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Same as it Ever Was

Round Top comes full circle
Written by Ramona Flume.

The 19th-Century pioneer structures at Round Top's Henkel Square have been transformed into shopping and dining destinations. (Photos by Will Van Overbeek)

I noticed something strange as I drove down the tree-lined country road wending south from US 290 toward the bucolic town of Round Top. Though I’ve made this trip dozens of times, today there was one striking anomaly: The time-worn number “77” indicating the town’s population on the city-limits sign had been repainted to read “90.”

 

Times must be changing in small- town Texas.

As I approached Bybee Square, the city’s first business and recreational plaza, I wondered what else might have changed in Round Top.  After all, the town is roughly equidistant from three of the state’s largest cities—Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. Tourists flock here year-round, and more than 100,000 people come here each year solely to attend Round Top’s famous spring and fall antiques fairs.

But I breathed a sigh of relief as I arrived at the same four-block “downtown” square I remembered, with its many shops, art galleries, and restaurants. I smiled to see the small crowd lingering on the porch of Royers Café, whose outrageously delicious pies have garnered praise from such authorities as celebrity homemaker Martha Stewart and foodies at The New York Times. (I can vouch for them, too—especially the “Texas Trash” version, a sweet-and-savory mix of chocolate chips, pecans, pretzels, coconut, and graham crackers.)

Despite cultural boons like antiques fairs and events at Festival Institute, Round Top has resisted major development, allowing visitors to enjoy the same tranquil setting experienced a half-century ago.

So some things remain constant. But change is afoot in tiny Round Top, including the transformation of Henkel Square, a collection of 19th-Century pioneer structures that once served as a living-history museum, into a shopping and dining destination.

The historic properties, built by some of the area’s first German settlers, are still here. But in recent years they’ve been modernized with new paint jobs and amenities like central air and heat, and they now house an assortment of boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, and other local businesses, including the Round Top Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. Here, too, are full-service venue spaces, like the restored 19th-Century Haw Creek Church; and the new Henkel Hall, an 8,000-square-foot event space that is popular for weddings and other gatherings.

Now known collectively as Henkel Square Market, the structures are surrounded by manicured gardens and connected by crushed-gravel pathways. I’m happy to see that visitors can still immerse themselves in history—especially the early settlers’ architectural legacy—thanks to such preserved elements as original oak floors and cedar woodwork.

In Bybee Square, The Gallery at Round Top specializes in antiques and arts. Here, co-owner Karen Vernon gives a little love to Lucy the dog. Round Top, established in 1870, has evolved into a weekend getaway for nearby urban dwellers. It’s an identity that was first cultivated in the 1960s by a group of influential philanthropists, art collectors, and preservationists from Houston, including Ima Hogg—the daughter of Texas Governor James Stephen Hogg—and her friends Hazel Ledbetter and Faith Bybee.  

In 1959, with the goal of preserving Round Top’s heritage and historic architecture, the three began purchasing and preserving Round Top properties and introducing the arts—theater, music, and antiques—to town. Hogg, who had collected early American art and antiques in Houston since the 1920s, encouraged local antiques dealer Emma Lee Turney to establish an annual show; today, the biannual fairs are two of the town’s most popular draws.  And in 1968, Faith Bybee and her husband founded the Texas Pioneer Arts Foundation, which restored historic area homes and relocated them to central locations like Henkel Square.

The whistle-stop of a town provided the perfect place for Houstonians eager to escape the big city. But Hogg and her coterie saw much more in Round Top than its sylvan charm. They saw the perfect platform for a cultural and fine-arts outpost. 

In the late 1960s, Hogg donated a 19th-Century barn on the outskirts of Round Top to serve as the performance space for Shakespeare at Winedale, a University of Texas-affiliated program dedicated to summertime performances of the Bard’s work. She also supported concert pianist James Dick, who in 1971 founded the Round Top Festival Institute, an inter-nationally acclaimed fine arts campus. Visitors to Round Top today shouldn’t miss a stroll through the Festival Institute’s beautifully landscaped flower and herb gardens, and if the timing is right, a concert in the handcrafted Festival Concert Hall.

But despite cultural boons like the antiques fairs and the Festival Institute’s many classical music and poetry festivals, Round Top has resisted major development, allowing visitors to enjoy the same peaceful setting experienced a half-century ago.

Those seeking tranquility in Round Top will find it everywhere, it seems—including at my favorite bed and breakfast in Texas, a 46-acre retreat known as The Prairie by Rachel Ashwell.

Visitors relax on the patio of the Stone Cellar, a pizzeria in Bybee Square, Round Top's original business plaza.I first visited The Prairie in 2010, soon after British interior designer Rachel Ashwell bought a small operation known as The Outpost and revamped its 19th-Century Texas farmstead and cottages. The modest country estate served as the ideal blank canvas for Ashwell’s style, which incorporates ornate French décor with elements like corrugated metal and chandeliers made of deer antlers. The lush grounds feature mature pecans, cedars, live oaks, and palm trees amid flowerbeds flush with seasonal roses and wildflowers. There are now three one-bedroom cottages available for rent, along with two larger houses, plus a renovated barn that often hosts weekend workshops and events. 

I can imagine Round Top’s pioneering patronesses wandering around here, past trees draped in vines, browsing slipcovers or pastel-colored glassware in the onsite boutique, or perhaps simply reveling in the nearly pristine landscape. After all, Round Top still boasts a certain old-fashioned sleepiness. Some shops are closed during the first half of the week, for example, and restaurants tend to close when business is light. And pie is practically a required course at every meal.

In fact, Royers Round Top Café, which operates a full-service restaurant on Main Street, has expanded with a new pie-and-coffee bar at Henkel Square 
Market. People even queue up in the mornings for breakfast options like “Not My Mom’s Apple Pie,” the café’s version of a “breakfast pie.”

No matter the calorie count: Breakfast pie is the perfect fuel for a languid afternoon of exploring Round Top’s boutiques, antiques shops, and art galleries. On a recent trip, I found myself attracted to a painted Styrofoam dinosaur head at a shop called Lizzie Lou’s. Debating whether I could find a place for it in my home in Austin, I resisted the urge and strolled instead to admire the locally made jewelry at The Gallery at Round Top. I spoke with co-owner Ken Muenzenmayer about the new energy I’d noticed in town, and I mentioned the new city-limits marker.

He paused for a moment and then said with a laugh, “Yep, we’ve got ourselves a real population explosion.”

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