Squares

Tourist-free Hill Country atmosphere in Mason, unrestored turn-of-the-century splendor in Hallettsville: Five town centers that corner the market on charm.

March 1999By Comments

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.

Granbury

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.

Hallettsville

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.

Marfa

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 with the dignity of a provincial capitol.

El Paisano Hotel, which dominates the block leading up to the square, resembles a California mission, with its arches, courtyard, and tile roof. Built in 1930 in anticipation of an oil boom that never materialized, the Paisano was billed as the finest hotel between San Antonio and El Paso. But its intersection with destiny would not occur until 1955, when Giant was filmed near Marfa, and the Paisano housed such notables as Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper; a glass case in the lobby contains stills of Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. The buildings around the square include a few businesses on the south side, residences, churches, a fire station, and a handsome jail of native stone, also designed by Giles, which contained living quarters for the jailer that were used until the mid-seventies. A photograph taken from Highland Avenue when the courthouse was new shows only the two Giles buildings, with vacant land all around and behind them nothing but miles and miles of Texas. The southwest corner of the square once housed an automobile dealership, from which, according to local lore, a rancher took a car out for a drive without a proper understanding of how to make it stop. Panicked, the rancher drove around shouting, “Whoa! Whoa!” until someone from the dealership jumped on the running board and brought the runaway vehicle to a halt.

Mason

WELCOME TO FREDERICKSBURG before the tourists and the Hollywood types arrived: an idyllic Hill Country town that somehow has escaped the notice of the invading hordes. The square here is actually oblong (but “town rectangle” doesn’t have the right ring to it), leaving plenty of room for a spacious lawn and towering pecan trees. A Classical Revival courthouse occupies the center, built of granite, with a white clock tower and, at each of the four entrances, a portico with four tall columns. It was completed in 1909, after the great era of courthouse construction had passed, but it is an attention-getter nonetheless.

You can spend a lot of time here just soaking up the atmosphere. The north side of the square in particular oozes authenticity, with its cast-iron fronts and tile stoops featuring the names of the store owners: King, Schmidt, Seaquist, Hofmann. Hofmann Dry Goods has occupied its building for more than a hundred years. At the Underwood Antique Mall, the biggest item in the store is the first electric refrigerator in Mason, a commercial behemoth that was used to store perishables by the grocery store that occupied the premises. The refrigerator was not retired from use until 1990. On the west side of the square, the Odeon Theater was the scene of the unofficial premier of the Walt Disney film Old Yeller, based on a book written by Fred Gipson, a local boy who made good. Like Fredericksburg, Mason was, and is, a German town. Check out the Teutonic names inscribed on the base of the trail driver statue on the courthouse lawn. Then enjoy a good look around and remember Mason as it is now, just in case the tourists realize what they have missed.

Waxahachie

THERE IS MUCH TO ADMIRE around the square: buildings dating from the 1890’s that feature fanlike windows and elegant brickwork; the closed Rogers Hotel, where Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers once stayed while training in the area; and a dictionary of architectural features on other buildings, from arches to (if I may be given license for my “z”) friezes. But the big deal in this town half an hour south of Dallas is James Riely Gordon’s Romanesque Revival courthouse.

And big it is. The courthouse occupies nearly the entire grounds of the square, and its skyscraperlike tower rises out of a tall roof to loom over everything. Gordon was a prolific architect whose work graces San Antonio, Waco, La Grange, Victoria, and Decatur, among other places, but Waxahachie is unquestionably his masterpiece. The official description says that the exterior is pink granite with red sandstone accents, but the intertwining is so frequent and the harmony is so perfect that it is impossible to say which material is primary. Flat and rounded walls likewise alternate as one walks around the square so that neither appears to be more basic to the design. I have studied the courthouse in person and in pictures, and I wouldn’t even attempt to reproduce an accurate diagram of its shape.

Adding to the appeal of the courthouse are a couple of legends about its construction. A sculptor who was imported to carve faces in the sandstone fell in love with a local girl named Mabel, and he chiseled her lovely image into the rock for all time. Alas, true love was not reciprocated, and he took his revenge by carving images of her that were ever more grotesque. Some of the visages have suffered the ravages of time, but a current restoration, due to be completed in September, should repair the damage. Waxahachie voters gladly supported this renovation of their courthouse, but the citizenry wasn’t so happy when the original was built. Its expense caused the incumbent county commissioners to be voted out during construction. Disagreement over whether the commissioners who contracted for the courthouse or those who oversaw its completion should be listed on the cornerstone led to a compromise: two cornerstones, two lists of names, still facing off after a century.

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