Almost four years ago our family began its own amazing multi-generation migration: we moved from the homestead where we raised our two sons in a protected enclave of San Antonio to a downsized contemporary compound in unruly downtown.
Our Alamo Heights home had a beautiful half-acre lot with a magnificent butterfly garden that took years to nurture. It was sad to see the new owners rip out its specimen native plants and return it to its former state as a St. Augustine lawn. Part of the trade-off of making the traumatic move was that someday I would have a new wildlife garden and my own space to rear caterpillars and native plants, as well as a home more suited to our empty nest lifestyle. I’m glad to say that day is here.
On top of that, we needed a place for my 93-year-old father and 82-year-old mother. After researching the exorbitant costs of assisted living, John and Hilde Maeckle agreed to leave their tract home on the north side of San Antonio and join us at the family compound we now call Arsenal.
We sold our house in 78209 and bought an empty lot in 78204, just a block from the San Antonio River across from HEB world headquarters at the historic San Antonio Arsenal, a limestone compound that housed munitions for wars from the Confederacy through World War II. Then we began the arduous process of building a house–actually, two of them–from the ground up.
Our son, Nicolas Rivard, had just graduated from the University of Texas architecture school. Since we needed someone to design our future two-home complex, we figured, naively: how could we NOT use our own son as the architect? It’s amusing, gratifying and sometimes aggravating to see how the reality has departed from the vision Nicolas and our family imagined.
The design-build process began in late 2011. The tight, alley-lined lot in downtown San Antonio created special challenges of staging and parking. A newbie architect and unusual design and materials made for slow progress. The public living area of our home is crafted from compressed earth block–that is, bricks made from soil. The extraordinary building material created its own obstacles, but ultimately was worth it. The place has the vibe of an ancient mission.
And then good fortune threw us a wild card. Nicolas was accepted to graduate school at Harvard, then to an amazing fellowship in Rwanda. For two-and-a-half years, these exceptional learning opportunities took him far from home and the project we had started. It forced us to make many decisions via Skype and email rather than in-person and on site. We made many mistakes.
But that was all part of the adventure, as were the twists of life and unanticipated turns in our careers. During this time, my husband and I both left our jobs and started a communications consulting firm, The Arsenal Group. We launched a local news website, The Rivard Report. None of these career moves were planned when we launched the complex construction of our new home.
I kept sane by continuing to pursue my outdoor passions and working on this website, the Texas Butterfly Ranch. More change erupted as I rejoined, then left, the full-time workforce, only to return to consulting again. Meanwhile, our other son, Alexander, returned from a two-year job in Boston where he learned how to cook, and Nicolas also came home to roost–just as the home he had imagined in blueprint was nearing completion.
First came the Casita for my parents. My father’s health continues to decline, and my mom, Oma, as we call her, holds down the fort. She has been a trooper to endure this years-long building process while also caring full-time for Opa.
Next, we crafted our house–two structures divided by a lovely atrium and connected with a two-story screened-in porch. My parents made their move in March of 2013. We finally made the Arsenal home in November of 2014 even though it is still a partial construction site. The final phase includes a car port and my much-anticipated Mariposario, or butterfly house. (For those unaware, mariposa means butterfly in Spanish.)
For years my husband has indulged my affinity for insects in the kitchen and living room. When we lived in Alamo Heights I would bring potted milkweeds in for prime placement near windows. When the caterpillars were about to go chrysalis, they would be elevated to the coffee table for prime viewing so we wouldn’t miss the moment, often toasting the occasion with a sip of wine.
More recently, while living in multiple rental apartments with little outdoor space, we’ve had caterpillars marching across the rug, Monarchs hatching on curtains, and even a Black Swallowtail forming its chrysalis on the electrical chord of my flatiron–25 feet from its host plant. A lesser man would have shut this down, but my husband, Bob Rivard, has been extremely patient. Thanks, honey!
My Mariposario and new wildlife garden has made the long, circuitous, multi-generation trip worthwhile. As we finish up the landscaping with help from Charles Bartlett and Albert del Rio of Green Haven Industries, I am FINALLY getting my own place to do my butterflying.
In the coming months, I’ll be posting photos and dispatches from the garden and my spanking new Mariposario–a fancy potting shed made literally from river rocks and hog panel. Architects are not keen on showing a project when it’s not-quite-finished because often the photos don’t do their work justice. I can’t resist offering a quick peek, though, as I know that fellow gardeners much appreciate how projects grow and evolve. So here you go.
It’s almost done, and it’s quite special. Our son chose gabion panels as the building material, a riff off the style fencing we used for our new home. Made of metal, Texas river rocks, and hog panel, it creates privacy and security in an area of San Antonio riddled with vandalism and revelers.
This special place made of earth, rocks and metal will serve as a place for my tools, for my caterpillars, my family and for me. It joins our Llano River ranch and all wild spaces in between as the collective location of the Texas Butterfly Ranch.
I look forward to sharing it with you.
- Crazy Chrysalises in Surprising Places
- Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden beats Boring Lawn Anytime
- Year in the Life of a Butterfly Garden
- Use Solarization to Convert Drought-damaged Lawn to Butterfly Garden
- Late But Great Wildflowers to Greet Monarchs and other Pollinators
- Monarch Butterfly News Sparks Extreme Interest in NAtive Milkweeds
- Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, it’s not a Simple Question
- How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home, Part One