Holy Cross High School - Nanci's School
Holy Cross High School was one of the schools that Nanci Griffith, the folksinger, attended as a youth. Along
with Nanci at Holy Cross initially was Margaret Graham, a life-long friend. Holy Cross was located at 710 East
41st Street in Austin, Texas on the grounds of the Perry Mansion built in 1928. The heritage of this
location is very interesting, matched by the beauty and charm of these lovely grounds and structures. It is located
on the corner of 41st Street and Red River. Directly south of the grounds, or across E. 41st
Street is the present Hancock Golf Course and to the east across Red River is Hancock Shopping Center.
I had wondered where the former location of Holy Cross was in Austin. During June of 1998, the winds of good fortune blew my way to reveal this site. Recently I had given me some general directions. On June 20, my family had taken me out to buy me a father's day gift. Afterwards, on the way home, I asked that we go explore just west of N. Lamar Street in the Baylor Street and Castle Hill area. I was interested in this historical area, plus some of my college days were spent around here. Afterwards, I remembered the directions to Holy Cross and asked if we could check this out too. When we drove past this site that I had always wondered about in the past, I noticed a "Tour Bus Stop" sign by the entrance. It now was about 6:30 P.M. Saturday afternoon. My wife mentioned that she had seen something about historical home tours of the Hyde Park Area being given, but did not know if they still would be given on Sunday. She said why don't I go have a look around. I left the car and went through the large open front gate. As you climb the front stairway, you are struck by the magnificent beauty of huge live oak trees surrounding the wonderful Perry Mansion. I decided to at least walk around the grounds and get a taste of what the place had to offer. I noticed a few people outside putting up signs and doing various chores. I asked one lady if this was the old Holy Cross. She did not know, but said the grounds had once been a nunnery and she had gotten to tour the Perry Mansion and was struck by its awesome beauty. Continuing my self-guided tour, I saw a sign indicating that the tours continued on Sunday. I was relieved. To think I had always wanted to see this place and that it was possibly going to be closed to the public again, was an unbearable thought.
After getting home Saturday night, the newspaper confirmed the Hyde Park Home Tour given by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association would continue on Sunday. The next afternoon, my wife and I left the Elisabet Ney Museum, the starting point of the tour, by bus and hopped off at the Perry Mansion to wait our turn to go through the interior of the Mansion. At each room of the lower floor of the mansion, a volunteer presented historical information on the mansion. In the living room was an group of musicians playing for the visitors. These musicians were replaced with a group of lady singers that finished the afternoon's entertainment.
This 10,800 square foot home was built in 1928 on a 10 acre estate by E.H. Perry and his wife, the former Lutie Pryor. Mr. Perry was born in 1876 in Caldwell, Texas and graduated from Baylor University. He started in the cotton buying business in Taylor, Texas. This central Texas cotton was then sold to Europe prior to World War I. He made his fortune in Europe and is quoted to say "....am going to spend it in Austin to make this city a nicer place to live." Mr. Perry quit the cotton business in 1929 and went on to head the Austin Housing Authority. He also built other structures as the Commodore Perry Hotel, Perry-Brooks Office Building and helped develope the Highland Park Neighborhood.
While Mr. Perry played golf at the former Austin Country Club, now Hancock Golf Course, he noticed the gravel pit across the street. He purchased the 10 acre site and hired prominent Dallas architect, Henry Bowers Thomson, to design a showplace in a Mediterranean villa style. In its prime, the 1928 mansion had a guest house, swimming pool, bowling alley, green house, six-car garage, a formal hillside garden with a marble fountain, sunken garden with mirror pool, and sundial. Waller Creek, that was once damned, that flows along the west end of the property and has an arched bridge across it.
Both the front and rear of the house have an equally beautiful presentation. The front greets you with numerous arches entering a long open-air porch called a loggia. Once in the front entrance, a long hallway opens into all the major rooms of the lower floor. To the right as you enter, is the living room with a large limestone fireplace and then through ornate iron doorways is the solarium on the east end of the house. To the left of the front entrance, is the walnut-paneled formal dining room opening into the breakfast room and kitchen. There is an oval shaped library located on the lower east area balanced by an oval spiral staircase room on the lower west side.
Intricate iron work decorates staircase balustrade, back door, and light fixtures.
In the kitchen is the main telephone. The phone was answered here and then buttons were pushed to direct the call to the appropriate room. Right above this phone is a box that had number which would light up when someone in another room would call for service. Just outside the kitchen door is a dumbwaiter where help would lift the door, place food inside, and haul the food up to the second floor by means of a pulley system. Located inside the staircase oval room is a triangular shaped elevator going to the second floor.
This elegant depression era lifestyle required servants to keep the household going. During World War II, help was hard to come by. Mr. Perry thought that this estate was too big to live in, but a great place to entertain. In 1944, the Perrys moved into the Driskill Hotel and the estate was sold to Herman Heep. Starting in 1948, the former Perry estate has been the location for several private schools. St. Mary's Academy for Girls was the first. The girls lived in the mansion. The other structures like the Nun's Quarters, the Chapel, and additional classrooms were built at this time. To the east of the mansion is the Chapel and to the west of the mansion is classrooms. Behind or to the north of the chapel is the original nunnery. Behind the mansion is presently located a children's playground, skeleton of the original greenhouse used for storage, a defunct pool, and the converted six car garage now housing a couple. To the west of the former garage is a cottage now temporarily housing the Church of Conscious Harmony until new facilities are built for them. To the west of this cottage is the former tennis court and another classroom structure.
A rear entrance drive is located on the east side of the estate off of Red River Street. It goes west between the chapel and nunnery, then divides into a circular drive behind the mansion and continues on over the arched bridge over Walnut Creek and out the front south-west gated side entrance. The main front entrance is located on the south center of the lot on 41st Street. The original sunken gardens were located on the south-east corner of the estate at the corner of 41st Street and Red River Street.
After the all-girls St. Mary's Academy came Holy Cross High School, a coeducational high school. It was operated between 1968-1972 by the Sisters of The Holy Cross. In 1974, West Texas ranchers from Ulvalde, Marvin and LaVerne Henderson purchased the estate and started the process of restoring and preserving the mansion and it's grounds. The Hendersons started the private high school, the Perry School, located originally on 26th Street. Later it was moved onto the estate grounds. After Mr. Henderson's death, the estate was sold to the Sri Atmananda Memorial School, a private, non-sectarian elementary school. The director of this school is Pattye Henderson, one of the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Henderson.
After touring the lower floor and walking all around the estate, we were walking from the west end up behind the mansion to go between the chapel and mansion and buy a cool drink the students of Sri Atmananda School were selling for a fund raiser. A lady carrying two empty ice chests was walking behind the estate. She was wearing a school name tag. I stopped her and asked her about the present school. She was extremely knowledgeable on the history of the estate. I remember the newspaper mentioning the director's name. I asked if she was Ms. Pattye Henderson, and she said "Yes." Great! I now could ask more historical questions.
Ms. Henderson said that the nuns lived in the long structure that was behind the chapel. The St. Mary's girl students lived in the mansion and classes were held in all the various structures of the estate. Her sister had attended Holy Cross. Holy Cross classes were also held in the mansion itself. She knew that Nanci Griffith had attended this school and had in recent years been back to the mansion. I asked Ms. Henderson how did student change classes when a subject was over. She said just like a normal high school. Bells would ring and the student would walk to the next room or building for their next class. When her parents had purchased the estate in 1974, the mansion was fairly barren of decoration. She said her parents had purchased bells, wires, and classrooms. It was at this time that her parents started restoring the estate with furniture that was of the original period.
The tour had only been of the downstairs area of the mansion. I asked her about the upstairs. She said it was decorated in much the same way. She mentioned there used to be a fire escape on the east end of the mansion running from the second floor down to the first floor. It has now been removed, but you can see the patched bolt holes where this fire escape had been for the schools. Ms. Henderson had at one time lived in the upper east room of the mansion with her four year old child. I asked her if it was spooky in being alone in the mansion at night. She said not really. Sometimes there were unexplained noises, but she did not think they were of the spirit sort. She said that there were racoons sometimes in the attic. The noises, she said, were of a friendly nature.
She said that there had been servant quarters for 5 or 6 servants. Presently, a house-sitter lives on the upper west room and a couple lives in the converted garage in back of the mansion. I really enjoyed talking to this nice lady. I could not believe my luck in getting a tour by the historical group, and now was being given a verbal tour by the daughter of the former owners. Interestingly enough, I had worked for a sporting goods company that taught scuba diving classes for a number of years for the Perry School which her parents started. Even I had taught a diving class for the Perry School when it was located on 26th Street and under the directorship of Dr. Nina Cooper. A few days prior, I had always wondered about this place, and now I saw my remote connection emerge.
The present Sri Atmananda School approach is to be respectful of the child as an individual and help the child learn about subjects he is interested in at that time. The school goes through the fifth grade. Ms. Henderson hopes that in the future that a high school curriculum will be developed. I asked if she thought if the school will ever be sold or closed down. She said that it had been around a long time and thought that it would continue to be so for a long time.
What a wonderful afternoon I had . As my wife and I waited for the last tour bus out, the group of lady singers that had entertained inside the mansion came outside to wait for the bus also. I had sat next to one of these ladies on the way over in the bus and discussed Austin's growing pains. While we waited the ladies decided to sing to the small group waiting. This could not get any better. What a perfect ending to a day at Nanci's School!
1. "1998 Hyde Park Homes Tour - Details, details", by Lisa Germany, The Austin American-Statesman, Friday, June 19,1998, pages F1 & F10.
2. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Association 's Handout : "1998 Historic Hyde park Homes Tour / The Perry Mansion on the Campus of Sri Atmananda Memorial School - 710 East 41st Street (1928)."
3. The Hancock Neighborhood Association Newsletter, May 7, 1997.
PAGE TWO - MORE PHOTOGRAPHS
Nanci's Starting Place
Maggie - The Mary Margaret
Drop Paul A Note
Copyright - © - 1998 - Paul Johnston