Name a college town with lots of public art, scenic riverside trails that run for miles, a thriving live-music scene, and bats roosting under a bridge. No, not Austin. Try San Angelo, a town I’ve dismissed all these years as a place to loop around to get to New Mexico. But once I finally shot straight to its heart, I discovered an almost urbane ticker, boasting cosmopolitan shopping, art galleries, museums, nightclubs, and a lily garden that wowed me. Not bad for a town so sin-filled in its frontier youth that officers at Fort Concho supposedly wouldn’t venture into the streets at night.
Judging from the impossible-to-miss San Angelo Visitors Center, a swoop-roofed stone structure with the grandeur of a national park lodge and a view of the Concho River, no one’s trying to keep any of the present-day charms a secret. Armed with maps and detailed guides, I sought out the hot spots within walking distance. Just across the river, fiberglass sheep loiter on downtown street corners and murals abound. At fourteen stories, the Cactus Hotel, one of Conrad Hilton’s early projects, dominates the cityscape. Built in 1929, it has had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. Today it’s primarily an office building, but you can still wander the lobby and second-floor ballroom to gawk at its grand details and possibly crash one of the many weddings held there. Better yet, catch a performance from its long-running concert series.
On and around historic East Concho Avenue, where all the prime vices once flourished—per capita whiskey consumption was 19.48 gallons a year in 1885— twenty-first-century goods now rule (although cowboy boots can still be had at M. L. Leddy’s and J. L. Mercer and Son, San Angelo institutions for decades, and you can still visit Miss Hattie’s infamous bordello turned museum). Big-city snot that I am, I was shocked by the caliber of shops: J. Wilde’s, a gypsy-mod warren layered with vibrant clothing, furnishings, and fabrics; Eggemeyer’s, a general store literally stuffed to the rafters with toys, swank kitchen gadgets, and doodads; Legend Jewelers, where you can get rings and necklaces made from Concho River pearls, famous for their pink and purple hues; and the House of FiFi DuBois, where it seems everything my mother ever owned in the sixties, from a daisy-patterned bar set to a Formica dinette, has landed—and looks so much cooler than I remember.
On a slope across the river from downtown looms the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. With a roof as swaybacked as a cartoon donkey and a Planet Hollywood—ish entrance, the exterior hints at its mission to not only educate but to entertain. Rotating exhibits include Angelo State University art department faculty shows, but you can always count on seeing at least a portion of its permanent collection of contemporary ceramics, like Ruth Wilson’s ice-cream-and-sword-toting Fu Wang or one of Bonnie Lynch’s pit-fired vessels with walls thinner than physics should allow. When I learned that tango lessons would be taught there that evening, I vowed to return to continue my edutainment.
From the museum, a cobbled and curving promenade leads through Old Town, a group of relocated and renovated turn-of-the-century buildings, like the wee homestead or the Oscar Ruffini—designed bank. Nearby, the Orient—Santa Fe Depot, built in 1909 and saved from the wrecking ball in the nick of time eighty years later, is now home to the Railway Museum of San Angelo, which is open only on Saturday afternoons but is a must for those with model trains on the brain.
Although the railroad fueled San Angelo’s growth, Fort Concho sparked it. Built in 1867 and restored to time-travel standards, the fort is a collection of dignified stone buildings, with tall windows and white trim, facing expansive parade grounds and containing barracks and a cringe-inducing medical museum (the pine coffin propped in one corner wasn’t very reassuring). As I clomped down the long wooden porches, I was so lulled by the rhythm of my steps that I decided to spend the night in Officers’ Quarters 1. But unlike those scaredy-cat commanders of yore, I wasn’t afraid to venture out, looking to tango with strangers, no less.
San Angelo Visitors Center Open Sun noon–4, Mon–Fri 9–5, Sat 10–5. 418 W. Avenue B, 325-655-4136 or sanangelo.org.
San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts Open Tue–Sat 10–4, Sun 1–4. Closed Mon. One Love, 325-653-3333 or samfa.org.
Railway Museum of San Angelo Open Sat 10–4. Closed Sun–Fri. 703 Chadbourne, 325-486-2140 or railwaymuseumsanangelo.homestead.com.
Fort Concho Open Mon–Sat 9–5, Sun 1–5. Three-bedroom, two-bath Officers’ Quarters 1 from $100. 630 S. Oakes, 325-481-2646 or fortconcho.com.
While You’re in the Neighborhood
On the first Saturday of each month and Thanksgiving weekend, potters, stone carvers, metalsmiths, and other artists open their studios and hawk their wares at the Old Chicken Farm Art Center, a fowl palace turned creative enclave. There’s live music, pizza cooking in the courtyard’s brick oven, and free clay-smushing for the kids. The compound also includes a quirky B&B, the Inn at the Art Center (325-659-3836), as well as the Silo House Restaurant (325-658-3333), which serves five-course prix fixe meals (think escargots and chipotle lamb chops) Thursday through Saturday nights. 2505 Martin Luther King Boulevard, 325-653-4936 or chickenfarmartcenter.com.