Monday, April 1, 2013

The French Legation Museum

This is the oldest surviving wood frame house in Austin, and it is owned and operated as a public museum by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who also oversee the Alamo in San Antonio.

It's an amazing glimpse back into pioneer days in Austin, but in this case a relatively civilized "pioneer day."

The man responsible for its design and construction was Dubois de Saligny, the Secretary from the French Legation in Washington, D.C., who came to Austin in September of 1840.

The house, built in 1840-1841, was furnished by his servants with furniture and provisions "worthy of a foreign dignitary's residence."  However - and here is the astonishing fact - Monsieur de Saligny may never have lived in the house.

To the local Austin population in 1840, many aspects of the man were found objectionable.  They did not believe that he was a Count, or in fact that his name was actually more than Monsieur Dubois.  He was accused of using counterfeit money at one point and of not paying his bills.  He was renowned for showing his contempt for the living conditions he experienced in downtown Austin.  

Simply put,  he was not a popular man.  

His popularity, or lack of it, culminated in a conflict with local innkeeper Richard Bullock.  Mr. Bullock was accustomed to letting his several pigs roam freely through the town, and after a bit of rummaging in the vicinity of Monsieur Dubois' residence, those pigs were eventually killed by Monsieur Dubois' man-servant.

Due to Dubois' generally disdained presence and questionable activities, the locals naturally sided with the local innkeeper.

Finally, James Mayfield, the Texas Secretary of State, requested that Dubois be recalled back to Washington.  The man left town, never to return, and therefore probably never inhabited this lovely home, the French Legation, located on a bluff overlooking central Austin.

In 1847, Dr. Joseph W. Robertson bought the property.  After his dream of using it as a school for girls had to be abandoned, he moved his family into the house as their residence.  He and his wife went on to raise eleven children there, the last child (born in 1850 in the house) continuing residence there until her death in 1940.  The property during all of this time was known as "Robertson Hill."

The exterior kitchen, a free-standing building behind the main house, features many items of cookware and tableware from the mid-1800's, with an unusual emphasis on period French culinary preferences and implements.  

After all had come and gone, Dubois' main legacy to Austin seems to be the French servants that he left behind when he vacated the state.  As a result, Austin now had its first  French bakery.  Perhaps this began to mend Austin's contempt for the man and his foreign ways, for the residence which he probably never lived in is in fact called The French Legation.

The French Legation Museum
(512) 472-8180
802 San Marcos St.  Austin, TX 78702

Tuesday through Sunday, from 1:00-5:00 p.m.
Admission fees.