Close your eyes and envision a wide open prairie with a lone two- story mansion rising above the pastureland, a magnificent sight in any era.
Now, with eyes wide open, drive by 1726 Swenson Street and imagine the surrounding area with no houses. The vision created by the mind’s eye becomes reality. It’s the Swenson House, completed about 1910 as the home of William Gray and Shirley McCollum Swenson. The prairie-style house was the creation of Abilene architect William P. Preston and for years stood alone on the prairie before Abilene, which was founded in 1881, expanded northward.
Even driving by, without visiting the stunning interior, is likely to cause a reaction similar to the one Janet Payne had the first time she saw it.
“Oh my gosh – look at that home. It’s wonderful!” was Payne’s reaction in the mid-’90s when she was invited to an event at the Swenson House.
Today, Payne is the go-to person for all things Swenson House. Thanks to preservation-minded Abilenians like Payne, the house is in splendid shape, with grounds to match. Credit goes to the Abilene Preservation League, which previously owned the house, and the current owner, the Swenson House Historical Society, which Payne helped found.
The home is museum quality, but it also is a popular venue for events sponsored by the Society and for rentals. Next up will be Haunted Abilene, with the theme, “Nightmares on Swenson Street,” Oct. 23-24.
About a year after moving to Abilene in 1995, Payne was invited to a mother and daughter tea at the Swenson House and immediately was hooked on its charm and history. The mother and daughter teas have gone by the wayside, but plenty of other events showcase the Swenson. Christmas at the Swenson, with vendors decorating each room and a stately Christmas tree standing guard by the stairs, is always popular. In the summertime, Rock the Swenson attracts neighbors and Abilenians from all parts of town for the live music and hot dogs on the shady east side of the house.
“We consider it to be an anchor for the neighborhood,” said Neil Tatom, president of the Swenson House Historical Society board.
The Swenson House also is a popular venue for private receptions and parties. A focus of the Swenson House Historical Society is the docent-guided tours, which are available for $10 per person by calling 325-232-8454. The Swenson Family wanted the home to be a site for learning about the Swenson heritage and about the region, said Pebbles Lee, a member of the historical society board and former chair of the Swenson House Committee of the Abilene Preservation League.
Lee was disappointed when the Swenson House spun off from the APL, but soon came to see that the move was advantageous. The APL is interested in all historic structures in Abilene. The Swenson House Historical Society has a single interest.
“The focus is only on the house,” Lee said.
Most likely, anyone interested in preservation has had an experience like Tatom, president of the Swenson House Historical Society, who grew up in the northeast Texas community of Sulphur Springs before enrolling at Abilene Christian University. His grandparents owned a beautiful Victorian home in Sulphur Springs that was torn down.
“It just kind of broke my heart,”Tatom said.
As an adult, Tatom became interested in preservation and is past president of the Abilene Preservation League, which owned the Swenson House before the society was formed. He has seen too many of Abilene’s landmark buildings like the Guitar mansion and the Carnegie Library razed. He vowed to do his part to stop the demolition.
“I just think it’s great when we can hang onto places like this,” he said of the fully restored Swenson House.
Pebbles Lee, Janet Payne, and scores of other past, present, and future Abilenians think it’s great, too. A Texas Historical Commission marker in the front near the sidewalk, plus a glance at the house and grounds, easily explains why people are so drawn to the Swenson House. The house was completed about 1910 as the home of the Swenson Family. The historical marker notes that William Gray Swenson was a first generation Swedish-American, a lifelong entrepreneur, and a businessman. He held leadership positions at Citizens National Bank from the time of its founding in 1902 until the 1960s.
Swenson also presided over Abilene Light and the Abilene Ice Company. He worked to establish and served on the boards of both the Abilene and Northern Railroad and the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railroad. The Swensons were founding members of St. Paul Methodist Church, which today is St. Paul United Methodist Church.
Pebbles Lee moved to Abilene in the mid-’90s with her husband, Tom Lee, a biology professor at ACU, where Pebbles is the biology lab coordinator. She has a long-time involvement with preservation efforts in Abilene, including serving on the boards of the Abilene Preservation League, the Swenson House Historical Society, and the city’s Landmarks Commission, which she chairs.
She previously served on the Swenson House Committee of the preservation league before the creation of the Swenson House Historical Society. She recalled the days when she would take her sewing machine to the Swenson House for repairs, with her young daughters scampering about on the historic floors. That experience had a lasting impression on the girls, now ages 20, 25, and 27.
“They have a big heart now for preservation,” Lee said, “which really makes me happy.”
Lee is just as excited about the transformation of the grounds surrounding the Swenson House as the interior. She remembered that the southwest corner of the lot, which covers a city block, looked like the pasture it once was until some people associated with the house took notice. The Swenson House Historical Society has been aided by members of the Big Country Master Gardeners, Boy Scouts working on Eagle badges, and other groups. Labels have been added to vegetation and paths have been created to the arbor, which is supported by the original columns from the Swenson House. A special shout out, Lee and Payne both said, goes to board member Martin Jensen.
“He has just worked miracles,”Lee said.
People familiar with the Swenson House and its surroundings will notice a couple of new things. In the spring of 2020, women associated with New Beginnings Big Country planted a vegetable garden in the same spot where the Swenson Family had their garden. Those women and neighbors of the Swenson House pick from the garden as the vegetables ripen. For the fall, a pumpkin patch will cover the space where a corn maze normally is planted as a part of Haunted Abilene.
New Beginnings Big Country is a transitional housing program for women leaving incarceration. It was founded by Missy Denard, a friend of Janet Payne. Now, the Swenson House Historical Society pays women in the program to help with the grounds, especially the garden
“If I need help,”Payne said,“I call Missy and Missy sends someone.”
Denard isn’t the only one Payne calls on. Board members and friends of the Swenson House frequently take care of the never-ending chores inside and outside the house. In the spring, Matt Reily tilled the garden. On an extremely hot July day, Dennis Regan, president-elect, was doing laborious yard work.
Groups like New Beginnings, Big Country Master Gardeners, and Boy Scouts have put in plenty of hot, hands-on hours. Several local Scouts have earned badges by putting in a pond, building pathways of crushed granite, and planting flowers and crepe myrtles, along with other landscaping.
Payne’s interest in preserving the Swenson House started with the mother and daughter tea she attended not long after moving to Abilene as a guest of Pebbles Lee.Those teas were a favorite of Payne’s.
“I would love to get them back,” she said.
Payne’s interest in the Swenson House never waned and continues to grow, sparked partly by a trip to Savannah, Georgia, where restoration is a part of life. Payne’s first love is the Swenson House, but she has an eye for anything historical. She served on the board of the Abilene Preservation League for over a decade and was the first chairperson for the APL’s Heritage Stewardship Luncheon in 2007. In 2015, Payne was the honoree at the luncheon.
In 2007, Payne started the Beautiful House Awards, which have honored 84 Abilene homes since then. And, in 2008, Payne started Haunted Abilene, which has grown into a major fundraiser.
Payne was instrumental in getting the Swenson House Historical Society spun off as its own nonprofit, serving as its founding president. The historical society was granted nonprofit status in May 2019. Swenson granddaughters Geraldine Crow Roeder, Carolyn Crow Roust and Sue Edmonda Swenson Stubbeman are members of the society.
Payne recalled some interesting moments at the house before much needed restoration work kicked in. One in particular could have had a tragic ending. One year at Christmas all the lights went out, which a board member fixed temporarily by applying aluminum foil to the fuses. That frightening experience led to new wiring.
In June 2014, Mother Nature dumped a massive hail storm on the north part of Abilene, and the Swenson House got a new roof as a result. Other improvements have been added as wanted or needed.
In addition to getting needed repairs and upgrades, the Swenson House has added and dropped programs over the years. Payne is especially proud of Haunted Abilene, which originated in 2008 as a trolley tour. The first year, the bottom floor was decorated; the second year both floors took on an eerie Halloween feel; and by the third year Haunted Abilene was a big-time event. The theme that year was“Dead Spirits of the West,”and a new creative theme has been added each year.
“It just has gotten bigger and bigger,” Payne said, and is a major fundraiser for the Swenson House Historical Society.
A perk for Payne is hearing stories from ancestors and longtime Abilenians about the house. A granddaughter, Sue Stubbeman, grew up in Fort Worth and recalled visiting the house as a child. Summertime was the best, when the children got to sleep on the five metal beds on a sleeping porch. An added treat was listening to their granddad tell old stories.
As much as Payne loves the Swenson House and all the privileges that come from being a part of its life, there is still lots of work involved. New railing is being installed and work on the grounds continues. The society recently spent $12,000 getting windows replaced.
“There’s no end to the projects around here,” she said.
By Loretta Fulton