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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Sebastopol House

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The old town of Seguin has a secret only a handful of architectural historians and archeologists know about.

Someone less inclined to honor the memory of Texas hero Erasmo Seguin, the town's namesake, could as easily have dubbed the seat of Guadalupe County Concretetown. Or, more properly, Limecretetown.

Limecrete was an early form of cast-in-place concrete made of just the right mixture of lime, water and gravel. Doctor and chemist John Park, who settled in Seguin in 1846, developed and patented the process. Nineteenth century Seguin once had as many as 100 limecrete structures, more than any other city in Texas. Today only 20 remain.

While some 80 percent of the unique houses are gone now, one striking example remains: Sebastopol.
Seguin TX - Sebastopol House
Sebastopol House
November 2013 photo by Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia Commons

Also known as the Zorn House, the Greek Revival house was built between 1854 and 1856 by Joshua Young. Actually, he probably only supervised the construction. Slaves did the real work. That process consisted of putting up wooden forms and then pouring in limecrete to make the foundation and walls.

The obvious question: Why concrete? A construction material most people associate with the urban sprawl of the 20th century, its use actually dates to Roman times. Its use was not common in 19th century Texas, except around Seguin, where some houses were built of limecrete as early as the late 1840s.

The answer, as laid out in a archeological investigation done by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is that while lumber for more traditional frame houses had to come by wagon from the port city of Indianola, gravel and limestone could be had in plentiful supply right there in Guadalupe County. Enough timber was available along the Guadalupe River for building the forms for concrete walls. And there was no shortage of water.

Bricks also could be made locally--and were--but that was a more labor-intensive process and using bricks in construction took a higher skill level than generally available.

But with ample raw material, slave labor and enough craftsmen who knew how to properly mix concrete, building structures that way made plenty of sense. The concept of energy conservation had not been invented yet, but concrete houses obviously were better insulated than frame structures, staying cooler in the summer and being easier to heat in the winter. Once the concrete set and thoroughly dried, a coat of whitewash was applied. That reflected sunlight, which made the structures even more energy efficient.

Young sold his concrete house to his sister Catherine LeGette in 1857 and it remained in her family until 1874, when Joseph Zorn Jr. purchased it. A businessman, Zorn went on to serve as Seguin's mayor from 1890 to 1910. He and his wife raised six children in the house, which stayed in his family's possession until 1961 when Zorn's granddaughter Hazel Tegener sold the house to the Seguin Conservation Society.

The uniqueness of the house had been recognized as early as 1936, when the Depression-era Historic American Buildings program surveyed and photographed the structure. The house became a registered Texas historical landmark in 1964 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the summer of 1970.

The Seguin conservation group renovated the house and kept it open to the public until 1976, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bought it and when additional funding became available transformed it into the Sebastopol State Historical Park. Before stabilizing and restoring the old house, the state contracted for a thorough archeological investigation of the structure.

Archeologists recovered more than 100,000 artifacts in excavating beneath the floors and around the foundation of the house. The 15-foot deep limecrete cistern near the house contained a huge cache of artifacts, from broken dishes to old medicine bottles. The most striking was an object that tends to prove the belief that slaves worked and lived on the property: a rare black ceramic toy called a Charlie doll.

The state maintained the historic structure until 2011, when during a period of state government financial belt-tightening, TPWD conveyed the house and the 2.2 acres around it to the City of Seguin.

So, what's up with the name "Sebastopol"? Young built the house as the Crimean War raged in Europe. Sebastopol--now commonly spelled with a "v" instead of a "b" was an important Russian-controlled port. Beginning in 1854 and continuing into the following year, British, French and Ottoman forces laid siege to the city. The Russians finally withdrew, sinking their fleet in the harbor to prevent its use by their enemies.

Why Young thought that Ukraine city on the Black Sea would be a catchy name in Texas can only be speculated on. Could be he was of British descent or at least sympathetic to the allies fighting Russia. Maybe he simply liked the uniqueness of the name.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 15, 2017 column


See Seguin, Texas

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