By Nola McKey
On long trips, I like to break up the drive by exploring a small town along the way. Lured by signs promising a downtown historic district, an intriguing local restaurant, or a one-of-a-kind shop, I’m apt to forgo the bypass and take the business route instead. This decision often leads to memorable discoveries, like those I made in La Grange when I stopped en route from Austin to the coast last spring.
Downtown’s Uptown vibe
I’d visited the picturesque Fayette County seat before, but not in recent years, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the courthouse square bustling on a weekday. The town’s beloved Muster Oak—where generations of families said goodbye to loved ones as they left to serve in five wars—still stands catty-corner from the restored 1897 M-T-K depot. And the 1891 Fayette County courthouse itself is resplendent after its own multimillion-dollar restoration a few years ago. What I found most impressive, though, was that almost all of the historic buildings lining the square remain in use, many of them renovated and housing offices and shops.
The two-story 1907 Hermes Building on North Washington Street caught my eye first. With its series of arched windows and two-tone terra cotta façade, the brick structure echoes the Romanesque Revival style of the courthouse. For more than a century, it housed Hermes Drug, the longest-operating drugstore in Texas, until the pharmacy closed in April 2009. (Its original 1855 location was a log building on the northeast corner of the square.) A display of vintage pharmaceutical equipment and black-and-white photographs fills one of the large windows, reminding passersby of the building’s turn-of-the-20th-Century past.
After studying the exhibit, I popped inside the Urban Nest, one of two businesses that occupy the space today. The interior features pressed-tin ceilings; 14-foot, rough, brick walls; and the original oak cabinetry. The historic materials provide a striking backdrop for the shop’s assortment of fine furnishings. I was immediately drawn to the contrast between old and new—a length of colorful fabric folded over the open drawer of a wardrobe, the reflection of a contemporary lamp in a beveled mirror, an array of decorative items visible behind vintage glass doors.
All around the square, I saw the same formula at work: trendy merchandise playing off the patina of historic buildings. The decor of the shops differs, as do their levels of restoration, but if you like both shopping and history, browsing a boutique with a storied past is a special treat.
From the December 2010 issue.