If the house on Washington Square could talk – A death resurrects a historic home and reveals a secret life. – By Ricardo Gandara – AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF – Sunday, November 05, 2006 –
If a house could talk, the 90-year-old home on Washington Square has stories to tell. But like its reclusive owner, who recently died in one of its stifling bedrooms, it long led a shuttered existence. Since it was purchased in 1925, this Mission Revival stucco house, built on a broad, genteel street only one block long, has sheltered a learned family of promise. Edward J. Mathews, longtime University of Texas registrar and assistant dean, lived there with his wife and their three children, a few minutes’ walk from campus. Their rooms faced a lovely Spanish-style courtyard, paved with ornate tiles from Mexico; at Thanksgiving they hosted UT foreign students in a dining room beneath a “mysterious and beautiful” Moorish lamp, as the Mathews’ daughter, Ravenna Helson, recalled recently.
The family entertained at dinners beneath this Moorish lamp, which Reed Mathews’ mother picked out with the help of the head of UT’s home economics department. Ravenna and her husband, Henry Helson, both became professors at the University of California at Berkeley; her younger brother Edward became a psychiatrist and moved to Maryland. Edward’s twin, Reed Mathews, taught science at San Angelo State University in the 1960s. A few years after his father died in 1964, Reed came back to live on Washington Square, where he eventually beat a long retreat into a sequestered life in the home he loved. With his increasing age and health problems, it became harder for him to keep the property up.
By the time he died this summer at the age of 77, the once-gracious house was unfit for habitation — its darkened windows clamped shut, the swamp-cooler air conditioner unused, the commodes and sinks bone-dry. With no water, rodents and a cat died, too. Reed Mathews’ decomposed body was found July 24 in a back bedroom sitting in a chair by a floor fan, surrounded by piles of trash.
That day the mercury hit 100 degrees, and the stench reached the street. Police donned protective Tyvek suits to enter the house, which was crammed waist-high with so much moldering stuff that many doors were blocked.
“It did not appear that anything was out of its normal place, but it was difficult to tell where anything should have been,” investigator Richard Faithful noted in the police report. The body was removed through a window.
With Mathews’ death, his neglected home at 30th Street and Washington Square got a new lease on life. Sometimes called the “Alamo house” for its distinctive arched parapets, it sold for considerably above the Helsons’ $425,000 asking price. The new owner plans a 3,000-square-foot addition that will more than double its original 2,300 square feet. An application for historical designation is in the works.
Mathews’ death also exposed his intensely private life to public view. Though his friends described him as intelligent, well-read and well-spoken, the neighborhood knew him as a recluse who permitted no visitors. When his doors were finally thrown open, everyone saw why.
The beautiful old house reeked; a stucco ceiling was collapsing; walls of books were ruined by vermin. Rotten food, still in sacks from the grocery store, filled the refrigerator. The cleaning crew loaded two Dumpsters with the house’s contents. Countless manila folders of typewritten diaries and letters, describing the daily events of Mathews’ life and obsessive video-watching in numbing detail, were tossed, along with his master’s thesis and personal effects. Everything from unworn clothing to boxes of new Craftsman tools littered the porch.
Neighborhood residents, curiosity seekers, Dumpster divers — they all swooped in. In a matter of days, Mathews’ discarded possessions were scattered to the winds. Two pairs of pristine 60s-era Levis bought by a treasure hunter for $5 each made their way to Japan, where similar jeans sell for hundreds of dollars. Family mementos, including some of the photographs that run with this story, fell into the hands of strangers. Many of those who stopped by the house on Washington Square were struck by the evidence of a dreaded fate. First, a descent into frailty and extreme circumstances; next, a lonely death, unnoticed for days; then, the secrets of one’s life exposed, as scavengers paw through your history in a Dumpster.
A familiar phenomenon “I’ve seen this before. Recluse lives in a house stuffed to the gills. It’s a person with resources and means, educated, and living in squalor with animals living in the house. It’s so familiar,” said Lin Team, an Austin real estate agent and board member of the Preservation Society of Austin, a group that monitors historic properties. “It’s a strange phenomenon.” Ravenna Helson, a psychologist whose research on creativity and aging was cited in a recent Time magazine article, said her brother was “very loyal” to the family home. “It was his role, to maintain 3001 Washington Square. That’s how he saw himself. (But) he was losing the ability to keep it organized and dreaded the idea of anyone coming to look at it.” It’s not clear when, exactly, Reed Mathews slipped deeply into strangeness. After graduating from Austin High School in 1947, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in bacteriology from UT in 1951. He was a member of the Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and after graduation he reported to duty with the rank of ensign, serving until July 1953. After earning a master’s degree from UT, he taught science at San Angelo College from 1960 to 1967, which may have been the only job he ever held. He married Jane Laetson in 1972, according to public records, and they divorced in 1987. Mathews was a voracious reader and subscribed to many magazines. He loved electronics and videos. He had stacks of reel-to-reel soundtracks of opera music. Though he tended to keep to himself, he was chatty with a few neighbors and friends.
John French, who lived around the corner, sometimes struck up small talk with Mathews. “Very entertaining guy and enlightened. He loved the neighborhood and was so protective of anyone seeing the house. Once I saw it, I understood why,” he said. Chandler Stolp, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, lives on Washington Square and often drove Mathews to doctors’ appointments and auto parts stores. Mathews owned a red 1962 Rambler that he tinkered with until the end. “He lived on WD-40 for his old Rambler. He sprayed it on everything,” Stolp said. “We hit it off because I once owned a Rambler. He said he was a professor, too, so we had those things in common. And he liked to talk a lot.”
Mathews’ sister gave the Rambler to French’s son, Miles, in exchange for the teenager guarding the house and its belongings for a few nights after Mathews’ body was found. Byron Kidd, a retired Austin attorney, first met Mathews in the seventh grade at University Junior High and attended high school and college with him. “He had a good mind and was quite a character,” he said, adding that he was an excellent amateur photographer who liked to take portraits. “Reed was such a perfectionist, always taking many photos to get one good one.”
Mathews had a standing Christmas dinner invitation with Kidd’s family. His children would pick Mathews up, always finding him waiting on the porch. He never invited them in. “Growing up, he wasn’t like that. He was more social,” said Kidd, who was initially appointed executor of Mathews’ estate but relinquished the role because of his own failing health.
Since college, Mathews had documented his life in minute detail. This, for instance, is from the record he kept before his hitch in the Navy: “July 31, Departed Austin, Texas, 10 AM on Braniff DC-4 for Dallas. Arrived Dallas 11 AM. Departed Dallas via American DC-6B at 1:30 PM. Arrived Oakland, California 4:30 PM. Met Ravenna at hotel in downtown Oakland.” The schedule contains 17 other dated entries from the day he graduated from UT on June 1, 1951, to boarding the USS Toledo in Korea on Sept. 21 at “about 0800 in a light mist.”
He wrote chatty, informative letters — hundreds of them, often relating encounters and conversations verbatim. “I got letters from Reed at least once a month, sometimes more than that. I have drawers and drawers of them,” said Helson. This is from Mathews’ four-page, single-spaced typewritten letter to his brother Edward about a boy on a bike he met in the alley behind the house in 1990: “He was scared to death to leave his nice looking green bicycle in my alley for fear it would be stolen, saying he lives nearby on 31 1/2 street with 3 other boys all whom are UT students, he himself not, trying to survive as a painter. So he brought his bike into my backyard & explained all the 4 levers on handlebars & how he himself had installed the generator etc. for the girl who owns the bike.”
As the interior of his house revealed, Mathews kept everything — a habit known as hoarding behavior. His notebooks from his college courses. Receipts for mundane purchases. Clothes he never wore. Personal letters that he resealed and dated to the day he received them. Trash. And his voluminous diaries.
Both hoarding and obsessive journaling are indicative of a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), said Michael Telch, psychology professor and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders at UT.
“Hoarding is a senseless thought or idea that something bad will happen to you if you throw things away,” he said. Though Telch declined to make a diagnosis of a man he’d never met, he said the urge to continuously document one’s daily life with exhausting detail is also “consistent with OCD, a recording compulsion with senseless work or action that has no value. But, if you don’t do it, something bad will happen.”
The Dumpster diver Steve Sisk, a junk collector, spent 14 hours digging in one of the Dumpsters at 3001 Washington Square. He never met Mathews either, but he thinks he understands the way his mind worked. “I have OCD, too. You have to, to be in the junk business. I don’t throw anything away,” said Sisk, standing outside his own home on East 53rd Street. “I have my collection of fishing lures and Atari games. You get fixated on stuff, and it becomes a natural energy that just takes over. He never threw things away, too. I found used toilet tissue in a plastic bag.”
Sisk was one of several people who descended upon Mathews’ property, searching for anything of value. An early find, an attachment to a Leica camera lens, encouraged him to keep looking for the lens itself and the camera, which he said could have been worth thousands of dollars. He never found it.
It was Sisk who looked over Mathews’ extensive collection of X-rated videos, and who bothered to watch one of the homemade videos, which Sisk described as a continuous loop of a spanking scene from the movie “Dazed and Confused.” It was Sisk who figured out Mathews’ private video rating system, curious symbols that appear over and over again in his diaries. The symbols, he said, signify paddles.
He plans to sell some of the trinkets and other items he pulled from the Dumpster to vintage shops or perhaps put them on eBay. Sisk passed up countless other papers, books and memorabilia, much of it apparently from the elder Mathews’ long tenure at UT. “A crying shame all his stuff was tossed,” he said.
Meanwhile, life goes on at 3001 Washington Square. The new owner, Larry Paul Manley, has refused the Austin American-Statesman’s request to talk about his plans, but drawings filed with the city show the renovated home and its two-story addition will have five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a study, a game room and several living areas.
The city’s Historic Landmark Commission is recommending historic designation for the Mathews house, which was built in 1917. Though Manley supports the designation, it was sought by Tim Cuppett, an architect and member of the landmark commission. If approved by the City Council, the zoning would give the owner-occupant a deep discount on property taxes, an estimated savings of $10,000 or more a year, based on a projected valuation of at least $750,000.
“That house is an excellent candidate for landmark designation,” said Steve Sadowski, the city historic preservation officer. “Historical zoning is a way to keep the property economically viable and from being scraped and a new home built in its place.” As the house is transformed, the family that owned it for eight decades might be forgotten. But if her childhood home could talk, Ravenna Helson knows one thing: “We had some mighty fine times at Washington Square.”
In her memory, the house exists as it was before its decline. “I was always proud to be associated with it. I remember catching fireflies, helping Dad plant trees. And Christmas was such an exciting time. In those days you saved the living room for special occasions and Christmas was one of them. There were always wonderful presents but not as special as the house at Washington Square. It was hard to let it go. I wished one of my children would have been able to keep it. “It didn’t work out,” she said.