The Hoeflein House of What Have You

Most homeowners put a lot into their house, if only in the form of mortgage payments.

Homeowners Bill and Minnie Hoeflein put a lot of themselves into their house.

The result was a home that for almost a half-century caught the eye just as surely as it caught the sun.

Minnie Alice Perkins was born into a farming family in Kaufman County in 1903. Her mother was a Shaw. Minnie moved to Fort Worth in her teens to help a disabled cousin care for her children.

William Frederick (“Bill”) Hoeflein, too, was born into a farming family in 1886. By 1920 Bill was a widower and owner of an oil delivery service in Fort Worth.

Minnie and Bill met while he was making deliveries.

“He was thirty-seven, and I was seventeen,” Minnie told the Star-Telegram in 1982. “He told his friends that he had met the woman he was going to marry. But I thought it was ridiculous.”

Four years later Minnie changed her mind. Bill and Minnie were married on November 23, 1924. For several years the couple lived on Fort Worth’s South Side.

But in 1935 Minnie’s physician told her that she had only six months to live. An incurable ailment had caused her weight to drop to ninety pounds. Minnie the farm girl told her husband she would like to spend her final days living in the country. So, the couple bought a garage apartment on an acre and a half of Trinity River bottom land on today’s Ohio Garden Road (then known as “Castleberry Road”) a mile west of Jacksboro Highway.

In 1982 Minnie recalled her doctor’s prescription: “The doctor told me to go barefoot, work in the ground, and wear as few clothes as was possible and still be decent.”

And “work in the ground” she did as Bill and Minnie began improving the land, which was covered with weeds and brush. They pulled the weeds, cut the brush, and dug up trees by the roots, often working by lantern light.

With her husband Minnie gathered rock from nearby sources and broke the rock to line the ditch in front of their property and to build a wall there.

The river bottom was fertile (much favored by Greek farmers such as the Phiripes and Pappajohn families). Eventually the Hoeflein land became a garden spot: fruit orchard, rose bushes, vegetable garden.

“That soil was so rich,” Minnie recalled in 1982. “We always had a garden . . . tomatoes, onions, and all of that. And we’d raise sweet potatoes that were so big they’d split open. We were so happy out there, living and working.”

But their biggest project was building a larger house.

In the 1930s that stretch of the river bottom was outside the city limits. No zoning laws, no building inspectors.

But plenty of raw building material: While improving their land the Hoefleins had discovered that they were sitting on deposits of sand and gravel.

The Hoefleins dug up that sand and gravel and mixed them with cement to pour the concrete foundation of their new home. The house would have six rooms and a sleeping porch.

They planned to use that same formula to pour concrete walls—both exterior and interior—of their new home.

Bill and Minnie built molds to cast concrete blocks for the walls.

But at that point the Hoefleins went down the architectural road less traveled.

Minnie recalled, “My husband told me, ‘Sweetheart, we will build us a house that everybody will stop and look at.’”

The Hoefleins’ concrete blocks would not suffer the sameness of standard concrete blocks.

Nosiree Bob.

The Hoefleins’ blocks were a veritable geometry primer: blocks in the shape of squares, rectangles, triangles, diamonds, circles, ovoids. There were free-form blocks shaped like hearts, clovers, stop signs.

Nor did the Hoefleins’ imagination end there.

Again, none of that same old sameness for them.

Near the Hoeflein property was a former dump ground well stocked with bottles both whole and broken.

Minnie recalled: “There was a bunch of pretty blue Milk of Magnesia bottles and some green beer bottles.”

As the Hoefleins poured their building blocks, they pressed the bottles and shards into the wet concrete.

Thus, the Hoeflein house would come to be known as the “Glass House.”

But in truth the house offered the eye much more than glass.

Hoeflein also had some ceramic tile salvaged from an old hotel.

Minnie recalled: “One day my husband was making some forms, and he started putting in the tile . . . He said, ‘You know, that really looks good.’”

The Hoefleins also collected shards from a mirror factory to add to the blocks.

Then came still more what have you: scraps of iron and tin, fossils, seashells, miniature statues, spurs, stirrups, horseshoes, nails, pocketknives, razors, a hubcap, toothpick holder, citrus juicer, alarm clock, cigarette lighter, bicycle horn, jar of pills, false teeth, goat horns, rabbit’s foot, rattlesnake buttons, an animal skull.

Oh, and a petrified toe.

Minnie said her brother had cut it off while chopping wood and had preserved it in a bottle of alcohol.

Minnie recalled that she and Bill fashioned the designs for the blocks from their heads as they worked.

“We built the forms much like a woman builds a patchwork quilt,” she said. “We had all kinds of dishes in the walls: At one end, on one side we had the heads of some little [ceramic] dogs and on the other side were their tails. Oh, it was the cutest thing.”

Overseeing the miscellany atop one wall were the mortal remains of Alley Oop, a pet alligator who after death had been stuffed and given a place of honor.

“We had a man stand there for fifteen minutes one time and try to name something that wasn’t in our walls,” Minnie recalled. “He couldn’t do it.”

As the house’s walls went up, the reflective, shiny surfaces of glass and tile and mirror and metal caught the sun.

Each block was a mosaic. No two were alike.

Each wall was a concrete kaleidoscope of subtle earth tones and vivid blues, reds, greens, yellows, oranges, and blacks.

Each wall was a concrete Rorschach test: One cluster of glass shards looked like a school of fish. Hmmm. Or was it a tree leaf? Another cluster of glass shards looked like a painter’s palette. Or was it a bowl of fruit? A cluster of tile shards looked like a woman’s face. Or was it a domino?

The Hoeflein house was surreal, colorful, whimsical, as if designed by the architectural firm of Dali, Tiffany, & Seuss.

This photo of Minnie is from a 1938 Star-Telegram feature.

Bill Hoeflin laying part of the fireplace floor in 1938. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections.)

Daughter Minnie Marie (born 1929), left, and a neighbor boy with some of the house’s concrete blocks.

How many objects can you identify in the blocks?

Minnie Marie as a young woman.

The “what have you” motif was repeated in the low wall around the porch. The wall was topped by a concrete coping and pierced by portals and arches. Standing guard at each of the two outside corners was a decorative lion salvaged from Fort Worth’s old Lion Saloon.

Minnie Alice and friend Mary Margaret Moseley.

The house became such a curiosity that Minnie Alice began to conduct tours. Proceeds were donated to Catholic charities.

The view from Ohio Garden Road.

Bill and Minnie Alice also crafted gateways and porch railings from iron bedsteads that were one hundred years old, she recalled.

They built a double fish pool, wine cellar, wishing well, and a stone playhouse for daughter Minnie Marie.

They poured sidewalks that, like the walls of the house, were mosaics.

While Bill and Minnie Alice were building, he continued his oil delivery business; she operated a feed business from their home and canned and preserved the fruits and vegetables from their garden.

And amid all the hard work, Minnie Alice found her health restored.

She told the Star-Telegram in 1938: “I’ve decided that the doctors were wrong. I weigh 111 pounds now and feel fine, but I don’t believe I would have pulled my foot out of the grave if we had not moved out here where I could go to work building something.”

The doctors may have been wrong about Minnie Alice, but they were not wrong about Bill, who had a heart condition. On the day after Christmas in 1946 Bill Hoeflein, then sixty-two, was working on the final portion of the house—the roof of the sleeping porch.

Minnie Alice recalled, “I was up there helping him, and he looked into the sun and said, ‘Sweetheart—he always called me that—if the Lord lets me live until sundown, I’ll have the house finished.’ Just as the sun was dropping, he dropped his hammer and fell over.”

A neighbor helped Minnie Alice lower her husband to the ground. He was dead.

“I went ahead and finished the house,” Minnie Alice recalled. “When I got through, we only had spent $600 on it. That was all.”

In the 1950s a third generation—grandson Billy Joe Gabriel—discovered the Hoeflein House of What Have You.

Minnie Alice eventually remarried: her childhood sweetheart, Arlie Morrow.

In 1957 Minnie Alice sold the property and moved.

“I hated to sell it. . . . I stayed sick and in bed for two weeks afterwards,” she said.

“It was beautiful . . . so beautiful people called it fairyland.” She said the house had been featured in two movies and on television and radio programs. It was also featured in the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” syndicated newspaper panel.

In 1981, forty-three years after the house first caught the eye of passersby, the house won the grand prize in Fort Worth’s Art and Oddity Tour. Members of the tour zig-zagged their way around the house’s four walls, calling out “Look at this” and “Oh, over here, over here!” as they explored the house’s art and oddity.

But by 1982 the House of What Have You had deteriorated and was unoccupied. The city posted it as “substandard,” a designation that saddened Minnie Alice when she was told.

“It was wrecked by a bunch of hyenas,” she complained to the Star-Telegram in 1982.

Soon after, Bill and Minnie Hoeflein’s “house that everybody will stop and look at” was demolished.

Minnie Alice Hoeflein, who in 1935 had been given six months to live, died in 1993 at age ninety.

(Thanks to Bill and Minnie Alice’s grandson Billy Joe Gabriel for information and family photos.)


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2 Responses to The Hoeflein House of What Have You

  1. Billy Joe Gabriel says:

    Thanks for a Great Article, Mike. I learned some new history from your article. Also, Alley Oop, the pat alligator lived in the small pond in my mother’s bedroom. After my parents, Walter and Minnie Marie Gabriel had their first three children, (William Joseph, Mary Angela, and John Stephen) they built a new and bigger home in Edgecliff Village on the South side, and everybody moved away in October of 1957. Thanks again !

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