Mills Place Historic District
Corsicana, Navarro County, Texas


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On relatively level terrain about six blocks west of the Navarro County Courthouse, the Mills Place Historic District encompasses a small enclave of notable early 20th- century domestic architecture. Focused on the Mills Place Addition, the district also incorporates the surviving fragment of the historic Roger Q. Mills homestead tract from which the neighborhood was platted in 1924. Typically of two stories, 1920s and 1930s residences generally occupy large lots facing onto Mills Place Drive or West Park Avenue, which join to terminate in a cul-de-sac. Historicist period revival forms predominate, with examples of the Italian Renaissance, Tudor, Colonial and Spanish Colonial revival styles establishing the district's architectural character. Although more limited in scale, this secluded enclave emulates prestigious suburban neighborhoods in the state's larger urban communities, such as Kessler Park in Dallas (NR 1994), Alamo Heights in San Antonio, and River Oaks in Houston. With 32 of 38 buildings contributing to the district's historic character, the Mills Place Historic District retains a high level of its historic integrity.

The rectangularity shaped district lies north of West 2nd Avenue on relatively level terrain. A small creek cuts through the northern section of the neighborhood, roughly parallel to Sycamore Street. The district encompasses all of the Mills Place Addition, as well as the surviving fragment of the Roger Q. Mills homestead tract. Large, irregularly shaped lots characterize the Mills Place Addition, while the Mills tract comprises a large rectangular area in the southeast quadrant of the district.

Carefully maintained public improvements and landscaping complement the architectural integrity of houses in the district. Upon entering the neighborhood, Mills Place Drive and West Park Avenue become curvilinear, joining to form a cul-de-sac in the northeast quadrant of the district (see Photo 2). This distinguishes the enclave from the grid of streets in surrounding informal landscaping. In response to the gradual slope of the land along Mills Place Drive, relatively level yard scapes incorporate sloped embankments descending to street level. Presumed to be contemporaneous with the original 1920s sidewalks and curbs, concrete stairs provide access from the street. Individual landscapes in the district are generally more formal and manicured along this street, graduating to a more natural aspect with denser stands of trees along the cul-de-sac on West Park Avenue. Indigenous oak trees incorporated into the landscaping schemes in this area and on the historic Mills property mix with plantings of deciduous trees such as Spanish oaks, red oaks and elms.

Limited to single family dwellings and their associated outbuildings, building types and stylistic influences in the district fall within a fairly narrow focus. Large period revival houses comprise the bulk of the building stock, with two examples of Craftsman-inspired bungalows historic Mills homestead. Dating to the decade following the establishment of the neighborhood in 1924, these period revival houses exhibit romanticized interpretations of historic styles. While residences in the addition are solely urban and domestic in concept, their park-like setting reveals the extent to which the pastoral appeal of suburban living was highly regarded during this period.  Residences and their outbuildings reflect the dominance of the complete spectrum of European and Colonial American in domestic building during the 1920s-and 1930s. Unlike the eclecticism of the Victorian period, these historicist revivals emphasized relatively pure interpretations based on historic models. In the early 1920s, the construction industry perfected inexpensive techniques to add thin brick or stone veneers to traditional balloon frame houses. As a result, architects and builders undertook a widespread application of styles such as the Colonial, Tudor and Spanish Colonial revivals. The most prevalent type in the district fall into the generic Mediterranean category, including various interpretations of Italian Renaissance and Spanish Colonial prototypes. Stone or stucco wall finishes, round arched fenestration and broad tripped roofs sheathed in tile generally distinguish examples of this style, such as the Lowry and Lila Martin House (1218 West Park Avenue). Tudor Revival houses are the next most common, featuring intricate masonry exteriors, asymmetrically massed plans surmounted by complex gabled 'roofs, massive exterior chimneys and ornamental half-timbering. Arcades with pointed or round arches often delineate porches or entry bays on houses of this style, such as the Henry Stroube House (1200 West Park Avenue). The third type found in the district include houses exhibiting classically inspired motifs and designs drawn from the Colonial Revival design idiom. Examples such as those in the 600 block of Mills Place Drive  feature elements such as symmetrical facades, flanking dependencies, and round arched or pedimented fenestration. Most of these houses are expansive, often rising to two stories. Contemporaneous, similarly detailed ancillary buildings, usually garages incorporating detached living quarters originally intended for servants, typically complement these resources.

The district also includes the Roger Q. Mills House, a mid-19th century residence constructed in the Greek Revival style. Built in the 1850s and expanded in the 1880s, 2-story frame house reflects an earlier interpretation of historic design elements based on classical orders, detailing, scale and proportions. A 5-bay symmetrical porch dominates the full facade of the house, incorporating classical elements on the columns and fenestration.

CONTRIBUTING - Properties in this category include buildings that contribute to the district's overall historic and architectural character. The district can be defined as an affluent residential neighborhood with 1920s and 1930s dwellings and their contemporaneous outbuildings. To be categorized as a Contributing resource, a building must be at least 50 years old and retain sufficient historic integrity to be recognizable to the district's period of significance. This is most often achieved through similarities of scale, materials, workmanship and setting. Properties significant on an individual basis, such as the Roger Q. Mills House, are also classified in this category. Although a Contributing building need not be completely unaltered, more recent (post-1945) changes such as the installation of new metal-sash windows or the addition of new rooms and wings, may negatively affect historic integrity. If the property's basic form remains distinctive, however, such resources do not detract from the district's overall historic character and therefore may still be classified as Contributing elements.

NONCONTRIBUTING - Properties in this category detract from the district's historic character. Typically, these resources are less than 50 years and share little architectural similarities with buildings constructed during the period of significance. They exhibit few of the similarities of scale, craftsmanship, design quality and architectural features exhibited by the majority of the buildings in the district.  The Mills Place Historic District encompasses a relatively small residential enclave boasting many of Corsicana's best examples of period revival dwellings. Residents constructed well-crafted Mediterranean, Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival style homes in the decade following the plaffing of the Mills Place. Addition in 1924. Stimulated by the economic boom accompanying regional discoveries of oil, the neighborhood plat incorporated gently curving streets typical of contemporaneous suburban development patterns throughout the state. Evaluated within the context of Community and Regional Development of Corsicana, Texas, the district is therefore eligible on the local level of significance under Criterion A in the area of Community and Regional Development and under Criterion C in the area of Architecture.

The beginnings of the historic district can be traced to the 1854 purchase of a large tract of land about six blocks west of the Navarro County Courthouse by Roger Q. Mills, a Kentucky-born attorney. Mills built a 1-story center passage house with Greek Revival detailing, adding a second floor in the late 1850s and expanding it again in the 1880s. The resultant house (see Photo 8) remained an imposing physical landmark in the community throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as befitted one of Corsicana's most influential citizens. Mills gained a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1872, eventually chairing the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In 1892, his political skill garnered him the seat in the U.S. Senate that he held until his retirement to Corsicana in 1899 (Roberts 1929).

Corsicana underwent a tremendous transformation during Mills' lifetime. Following initiation of rail service in 1871 by the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, the city's strategic position at a significant rail crossroads in the midst of the profitable Blackland Prairie cotton production region fostered sustained economic expansion. The city also experienced a brief yet intense boom in the late 1890s following local discoveries of oil. The resultant influx of people during the late 19th and early 20th centuries prompted construction of many new houses. In response, residential developers partitioned much of the land in the western part of the city, including property surrounding the Mills homestead tract. Typically developed sporadically as long- time property owners subdivided their homestead tracts, small additions characterized residential development  east of the downtown commercial area. While most mid-19th century houses fell victim to this development pattern, however, the Mills homestead tract survived largely intact into the early 20th century.

With the successful recovery of oil in 1923 from deep wells in the Powell Field east of Corsicana, local housing demands reached almost critical proportions. As hotels reached connective. many home owners took in boarders or subdivided their houses into duplexes. The ensuing building boom fostered construction of many new residences, some as infill in existing neighborhoods and others in entirely new subdivisions. After inheriting his father's estate in 1911, Charles H. Mills participated in this real estate speculation by conveying a large portion of the Mills homestead tract to local lumberman J. Ruben Neece and banker J. Elmer Butler. Neece and Butler developed a new subdivision called Mills Place Addition, filing the plat for the exclusive new neighborhood in 1924.

In contrast to contemporaneous subdivisions developed for middle- and lower-class residents, the Mills Place Addition 'proximity to the city's historic center did not impose density of development. Intending to marketed the new subdivision to affluent citizens, the developers set aside expansive lots and a layout with a meandering street plan and circular cul-de-sac based on the suburban ideal of neighborhoods such as Kessler Park in Dallas (1923; NR 1994) and Wolflin Estates in Amarillo (1923-27; NR 1992). These exclusive enclaves often followed the designs of landscape architectural forms such as George Kessler or Hare and Hare who were active in urban centers throughout the state. A $10,000 minimum construction cost for houses in the Mills Place Addition assured prospective residents that their new neighbors would be among the most affluent in the city. Few could afford to build such large houses unless they obtained their wealth directly from the oil boom or were already successful merchants or professionals whose businesses expanded during the prosperous 1920s. As a result, the roster of residents initially included oil operators, bankers, prosperous retailers and affluent doctors, as well as developers Neece and Butler themselves.

By 1935 all but four lots in the district were developed. As a result, the neighborhood exhibits the finest collection of 1920s and 1930s residential architecture in the city. Professional architects probably designed all of houses in the district, although research thus far has conformed only four architect-designed houses in the neighborhood. Local architect H. O. Blanding drew the plans for the Etta Wortham House at 502 Mills Place Drive. David R. Williams of Dallas designed the Lowry and Lila Martin House (see Photo 5), the William and Bessie Stroube House (see Photo 6) and the Francis B. Mickey House at 613 Mills Place Drive. Indeed, these Corsicana houses were among the most outstanding examples of residential architecture by Williams, and were cited in his nomination to Fellowship in the American Institute of Architects some years later (McCarthy 1984:90).

Since its initially development, the Mills Place neighborhood has remained a showcase residential area of Corsicana. Property owners have taken great pride in the houses, keeping them well-maintained and in a good state of repair. New construction has been limited, as to-four post 1945 houses, thereby preserving much of the district's overall historic character. Alterations to the historic period houses have been minimal, typically entailing window replacements or new additions. The district remains one of the most distinctive historic neighborhoods in the city, representing one of the earliest local efforts at master planned residential development.

REPRESENTATIVE PROPERTIES IN THE HISTORIC DISTRICT

The following properties illustrate significant trends in the historic district's developmental history.

ROGER Q. MILLS HOUSE 1200 West 2nd Avenue. Date: c.1855/c.1885.

This 2-story frame domestic building retains a high degree of its 19th century character, including Greek Revival influences such as the center passage form and full width porch with classical columns. Roger Quarles Mills built the original house soon after acquiring this tract in 1854. He greatly enlarged the house by adding a second floor within a decade and another 2-story addition in the 1880s. Relatively few exterior changes occurred after this period, although two outbuildings probably date to the early 20th century.  One of Corsicana's earliest and most influential pioneers, Mills provided prominent leadership in the community for almost six decades. Trained as a lawyer, he served two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in 1872. Mills' knowledge of trade and tariff issues led to his position as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1887. Following the appointment of John H. Reagan to the chairmanship of the newly created Texas Railroad Commission in 1892, Mills assumed Reagan's seat in the U.S. Senate. He retired to his home in Corsicana in 1899 (Roberts 1929). Upon his death in 1911, the property passed to his son, Charles H. Mills, also a lawyer and state senator. While the family sold most of the original tract for redevelopment in 1924, they retained the house and its immediate surroundings until 1944. One of the few extant examples of Greek Revival architecture in the city, the house reflects the period of Mills significant political career as well as the role played by the family estate in the development of the surrounding early 20th century neighborhood.

DR. THOMAS AND LOIS WILLS HOUSE. 602 Mills Place Drive. Date: c.1925.

The classical detailing and large front gabled roof surmounting this 2-story frame house place it squarely in the Colonial Revival style, one of the most prevalent styles in the district. A contemporaneous detached garage with servants quarters features similar detailing. Dr. Thomas Opie Wills and his wife, Lois, moved into the house following its construction about 1925. Born in Navarro County in 1895, Dr. Wills achieved prominence as a local physician and director of the Navarro Clinic at 401 West Collin. 

BELL-WOLENS HOUSE 603 Mills Place Drive. Date: c.1930.

Tyree L. Bell and his wife Alta commissioned this 2- story house about 1930. The rectangular plan, dominant hipped roof, arcaded ground floor and wrought iron balcony are suggestive of the eclectic designs of the Mediterranean style popular during this period. The large ogee arch of the primary entrance distinguishes the composition. A contemporaneous garage occupies the rear of the property. Tyree Bell served as general superintendent of the F. P. McElwrath & Company, a locally based road paving and contracting firm. Louis and Ann Wolens purchased the house in 1936. Louis Wolens served as treasurer of the family business, K. Wolens, a regionally prominent retail chain.

ORIN AND ANNA BOYNTON HOUSE 608 Mills Place Drive. Date: c.1925.

Orin B. and Anna M. Boynton built this 2-story Colonial Revival house about 1925. Stylistic features such as the entry portico with Doric columns and the pedimented entrance relate the house to similar examples of the popular style in the neighborhood. A contemporaneous garage occupies the rear of the property. Orin Boynton's career as an oil operator profited from oil explorations in Navarro County during the middle of the 1920s. The newly created revenues derived from the oil boom probably spurred construction of the house.

BUTLER-WOLENS HOUSE 616 Mills Place Drive. Date: 1926.

J. Elmer Butler, one of the principal developers of the Mills Place Addition, built this 2-story Italian Renaissance Revival house in 1926. At the rear of the property, a contemporaneous the rectangular plan, the broad hip roof sheathed with clay tiles, Tuscan columns on the entry portico and an arcaded window treatment on the ground floor provide visual reference to other Mediterranean derived houses in the neighborhood. Among these was the house at 1100 West Park Avenue, built in the same year by Butler's partner in the development, J. Ruben Neece. The Neece Lumber Company may well have supplied construction materials for both houses. Butler's service as vice-president of the First State Bank of Corsicana led to involvement with the Corsicana Commercial Club, a significant forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce. He sold the property in 1940 to the Max Wolens family. Wolens, who served as vice-president of the family retail business, became the second family member to reside in the neighborhood (see Bell-Wolens House, 603 North Mills Place).

WILLIAM AND BESSIE STROUBE HOUSE. 1115 West Park Avenue. Date: 1927. Architect: David R. Williams.

Local oil operator William C. Stroube and his wife Bessie commissioned this 2-story Spanish Colonial Revival house, designed by renown Dallas architect David R. Williams in 1927. Its stylistic features include exterior walls of stone and stucco, a tripped roof with clay tiles, and a cantilevered balcony over the primary entrance that reflect Williams' interest in vernacular architectural traditions. As the leading proponent of the regionalist movement among Texas architects during the late 1920s and 1930s, Williams espoused incorporation of 'indigenous' Texas architectural forms into new domestic designs. For his first commission in Corsicana, he incorporated stone salvaged from an early house in Palo Pinto County and columns from an old post office in Dallas (McCarthy 1984: 78). The house also incorporated wood carvings by noted artisan Peter Mansbendel of Austin. Contemporaneous outbuildings including a free standing porte cochere and a 1-story garage and servants quarters create an informal
spaces reminiscent of Mexican architecture, a hallmark of Williams' regionalist work. In the space of the next four years, Williams twice returned to the neighborhood, designing houses in this aesthetic for Francis and Katherine Mickey (613 Mills Place Drive; 1929) and Lowry and Lila Martin (1218 West Park Avenue; 1931).

HENRY R. STROUBE HOUSE. 1200 West Park Avenue. Date: c.1929.

An oil field driller and producer with the firm of Stroube & Stroube, Henry Stroube built this 2-story Tudor Revival house across the street from the house of his brother and partner, William (see 115 West Park Avenue). The fieldstone veneered house exhibits hallmark stylistic features such as massive exterior chimneys, a complex roofscape sheeted in slate, decorative half- timbering and diapered brickwork, and an arcaded entry portico surmounted by an oriel window. A contemporaneous garage occupies the rear of the property. This outstanding local example of the Tudor Revival style remains in the Stroube family.

RICHARD CALKINS HOUSE. 1208 West Park Avenue. Date: c.1928.

Profits from his local Ford Motor Cars Company dealership prompted Richard Calkins to purchase this property in 1927. He subsequently commissioned this 1-1/2 story domestic building, completed in the following year. One of several in the neighborhood that features detailing drawn from the Tudor Revival design idiom, it exhibits the asymmetrical plan, steeply gabled roof scape and dominant brick chimney typical of the style. The Calkins family continued to lived in the house through the 1940s. A contemporaneous garage occupies the rear of the property. Despite a flat- roofed addition to the side, the house contributes to the early 20th century character of the neighborhood.

Dr. Homer B. and Kate Jester commissioned this 2-story red brick house about 1930, living here into the 1940s. A physician and surgeon, Jester maintained offices at the Navarro Clinic at 401 West Collin. The house features a balanced composition derived from Georgian architecture and ornamented with classical detailing such as a pedimented entry. This treatment typifies the interest in Colonial Revival styles during the early 20th century. Few local examples retain the integrity of this well-preserved example of the style.

LOWRY AND LILA MARTIN HOUSE. 1218 West Park Avenue. Date: c.1931.  Architect: David R. Williams.

Regionally renown architect David R. Williams designed this 2-story house and detached garage for Lowry and Lila Martin about 1931. For his final contribution to the neighborhood, Williams further simplified the Mediterranean historicism used at the Stroube house (see 1115 West Park Avenue) to create a modernist interpretation of the region's vernacular traditions. Through shared scale and materials, however, the composition remains harmonious with its more historicist neighbors. At the time of construction, Martin served as business manager for the local Corsicana Daily Sun &.Semi-Weekly Morning Light. He acquired both newspapers within a decade from his neighbor at 502 Mills Place Drive, Etta Wortham.

BIBLIOGRAPHY ON FILE IN THE NATIONAL REGISTER

Courtesy of the
Texas Historic Commission


Navarro County TXGenWeb
Copyright March, 2009
Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox