MOST SMALL-TOWN AMENITIES—GREAT food, great shopping, and so on—are the kind that, until recently, could only be found in cities. Indeed, they’re the very features that drew generations of Texans out of small towns and into the metropolis, first to visit and then to live. But a vibrant town square is different: It can exist only in a small town, a place sufficiently compact to have a single focus. In urban Texas, squares have been bypassed, built over, bulldozed, or forgotten. In small towns, they not only survive but thrive.
To go to Texas’ best town squares today is to step back into history, to a time when small towns were magnets for a populace that lived primarily on farms and ranches. Many squares took on their current appearance around the turn of the century, their commercial structures and courthouse dating from an era when buildings were festooned with decorative facades. Indeed, a courthouse that qualifies as an architectural masterpiece is one of my three prerequisites for Texas’ best town squares. Texas produced five great courthouse architects— W. C. Dodson, Alfred Giles, James Riely Gordon, Eugene Heiner, and F. E. Ruffini—and all but Ruffini contributed their work to our list of the top town squares. A second requirement is the presence of old commercial buildings in sufficient number that a pre—World War II atmosphere still prevails. Finally, a square must be a place that continues to attract shoppers and strollers. This combination is, sad to say, increasingly rare in Texas. The post-war urge to modernize everything resulted in the destruction of many historic courthouses and the mangling of others. Other grand courthouses preside over a square of empty storefronts, victims of Wal-Marts, highway bypasses, and hard times. The five towns that make up the final list have managed both to preserve and to persevere.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE SQUARE is that the Pan Handle is not where the derelicts hang out; it’s the gourmet cookware store. Many Texas towns have tried to turn their squares into historical boutiques, but none has been as successful at attracting tourists as Granbury, which is forty miles southwest of Fort Worth. All around the square are restaurants, tearooms, antiques stores, and gift shops. In a place where building after building dates from the late nineteenth century, the Wagon Yard antiques barn actually advertises itself as “family owned since 1977.” Obviously it’s not the locals who come here, unless they have business in W. C. Dodson’s stately courthouse of gleaming white limestone or come to watch a live performance in the refurbished 1886 Opera House.
Granbury’s square might well have followed so many others into disrepair, neglect, and abandonment had it not been for local restoration efforts. The square’s renaissance began in 1971, when two descendants of the Nutt family reopened the dining room of the 1893 Nutt House hotel, serving home cooking and buttermilk pie. Today Hennington’s Texas Cafe serves monkfish rather than meat loaf.
From the Nutt House, on the northeast corner of the square, to the First National Bank, on the northwest corner, stands a procession of turn-of-the-century structures, each with a decorative metal front and Victorian accents under the roofline. The promenade in front of these buildings is covered and features a ceiling with pressed-tin geometric patterns. In 1905 temperance crusader Carrie Nation came here to rail against saloons; if she showed up today, she’d probably be looking for a quilt.
A GEM OF A SMALL TOWN, HALLETTSVILLE is situated on little-used U.S. 90A midway between San Antonio and Houston, just far enough from both to remain undiscovered. Its square is the antithesis of Granbury’s: no tourists and, as yet, no restoration—just a host of turn-of-the-century buildings and a courthouse that rivals Waxahachie’s for the title of best in the state.
My guide for a walk around the square was Marc Schwartz, the third in a line of Schwartz lawyers who have hung their shingles on the square since 1895. “I am descended from people who built these buildings,” he told me, pointing to the names of nineteenth-century merchants, I. Samusch and A. Levytansky, which appear in the stonework at the tops of their former stores. We walked clockwise around the square, passing one intriguing building after another. A plate-glass skylight admits natural light to what once was a photographer’s second-floor studio. A Rexall sign still hangs outside a drugstore, though the Rexall chain is long gone. On the northwest corner we stopped at the oldest building on the square, a rugged hulk of hand-cut native sandstone. “People who know say that this is the finest old building in this area,” Schwartz said. “A Houston lawyer is going to fix it up.” Schwartz himself is restoring two buildings on the square, including the old Levytansky store.
Every time we rounded a corner, we stopped to admire Eugene Heiner’s courthouse from a new angle. “You won’t find many flat surfaces,” Schwartz said, pointing out numerous recesses and protuberances that break the plane of the walls. Inside, each of the three stories has its original floor of inlaid tile in multicolored geometric patterns. The courthouse tower is among the tallest in Texas, and I can vouch for that: Schwartz persuaded county judge Charles Rother to let us climb all the way to the four Seth Thomas clocks at the top.
NO SQUARE HAS A MORE DRAMATIC SETTING than the one in this town north of Big Bend National Park. Turn north off U.S. 90 and you find yourself on Highland Avenue, a broad thoroughfare about a third of a mile long. The avenue, not the square, is the commercial district here, and the long rows of buildings that extend for several blocks end at the square, framing the splendid 1886 courthouse designed by Alfred Giles in the Second Empire style. With a dome in the center, precipitous mansard roofs on towers at the building’s four corners, and an interior of polished wood, the courthouse combines the grandeur of a chateau