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Littlefield Spirit Lives On: House is a Victorian ghost of the past

It was a dark and stormy night…when an entourage of tourists from Pittsburgh stopped dead in their tracks to peer silently, under the rims of dripping umbrellas, at the majestic old Victorian home sitting on the grounds of The University of Texas at Austin campus. Lit by a plump, low-hanging harvest full moon, it looked like an austere grand dame in mourning, ready to retire for the evening.

Littlefield Home, built in 1893, stands on the west side of the university's campus
Littlefield Home, built in 1893, stands on the west side of The University of Texas at Austin campus.

One visitor said, “How peaceful and tranquil.”

Another said, “What a strange thing to find in the middle of this campus.”

The last said, “How scary! Let’s move on, please.”

A beautiful example of eclectic Victorian architecture, and a building rich in history, the Littlefield Home sits stubbornly on the west side of campus, refusing to alter its charmingly 19th century aspect or defer to the prevailing Spanish Renaissance style. It is something of an anomaly on a campus that is surging into the future with new construction and excitedly embracing advanced technology.

Built in 1893 for $50,000 by a Southern cattle baron, banker, Confederate officer and generous campus benefactor named George Littlefield, the home, at the time, was only one on a street full of pretty and imposing Victorian houses. Austin was thriving, and larger-than-life businessmen like Littlefield could comment upon their status—much as individuals do today—with tangible evidence such as architecture. Now it is the lone remaining example of those grand Victorian mansions.

“The house illustrates a love of ostentation, which is characteristic of Victorian architecture,” says Richard Cleary, associate professor of architecture. “It’s a statement and proclamation of wealth and privilege, but now it’s a bit of an orphan, sitting alone without the other homes of its era. It’s a ghost of the past.”

Major Littlefield was a strong and outspoken Southern gentleman, and the Littlefield Home carries the weight of his boldness and confidence well. Victorian design was not about discretion, understatement or restraint, and the home, tastefully, seems to swirl and flutter with scrollwork and columns and a profile filled with a variety of turrets, leaping spires, dormer windows and finials.

A deep, generous veranda sweeps around the home and is surrounded by intricate iron grillwork and studded with stately, blue-gray marble columns. Wide, pale marble steps, shot through with veins of black, lead up to the veranda, which is mosaic-tiled, and a low stone fence encloses the generous skirt of lawn upon which the house sits.

As is the case with most fine examples of Victorian architecture, the effect is that of a full, lacy, asymmetrical expanse that carries just enough detail, in danger of toppling over like an ornate wedding cake if even one more dollop of icing is applied.

Alice Littlefield
Alice Littlefield

With all of its beauty and stateliness, it was, no doubt, a very cheerful and lively home when the Littlefields lived there. It was situated on the edge of the original Forty Acres, as the campus was called, and the Littlefields, who had no children, could sit and watch the students stroll by in the evenings or as they made their way to class.

Somewhere between the early 20th century and the present, however, Victorian homes, especially those not sporting exteriors of pale pink, robin’s egg blue or lemon yellow, began to be a commonly accepted visual representation of spookiness. Evocative of ghosts. Hauntings. Deranged uncles in the attic. Norman Bates in the cellar.

And, as might be expected, the otherwise innocent Littlefield Home must trail its own tantalizing wisp of Hitchcockian mystery.

Ghost tales about the home abound, and their variety is exceeded only by their vagueness. One common strain in most of the stories is Alice Littlefield, Major Littlefield’s wife.

Some say that Major Littlefield locked Alice up in the attic when he was away so she would not be grabbed by Yankees who might be strolling by and oblivious to the fact that the Civil War was over. According to lore, while languishing in the attic she was assaulted by bats, and her shrieks of terror reverberate in the mansion to this day. Others say that the ghost of Alice can still be heard banging out a chord or two on the old piano on the first floor.

Some accounts paint Alice as a melancholic, depressive, agoraphobic woman who slowly and quietly went insane later in life. Others stress her deep concern for her husband’s welfare and her fears for his safety when he was away. Her ghost is said to restlessly roam the attic, peering out the windows, watching for his return.

Some have seen the small round window in one of the attic turrets shuttered at times and at other times not. That window is accessible only if one climbs to the empty attic and crawls through a small hole to access the interior of the turret.

The home is a beautiful example of eclectic Victorian architecture
The home is a beautiful example of eclectic Victorian architecture.

One does not have to strain too terribly hard, on a rainy day or in the evening, to picture the home as haunted and only patiently waiting for a movie director with macabre tastes to unleash, on the big screen, its ghostly secrets.

Much of the home’s spooky mystique can directly be attributed to architectural elements that are both Victorian and Gothic.

Like most Victorian structures, the polychrome exterior of the Littlefield Home is indeed colorful, but the colors represent the traditional Victorian palette – in this case, deep red-brown 10 cent-apiece brick from St. Louis and a solemn blue-gray. On an even mildly overcast day, the towering structure seems forebodingly dark, with shadows aplenty on the porch and between the impossibly intricate clefts, crevices, eaves and overhangs of its skin.

Both floors of the home, in addition to the vigorous, sharp turrets and towers, have windows at frequent intervals. The first and second-floor windows are tall, vertical and narrow, blocked by dark wooden shutters that are cracked open here and there just enough to allow a glimpse of movement, real or imagined, in the shadow-shrouded interior.

Aggressively standing sentinel on the west lawn is a 35-foot, exotically shaggy deodar cedar tree that adds the perfect Gothic accent to the exterior.

Entering the home, one finds a dark interior that is lit by the powdery glow of small globe lamps in the wide main gallery. Enormous, heavy, imposing chandeliers grace each of the rooms and are in the main hallway, but, when the first floor is not in use they remain off. When on, they very dimly, hazily illuminate the corners of the almost 14-foot high ceilings and spacious parlors, library and dining room.

Tufted, velvet upholstered chairs and a settee dot the huge library, and two scowling wooden griffins face one another over the library’s fireplace. A large painting by Alice Littlefield hangs near the fireplace and does little to dispel the myth that she was of a morbid and morose frame of mind. The painting reveals a mysterious night scene, rendered in blacks, grays and plum purples, in which a woman is being escorted from a veranda down steps to a gondola where a man, all in black, stands. The setting is exotic, and white strands of clouds chase a golden full moon while whitecaps break upon the shore.

A slightly less somber air reigns in the two parlors, which are hung with heavy, tasseled, gold, embroidered drapes and feature white and gold French décor. An enormous, beautiful floor to ceiling mirror that is original to the home hangs on the west wall of the front parlor.

Areas of the home such as the attic are no longer in use
Areas of the home such as the attic are no longer in use.

In true Victorian style, the interior is decorated with a thick, heavy abundance of dark woods. Richly polished curly walnut, birds-eye maple and curly pine on the fireplaces, deep archways, waist-high wainscoting, carved pediments, pilasters and balusters overwhelm the eye. The grandness and gloom of the dark woods give the home the feel of a gothic cathedral. Or the candlelit gallery in a Vincent Price film.

Although the first floor of the home is unoccupied and is usually as quiet as, well, a tomb, Resource Development Special Programs staff use the second floor for office space.

At times, the staff members feel they are not alone in the rambling old house. With the requisite sense of humor about their abode, they relate anecdotes about occasional brushes with the mystifying and unexplainable.

Ruth Stone, senior event planner, said that one winter holiday, upon returning after vacation, they found two candelabrums from the fireplace mantle in the middle parlor lying on the floor, several feet away from the fireplace. No one had been in the home during the winter holiday and the candelabrums had been on the mantle before the staff’s departure for vacation.

Stone also said that when she brought her four year-old granddaughter to the home, the first words the child uttered upon entering the mansion were, “Someone dead is here.”

Maria Aleman, an event planner, said that one day, after staying late at work, Aleman's 8 year-old granddaughter snuggled up to her and commented that “granny smells like a ghost.”

George Littlefield's initials grace the iron grillwork on the front door of the mansion
George Littlefield's initials grace the iron grillwork on the front door of the mansion.

Most staff members agree that there are moments when a distinct sense of unease settles over them in the home and heartily concur that they do not relish being the first to arrive in the morning and do not care to be in the home alone or in the evenings.

“For some reason, leaving the home is much more scary than coming into it,” says Carol Sablan, event planner. “Sometimes I feel like running rather than walking out, and I become afraid that maybe the door won’t open, and I’ll be trapped in here.”

Sablan said that her young son also felt “creeped out” when he visited the house and told her, “I really, really don’t like it here.”

Wandering through the first floor of the home on a quiet afternoon, it can seem a little bit bereft and abandoned, but the house has served a number of practical purposes since Alice Littlefield died in 1935 and the home was donated to the university.

During that 67 years it has housed, at various points, the Austin and University of Texas Centennial Office, the Music Department, the Navy R.O.T.C. (who used the attic as a firing range and placed a cannon on the lawn) and Resource Development.

The first floor of the home also is used today for special presidential functions.

During George Littlefield’s life, he left his fingerprint all over the campus, showing his love for the university and also his wish to be remembered. He started the Littlefield Fund for Southern History and gave $225,000 toward the purchase of the John Henry Wrenn Library. He provided funds for the Littlefield Memorial Fountain and the six flanking statues south of the Main Building. He erected the Alice Littlefield Dorm and donated $500,000 (which had grown to $1 million by the time it was needed) toward the construction of the Main Building. And he wielded influence on the Board of Regents from 1911-20.

Maybe the best thing that the Littlefields left, though, was a little more lore and tradition for a campus that loves its colorful history. So when you stroll by the Littlefield Home, think of its Victorian beauty and its generous former residents. Don’t think of ghosts. After all, Alice doesn’t live here anymore…

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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