The Texas Hill Country gave birth to one of America’s unique vernacular house styles: the Sunday Houses of Fredericksburg, Texas. Charming architectural oddities, they are found only in this historic town, where they were built by 19th century German immigrants as a solution to the competing needs of the farm and of the community. Modest 1 1/2 – story wood structures, their defining characteristics include an outside stairway, one large downstairs room, no kitchen or a vestigial lean-to cooking area, and an upstairs sleeping loft. Built primarily between the 1850s and the 1930s, Sunday Houses have become cherished reminders of Fredericksburg’s German past. But this house style doesn’t exist anywhere in Germany: the Sunday House was developed here, deep in the heart of Texas.
When 120 Germans settled Fredericksburg in 1846, each pioneer’s piece of the New World included ten acres of farmland plus a lot in town. Their real estate was divided in this way because the new settlers, brought here by the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, headed up by John O. Meusbach, expected their American lives to follow a traditional German path: they’d work on the farm by day and return home to the village in the evening. Texas farming, however, turned out to be harsher, bigger and more challenging than anything they had anticipated. Their New World farms demanded round-the-clock attendance, and the journey into town was no stroll through the countryside — certainly not something to undertake every morning and evening.
But to these resourceful settlers, land ownership was only one aspect of the good life. Regular, friendly interaction with friends and neighbors mattered, too. These early Texans had come as members of a community, and they were determined to maintain social ties that included Sunday morning church services, not to mention Saturday evening beer-hall get-togethers. So the German-Americans of Fredericksburg developed a unique solution to the competing demands of their farms and of their social and religious lives: the Fredericksburg Sunday House.
Sunday Houses were just that: places where farm families could sleep during weekend trips into town. On Fridays and Saturdays they would pack up their wagons and head into Fredericksburg to do their shopping, to visit with friends and family, go out dancing on Saturday night and to attend church on Sunday morning. For the first decade or so, they bunked in with friends or relatives, but guests who descend every weekend become tiresome to even the most hospitable. Eventually over 100 families built a place in town just big enough to provide sleeping space, without any of the storage or work areas needed in their regular homes. In time, the little houses proved convenient for children being educated in town, or when a family member needed medical attention, but, always, their primary function was to serve as sleeping space.
“Mostly, families brought cold meats and bread with them for their Saturday evening meal,” says Glen Treibs, a retired high school teacher whose roots and long-time interest in the community have made him an informal but highly regarded local historian. “And that made kitchens unnecessary. Besides, many of them ate their big Sunday meals at the church; it was part of the community experience.”
Treibs goes on to explain that another hallmark of the Sunday House, the outside staircase, was a practical space saving device.
“You hear it said that the outside stairs were built so that the men could sneak off to drink, but that’s a total fabrication,” he says indignantly. “The German settlers of the Texas Hill Country were Lutherans and Catholics who had no prohibitions against drinking. In fact, Saturday nights were for socializing, singing and dancing, and that conviviality, which certainly included drinking, was as much a reason to build a house in town as going to church on Sunday mornings. The stairs were put outside simply to save space in the small interiors.”
“Someone was always using the Sunday House,” says Mathilda Itz, whose family has owned the Metzger Sunday House since her grandparents built it in 1898. “First, of course, my grandparents used it when they came into town on the weekends. Their children all stayed there when they were studying for their confirmations. When my aunt and uncle first got married, they lived in the house, despite the fact that it had no amenities. When my cousins lived there in the 1940s, it still had no bathroom.”
In 1995 Itz converted the diminutive building located across the street from her primary residence into a bed-and-breakfast inn. The distinguishing characteristics of the Fredericksburg Sunday House, including its small size, make it ideally suited to guest-house-use.
Interestingly, the same thing that led to the demise of the Sunday House has given it new life.
“What killed the Sunday Houses was the automobile,” says Glen Treibs, “They were a solution to the problem of traveling long distances in harsh conditions, and cars pretty well took care of that.”
Cars have also given rise to a culture of weekend getaways. Fredericksburg has developed into a favored destination for couples, family groups and friends escaping Austin, San Antonio or Dallas. This started during the 1960s, when journalists covering then-president Lyndon B. Johnson stayed in Fredericksburg, the only community near the LBJ Ranch large enough to provide guest housing. This spawned a robust short-term rental market, which includes a number of converted Sunday Houses.
One, the Weber Sunday House, is open to the public as a museum.
Located on the grounds of the Pioneer Museum complex, the Weber Sunday House was, like the Metzger Sunday House, kept in the family that built it for over 100 years.
“Moleska Weber, who gave the house to the museum, died at age 101,” says Glen Treibs. “She was a fine lady – public spirited and generous. She didn’t have to give that house away, but that’s how the descendants of the German settlers are. They care about community.”