Abandoned schoolhouse in Texas

Morris Ranch Schoolhouse, Fredericksburg Texas
Date added: October 10, 2022 Categories: Texas School
View of southwest corner of school, looking northeast (1981)

The Morris Ranch Schoolhouse is a fine example of the quality of stonework produced by the German craftsmen in the Fredericksburg area in the 19th century. Stylistically, however, the structure clearly reflects the mainstream of American architecture in the 1880s and 1890s, in its use of Romanesque Revival detailing. The distinguished appearance of this building, with its heavy stone walls, stands in distinct contrast to the characteristic frame schoolhouses of late 19th-century Texas. The pretensions of the structure indicate a considerable expenditure of funds on the part of the Morris family and a strong interest in the education of the children of the ranch staff.

Alfred Giles, the architect for the schoolhouse, was very prominent in Central Texas, especially in San Antonio. Giles, an Englishman by birth, immigrated to the United States and settled in San Antonio in 1873. Giles' practice flourished, and he was responsible for the design of such notable San Antonio residences as those for Edward Steves and Carl Groos. Giles also received several commissions for the design of county courthouses, including the extant courthouses for Wilson, Kendall and Webb counties. Giles' finest surviving courthouse, that for Gillespie County, is located in Fredericksburg, approximately 13 miles northeast of the Morris Ranch.

While it was part of the Morris Ranch, the school property belonged to Morris Ranch Consolidated Common School District No. 40 until 1962, when the school was annexed into the Fredericksburg Independent School District. Education was very important to the Morris family and to their ranching families as well. The Morris family Opened their personal library to the children attending the school, and the school building also served other purposes. Church services were held each Sunday, and various pastors officiated. The building was the home of educational, religious, cultural and community activities until 1975. The property from which the Morris Ranch was later partitioned was part of a 23,040-acre land scrip issued by Sam Houston to William Bryan in 1836. Title to the property was later transferred to J.R. and R. Leavitt, partners in a New York mercantile firm. When the Leavitt firm went bankrupt, Francis Morris of New York and Maryland purchased the land for 24¢ an acre on February 18, 1856. In 1859 Morris sold off 6,400 acres to Peter Hayden. The remaining 16,640 acres remained in the Morris family until 1921.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the history of the ranch began in the late 1880s, when John A. Morris began to devote his energies to the establishment of one of the country's finest thoroughbred horse farms. Adjacent to the ranch house, Morris built a two-story hotel to accommodate guests, which was destroyed by a tornado in the 1950s. The training area contained the most impressive group of buildings, including two 400 ft.-long training barns, living quarters for the jockeys, and a race track complete with a judges' stand. Unfortunately, apparently none of these structures has survived, with the huge barns being broken up for building lumber during World War II. From the late 1880s to 1902, the ranch functioned as a breeding and training grounds for some of America's best thoroughbred racehorses. The top foals from the 200 mares kept on the ranch were sent to Morris stables in the eastern U.S. and England. Max Hirsch, who began his career as a jockey on the ranch, later became famous as a horse trainer, and three of his horses went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

The antiracing laws of the late 1890s destroyed the racehorse market, and the Morris family quit the business of breeding thoroughbred horses. The ranch was then used for farming and ranching activities, producing cotton and grain until World War II. The ranch was placed on the market in 1920 when the Morris family decided they could get a greater return from their capital in New York investments. The first sale took place in 1921, and until 1931 the last 9,034 acres were managed by a member of the Morris family. At that time the school was deeded to the county and the remaining property was sold to a corporation of Fredericksburg men called "the Morris Ranch Land Company." The land was partitioned among the stockholders of the company. Today the original Morris Ranch property, including the schoolhouse, is divided among many private owners.

It should be noted that the 9.05-acre site surrounding the schoolhouse has been a separate parcel since 1931, and the structure has stood on this smaller acreage for much of its existence. With the partition of the original ranch, virtually all of the extensive improvements originally made for horse breeding and training have been destroyed, leaving the schoolhouse as the main, tangible reminder of the ranch's history.

Building Description

Cruciform in plan, with steeply pitched intersecting gable roofs, the Morris Ranch Schoolhouse is a single-story structure constructed of limestone masonry. The apparent influence of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which swept the United States in the late 1880s, is unexpected on a rural Texas schoolhouse. The decorative character of the exterior stonework combines with simple massing to produce a dignified structure.

The Morris Ranch Schoolhouse is a single-story structure of limestone construction, whose cruciform plan is highlighted by the steeply pitched gables of the intersecting rooflines. With the entrance facade facing south, the long axis of the structure runs east-west, while the shorter north-south axis divides the building into three distinct segments: a central part and two side wings. The school rests upon a base of large ashlar blocks of limestone, While the upper walls are formed of smooth limestone blocks. Contrast to the smooth nature of the walls comes from the projecting limestone quoins at the corners of the structure, as well as from the raised belt courses which form a heavy line under the eaves. The arched openings of the end gables are outlined with similarly projecting voussoirs. Belt courses divide the north and south gables into three sections, and the east and west gables into two. The north-south roofline is several feet higher than that of the east-west roofline. This difference in height is furthered by the placement of a belfry directly above the point of intersection of the two rooflines.

The dominant character of the center bay of the south facade is maintained by the placement of the two front entrances in the inside corners at both sides of the projecting central bay.

The two entrances are sheltered by wooden entrance porches supported by a single square column. The face of the south gable is broken, on the ground level, by a large, triple window opening based upon the Palladian motif with a tall, central panel and rounded arch. This arch is filled by a blind transom with six recessed wooden panels taking the place of panes of glass. This design also appears on the single, round, arched opening on the north gable, and judging from vintage photographs, is an original element. In both the north and south arched openings, the extradoses are outlined by heavy voussoirs. The upper sections of the north and south gables contain a single ventilator opening which is round, arched, rather tall, and narrow. This ventilator opening rises from one raised belt course, and its arch is outlined by yet another. It reflects the design of the larger opening below it.

The east and west gables, at ground level, contain three tall, rectangular window openings each, with a small, narrow and round-arched opening in their upper sections. The treatment of the belt courses on these gables is identical to that noted on the larger north and south gables. The fenestration of the east and west segments of the structure is identical on both the north and south facades, with two tall rectangular openings centered on the wall surface. On the north facade, the two outermost openings have been used as doorways into the toilets that were added to this side of the structure in 1949, The standard window unit used in all of the large openings on the building consists of a sash with four-over-four lights topped by a two-light transom. While all the large windows have been boarded up, a majority still preserve their original sashes.

Four stone chimnies are present. Two are set above the entrance porches on the south facade, while two more are found above the north facade, between the tall windows of the east and west wings. Except for the west wing which still retains its original wooden shingles, the roof is covered by sheet metal. The tapered base of the belfry is also covered in wooden shingles, as is its pyramidal roof. At the apex of the south gable there is a rectangular stone block with the word "schoolhous" (sic) carved above the date of construction, "1893."

Morris Ranch Schoolhouse, Fredericksburg Texas View of south (front) elevation, looking north (1981)
View of south (front) elevation, looking north (1981)

Morris Ranch Schoolhouse, Fredericksburg Texas View of southwest corner of school, looking northeast (1981)
View of southwest corner of school, looking northeast (1981)

Morris Ranch Schoolhouse, Fredericksburg Texas View of north elevation, looking south (1981)
View of north elevation, looking south (1981)

Morris Ranch Schoolhouse, Fredericksburg Texas View of west elevation, looking east (1981)
View of west elevation, looking east (1981)

Morris Ranch Schoolhouse, Fredericksburg Texas View of interior, looking south (1981)
View of interior, looking south (1981)