The legacy of the Brix Mansion

December 25, 2013

Courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

Then: The Brix mansion, made a bold, elegant statement in its Italian Villa design, as seen in this circa 1912 photograph.

German-born Herman H. Brix, oil magnate and land speculator, was the owner of a true rags to riches story. The wealthy pioneer county resident made a statement in 1909 that he’d build the finest residence in the city, and it still stands a little over one hundred years later as a testament to his industry, and his pursuit of the American Dream.

Herman Hugo Brix was born in Brelau, Germany, on February 16, 1862. Tragedy struck the Brix family a great cholera epidemic swept Europe, killing his parents and seven brothers and sisters, leaving him and a brother alone. At age 20, he and brother, Paul, after serving in the German army, immigrated to the United States in 1882. They first lived in a German settlement in a small farm Iowa town, staying there two years.

The lure west drew Brix to California, were he homesteaded a quarter-section near Coalinga, trying his hand as a grain farmer. Three years later he married Helena Schemel, another German immigrant.

Survival on the homestead was bleak and barren as the land. He failed at farming in this semi-arid region, and turned to coal mining to support his family.

Then came news of the Klondike gold rush in Alaska. According to his biography in the Fresno Republican, he was swept up in the gold fever-as thousands of others- and reportedly tried selling his land for a few hundred dollars to pay for the trip to the gold fields, but no takers.

He scraped enough together to get there, but struck out as far as gold seeking went. He did however, as many others did in this gold rush and earlier ones, make money in a support role to other miners and would-be miners. He cut wood, selling it as fuel to passing river steamers, and worked other odd jobs.

When he came home in 1897, with a tidy sum of $13,000, he returned in the face of another rush, this time for black gold: oil.

A story published after his death in the Fresno Republican, told of his sudden windfall which came his way after his return from Alaska. Reportedly, he sold the old homestead after his return- which he had unsuccessfully tried selling- which lay atop an newly discovered oil field, for $820,000, making him an enormously wealthy man almost overnight.

He heavily invested in oil property in the Coalinga hills, and it was said he had a knack for locating oil. He formed the Brix and Bunting Oil Company, clearing a reported million dollars in three years.

In 1903, he relocated to Fresno to concentrate his efforts in real estate, and began buying and developing properties, including several business blocks, including his four-story Brix apartment building. Between 1900 and 1915 he engaged in over 135 property transactions.

Brix played an important role in the Fresno’s transformation from an large urban agricultural city to a prominent metropolitan, industrial center. For his residence, he said he wanted to make a bold statement. For this, he hired Edward Thomas Foulkes, a renowned Bay Area architect. In 1910, on a slight rise, in what was north Fresno, construction began on the Brix mansion at 2844 Fresno Street.

Other residences of note designed by Foulkes were the Einstein and Gundelfinger homes. His impact was also found in commercial projects such as the Tribune Tower in Oakland, Hotel Fresno, the Brix Apartments, and the Rowell Building.

The Brix mansion, finished in 1911, was the most lavish residence in the city at the time, with a very stately, elegant appearance. Foulkes chose the period-revival Italian Villa style for design. The three-story residence was built with 4,500 square feet of living space over an L-shape floor plan. Pillars help frame sweeping archways, with white terra cotta baroque ornamentation surrounding the many windows, all set against the smooth stucco finish, along with a large second story, balustraded balcony. A tiled roof crowns the roof. A main feature is the three-story observation tower. Reportedly, when it was built, it was adjacent to a vineyard, perhaps planted by Brix, to add to the Italian villa flavor. The cost was around $35,000. Hand carved wood molding and paneling adorn the interior. An interesting feature was an early attempt at a solar water heating system- long abandoned – but a remnant, a rusted storage tank resides in the attic space.

Life in the mansion for Brix was short-lived. By mid-1915, he was divorced and no longer lived there. In early September of that year, he went on a hunting trip with Congressman Denver Church. Shortly afterward his return, he fell in with typhoid fever and food poisoning (attributed to eating canned artichokes). He died on September 20, 1915.

The Brix mansion was sold in 1945 to the Fresno County Red Cross, and then to the law firm of Sears and Eanni, in 1973, when restoration began. It remains a law office, home to Miles, Sears and Eanni, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Walker/ The Fresno Bee

Now: Over a hundred years old, the Brix mansion still stands as one of the city’s finest residences, now the law office of Miles, Sears and Eanni.