asked for a dance, and began his courtship. Several months later, the couple formalized their engagement, much to the dismay of Hannah’s fiancé! The two married in Tucson on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1913, and moved to Landa ‘s large ranch north of San Antonio. Over the next few years, as Harry Landa embarked upon several business ventures, Hannah Landa stood lovingly by his side, and soon became one of the most esteemed civic and social leaders in the city (Landa 82-85).
The happy marriage lasted over thirty years, until Hannah Landa’s death on October 28, 1942. She had converted from Judaism to Christian Science in the years preceding her death, and thus refused medical treatment for the flu - a choice that proved fatal. Landa, crushed, wrote in his autobiography about the period as the first time he ever felt abandoned (Landa 99). With no children, Landa had devoted his life to his wife, and decided to continue her legacy of community involvement by donating their home at 233 Bushnell to the city of San Antonio for a library and a children’s playground, under the condition that they be maintained “in a manner keeping with good practices and national standards” (Everett 126). Though never officially confirmed, speculation said that Landa’s motivation came from his rabbi, David Jacobson, and his wife Helen Jacobson, member of the Public Library Board.
In 1928, architect Robert B. Kelley of Kellwood Co., designed the “two stories of stucco, stone-tile, and other permanent materials@ to resemble palatial Italian architecture” (“History”). Mrs. Landa supervised the construction, and worked very closely with Kelley and C.D. Carlisle, the contractor, to create a beautiful home, adorned with lavish furniture, hand crafted wrought iron work imported from Italy, and a glass chandelier brought back from a trip to Venice. The unique hand-carved marble mantle alongside intricate marble and tiled floors gave the home its distinctive air of elegance dressed in comfort. The Landa’s also built a room specifically designed as an art gallery to display their numerous paintings collected from their travels in Europe (“Art Gallery”). When completed in 1929, the San Antonio Light featured a full page photographic piece detailing the home’s ornate decor. Hailed as “one of the South’s finest homes” (“Landa’s S.A. Home”) the Landa residence was considered one of the pioneering marvels included in the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of architecture and style incorporated into new homes “West of the Olmos” in that year (“Newest Creations”).
At Landa’s death in 1946, the city took possession of the home and officials began refurbishing it for its new purpose. They erected book shelves, and purchased library furniture. Work completed, the library officially opened for business on April 1, 1947 (“History”). For over forty years, the building enjoyed use by the residents of Monte Vista and the surrounding area as both library and social venue. For example, each year the Monte Vista residents held a Fourth of July parade, one of the most acclaimed in the area, and afterward, convened on the Landa property for a community picnic. Because the library received so much attention over the years, it also sustained its share of weathering and decay. But the city of San Antonio never provided sufficient maintenance funding so the library did not receive the care necessary for preservation. Nor did the city allocate funds for the construction of the children’s playground stipulated in Landa’s will (Toalson).
In 1991, a neighborhood group, seeking to sustain the structure and its use as a city library, formed the Landa Library Alliance. Their purpose: to raise money and public awareness of the library in order to maintain the property and furnish the playground (“Welcome to Landa”). Around the time of the Alliance’s formation, the City of San Antonio independently planned and funded a $623,060 renovation of the building. The project began February 21, 1996, and ended September 5, 1997 (“History”). About a year later, the Alliance completed construction on the children’s playground, a $70,000 project that took six years of planning and dedicated fundraising by members. Pam Howard, the president of the Alliance at the time, pointed out, “It was a long journey but well worth it” (Figueroa). In the year following its completion, the playground boosted the library’s patronage from 25,000 in 1997 to 95,000 in 1998 (Toalson). Ginger Payne, the branch’s children’s librarian, commented on the effect a well maintained library has on a community. “You don’t walk to the grocery store. Most kids don’t walk to school.” she said. “People walk to the library.” (Miller).
After the Alliance completed its restoration and playground construction, it faced the challenge of developing the remaining two thirds of the property. The solution came in 2001, when the Monte Vista Historical Association (MVHA) and the Landa Library Alliance jointly formed the Landa Gardens Committee, a group that enlisted the help of a landscape architect and formed a master plan for the entire five acres (“Welcome to Landa”). They chose to create a warm environment with benches, pathways, and a pavilion, separated into six major sections dedicated to different forms of literature: Children’s Classics, Junior Readers, Poet’s Corner, Fantasy, American Folklore, and Local History (“The Master Plan”). Ann Van Pelt, one of the leading organizers of the Committee, said that the project would cost $1.25 million, including a $250,000 endowment fund for future additions and preservation. “The project is not going to die,” said Van Pelt. “You have to have a dream. You have to keep knocking on doors until you achieve it.” (Jackson). As such, the Committee began fund raising immediately, and received many generous contributions from organizations such as the Kronkosky Foundation, the Myra Stafford Pryor Charitable Trust, the Greehy and Whitacre family foundations, SBC, and H.E. Butt Grocery Co. Valero Energy Corporation donated the necessary $150,000 to build the pavilion, designed by artist Carlos Cortés out of cement to resemble a grove of shade trees nestled amongst the live oaks on the Landa property (Goetz).
In 2004, the MVHA voted to allow the Landa Gardens Committee to separate itself from the MVHA so that the latter might focus on more prevalent issues in the neighborhood. The Committee soon formed the Landa Gardens Conservancy, a non-profit organization, to continue the work of the Committee without financial dependence on the MVHA, though the Association graciously gave a donation to the Conservancy each year. Ann Van Pelt and Jill Torbert, two Association members long dedicated to the project, vowed at the time to continue the plan without pause (Jackson). In 2006, Torbert, the Conservancy president, finally secured the total amount necessary for construction on the Master Plan, which began August 13, 2007. Though the project faced some minor setbacks due to unusually heavy rainfall during construction, patrons watched closely as their new library gardens finally took shape in early 2008.
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