The Sanders-McNeil House

A Woodcarver's Castle

Once Upon A Time, before Spindletop and the Age of Oil, Beaumont was a logging town. Perched on the banks of the Neches River amid thousands of acres of old-growth forests, the fledgling town made a decent living harvesting the ancient trees for lumber. Particularly prized among the available cuts were sections of heart wood known as “curly pine,” for its looping, rococo-like wood grain. Once sanded and enhanced with a bit of wax, oil, or stain, curly pine possesses an almost holographic three dimensional effect, shimmering and changing character with every variation in lighting.

In the late 1800s, these marvelous cuts of wood were still common in places like Beaumont, which was dense with centenarian tree growth and used often for decorative finishing. Woodcarver Robert W. Sanders utilized curly pine extensively throughout his elaborate, Queen Anne style house, which was completed in 1895. A popular style at the time, downtown Beaumont had dozens of such houses. However, as the old growth was harvested or came under the protection of reserves such as the Big Thicket, the precious hardwood it yielded became rarer and more expensive. Today, a single log possessing the signature curling wood grain of curly pine can fetch thousands of dollars, if you can even find such a treasure. Most curly pine presently on the market is salvaged or reclaimed. Divers scoot along muddy river bottoms seeking “sinkers,” logs which broke free from floating bundles a hundred years ago and have remained preserved in the muck below ever since. Another source of such wood is from houses just like the Sanders-McNeil House. That’s one reason that Robert W. Sanders’ house is the last of its kind in downtown Beaumont. All the others have been lost to time for a variety of reasons; fire, vandalism and salvage chief among them.

The broad facing of this mantle needs no carving, as it would only interfere with the beautifully intricate curly pine grain.
One of the half dozen fireplaces which would have warmed the house. Each one bears a unique decoration. This one sports a carved bamboo motif.

After his retirement from Reliance Lumber Company in 1902, at the age of 52, Sanders turned to furniture making and woodcarving full time. His house is filled with his carvings, with most of the decorative facing made up of curly pine, that now-rare lumber. While the house has the typical structural forms and ornamentation common to the Queen-Anne style, the Sanders-McNeil house is unique in that all of the detailing is hand carved by the owner himself. As if being the last remnant of Beaumont’s oldest residential district wasn’t enough, it’s a defacto art gallery.

Scheduled for demolition and commercial development in 1977, this historical wonder would have been lost forever – just like so many others of its kind – if not for the intervention of the Beaumont Heritage Society (BHS). The BHS moved quickly to purchase an adjacent lot and trade it to the company proposing demolition, giving them the commercial space they wanted while leaving the house intact. They also managed to fast-track a National Register listing in 1978 and used a $35,000 Community Development Block Grant to make the minimum necessary structural repairs.

Though unable to muster the financial backing to pursue restoration themselves, the BHS held the house for several years until they were able to sell it to a pair of preservation enthusiasts, Alan and Barbara Gordon McNeil. The couple has restored multiple historic homes, including an 1884 beachfront property named The Breakers, which was lost to Hurricane Ike. Beginning in the 1980s, the McNeils have restored and preserved the house, undertaking a “re-restoration” in 2018 due to the recent storms. As the house nears completion, the McNeils are seeking permanent caretakers for the home. With its National Register listing they hope that it will be protected against modification or removal.

The “Queen Anne” style, first popularized by architect Richard Norman Shaw in England, bears little relation to the English Baroque architecture that developed during the actual reign of Queen Anne more than one hundred years before. In fact, the style draws heavily from the Elizabethan and Jacobin eras (Elizabeth I reigned 1558–1603; James I, 1603–1625) and encompasses a rather broad range of picturesque buildings whose most recognizable examples generally include a dominant and decorative front facing gable, steep, triangular or pyramidal roofs, large porches, and turrets. It was popular in the late 19th century in Southeast Texas, and at least two other major examples remain, the W.H. Stark House in Orange, and the Kirby-Hill House in Kountze, Texas.

This fantastic, spiralling staircase has a sister in the Tyrrell Historical Library, both carved by Robert W. Sanders.
All that remained of the original cistern was the brick base, so the McNeills found a period appropriate replacement for the top (which was being used as a chicken coop) and purchased it. In its intended role, the cistern collected rainwater from the gutters for various household uses. (Don’t worry, they’re not using the chicken coop cistern for water. It’s just for looks.)
Barbara McNeil stands on the second floor landing above the spiral staircase. Nearly every window in the house is decorated with stained glass. The maker is unknown, but as it is original, it is assumed to have been local.

Pictured here are some of the elements common to Queen Anne houses which the McNeil-Sanders House possesses. Admittedly, the stained glass transom window is not standard, and is unique to Robert W. Sanders’s personal aesthetic. Transom windows themselves were a necessary inclusion for a house in Southeast Texas prior to air conditioning, as they could be opened to allow air flow through the house. The front door of the McNeil-Sanders House faces the river, and when the transom windows were open, cool breezes off the water would blow through the main hall of the house and into every room.

The exterior of the house displays the love of texture characteristic of the style. Both the porch and gable are crowned with intricate spindlework and gingerbreading. The turret is scaled with wooden slats, a look that is repeated on the gable.