Historical Perspective: Herman H. Brix mansion in Fresno

The Fresno BeeMarch 9, 2014 

German-born Herman H. Brix, oil magnate and land speculator, was the owner of a true rags to riches story. In 1909, the wealthy pioneer county resident said he'd build the finest residence in the city. It still stands more than 100 years later — a testament to his industry and his pursuit of the American dream.

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

The lure west drew Brix to California. 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 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 and reportedly tried selling his land for a few hundred dollars to pay for the trip to the gold fields, but had no takers.

He scraped enough together to get there, but he struck out as far as gold seeking went. He did 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. He sold the old homestead which lay atop a newly discovered oil field — for $820,000, making him wealthy 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 Co., 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 such as his four-story Brix apartment building. Between 1900 and 1915 he engaged in more than 135 property transactions.

Brix played an important role in Fresno's transformation from a 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 St.

Finished in 1911, the Brix mansion was the most lavish residence in the city, with a 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 next 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 divorced and no longer lived there. In early September of that year, he went on a hunting trip with Congressman Denver Church. Shortly after his return, he fell ill with typhoid fever and food poisoning (attributed to eating canned artichokes). He died on Sept. 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.

An occasional series by Bee photographer John Walker that looks at Valley landmarks from the same perspective, past and present.

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