This widow of the South accumulated at least 9 husbands & 10,000 pieces of glass! Chattanoogan Anna Safley Houston (1876-1951) single-handedly amassed thousands of pitchers, creamers, lamps, flasks, jugs, china, tea sets, platters and frilly art-glass baskets. Her collection of pitchers alone is thought to be the largest in the world. “Antique Annie,” as she was called behind her back, kept the name Houston in honor of her favorite husband. None of her husbands were wealthy.
In 1904 Houston left her native Alabama to open a millinery store in Chattanooga. She had a brief stint as an antique dealer in the 1920′s but ended up losing it in the Great Depression. Houston continued collecting glass throughout her retail career.
So what makes Annie so fascinating, a town character to the locals? Annie lived in a barn. After the Depression, the bank foreclosed on her home. Instead of selling her precious glassware, she let the house go and built a ramshackle barn in which to live and store her glassware. When there was a fire in the barn in the late 1940s, those valuable pitchers were used – bucket brigade-fashion – to pour water on the flames, and most of her possessions were saved.
During the last 15 years of her life she lived in virtual poverty, sleeping on a cot with only her dog for a companion. Annie Houston died of malnutrition — her death certificate says obstructive jaundice— rather than sell a single piece out of her collection to pay for treatment. Ironic that the glassware was worth a mint, yet its owner died a pauper rather than subject herself to letting go of the only company she kept. It is an art collection that she literally gave her life to preserve.
When, shortly before her death, she went before the city commission to try to give her collections to the city, she was laughed out of the room by commissioners, who thought she was trying to give them a lot of junk. Ultimately, the childless collector did make legal arrangements to leave her 50+ collections in trust to the people of Chattanooga. Today, a century-old Victorian home perched high above the Tennessee River in Chattanooga’s vibrant Bluff View Art District houses Annie Houston’s world.
The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts collection is indeed so impressive that only 10% of the entire collection is shown at the museum, the rest being in the basement. There are literally millions of dollars of glass inside the walls of the museum. The rare glass collections include amberina, plated amberina, Pomona, peachblow, Burmese, cameo, Steuben, Tiffany, cranberry, satin, Quezal, Durand, sandwich and cut glass as well as more than 600 patterns of Early American pressed glass.
There is also a variety of lustre and a large collection of the rarest examples of Staffordshire, Mettlach steins, Rockingham-Bennington pottery, bottles and flasks, original Toby jugs, Meissen, and Rose Canton pieces, mostly in the Rose Medallion and Rose Mandarin patterns. The Houston museum features a room where the glassware hangs from the ceiling, much like it did in that barn.