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Life of Bryan

New energy revitalizes a brazos county downtown
Written by Brady Dyer. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

On Wednesday and Saturday nights, the dining room of The Village transforms into a dance floor for the restaurant’s popular Salsa Nights. Olé! (Photos by J. Griffis Smith)

I’ve been on a quest to explore as many parts of the state as I can, and on a recent warm morning, I drove into the quiet downtown of Bryan for a weekend getaway. The seed had been planted last spring, when I attended a museum conference in College Station, Bryan’s twin city to the south. I didn’t make it to Bryan on that trip, but I heard intriguing things about the city—its charming downtown, burgeoning nightlife, and rich history. And I learned of revitalization efforts, which have resulted in the restoration of many of the buildings and a reinvigoration of central city businesses.

The Old Bryan Marketplace offers eclectic treasures from throughout the world.

The contemporary history of Bryan goes back to the early 19th Century, when settlers came to farm the fertile Brazos River Valley. Thanks to a thriving agricultural industry, during the 1920s and ’30s Bryan became an important railroad stop between the Gulf Coast and northern markets. In addition to commercial travelers, students and their families traveled through Bryan on their way to a small railroad station outside of A&M University known as “College” station. After World War II, with the decline of railroads as a means of travel, Bryan’s affluence began to wane. But in the 1990s, local business leaders began renovating spaces in the downtown area—beginning with the Old Bryan Marketplace, a sprawling shopping destination in the city’s former railroad-docking warehouse, and the seven-story La Salle Hotel, a beautifully restored railroad hotel that dates to 1928. Today, the La Salle, along with more than 50 structures throughout town, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The hotel’s elegant interior—with its soft lighting, rich hues of plum and evergreen, fresh flowers arrangements, and comfortable seating—invites guests to sit and enjoy the lobby in spare moments. Restored and renovated in 2000 (and again in 2010) after decades of alternative uses, the hotel still boasts some of its original decor, including the black-and-white terrazzo lobby floor and Art Deco touches in the elevators. The friendly staff takes seriously their role of welcoming guests to the city, offering suggestions of what to do and where to eat. From my room on the seventh floor, large windows presented a wide view of the city’s attractions—including the red-brick Carnegie History Center, and to the right and left, Main Street, the heart of downtown Bryan.

My new friend shared with me the unofficial slogan for the city: “It’s where the adults come to play.”

Thanks to advice from the La Salle staff, I set out for the Old Bryan Marketplace, catty-corner from the hotel. Dating to 1906, the 22,000-square-foot building has had many incarnations—as a railroad warehouse, hardware store, and even a Plymouth-DeSoto dealership. It had fallen into disrepair when current owner Kay Conlee bought the building in 1995 and began renovations. The marketplace opened in 1996, and its success helped inspire other revitalization efforts downtown.

The rambling marketplace feels strangely intimate as you move through each space; it’s almost like being at the home of someone who has traveled the world, picked up interesting objects along the way, and now wants to share them with visitors. I marveled at the eclectic collection of decor, including large-scale maps, architectural drawings, and handmade pottery from Italy. The marketplace also carries linens, candles, fine writing papers, and items for the kitchen and bathroom; I lingered over a collection of soaps and lotions whose scent reminded me of the ocean.

Hungry for lunch, I settled into a seat at Madden’s Casual Gourmet, which occupies a spot in the north corner of the building. Exposed brick walls and wide, plank floors create a calming respite for shoppers and diners. Chef Peter Madden offers a menu with a variety of tempting entrées, but eventually I decided on the sesame-seared tuna with a tangy wasabi aioli—perfectly cooked and delicious. For dessert, I chose one of the restaurant’s popular “Dessert Minis”—a sliver of cheesecake that was the ideal lunchtime portion.

Reenergized, I visited the Carnegie History Center, which lies across the street from the La Salle Hotel, on Main Street. If genealogy or architectural history piques your interest, this beautiful neoclassical building should be on your short list of places to visit. In 1902, philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie made a proposition to cities across the country: If the city would maintain a library, he would provide funds to build one. Bryan, like 31 other communities in Texas, took him up on his offer. Designed by F. E. Giesecke, Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M, Bryan’s library features beautifully crafted Corinthian capitals, arched windows, an original pressed-tin ceiling, and carefully balanced proportions. The library opened in 1903. It holds an expansive genealogical collection, historical documents, photographs, maps, and periodicals from Bryan, College Station, and the Brazos Valley region.

At Catalena Hatters, brothers Travis (left) and Scott Catalena custom-mold straw and felt hats for customers. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Down Main Street from the Carnegie History Center, another historic building houses Catalena Hatters, which has created traditionally crafted felt hats since 1983 for customers the world over. Even if you are not in the market for a new hat, a visit here quickly turns into an impromptu education in the time-honored trade of custom hat-making. Behind the counter, Travis Catalena, who runs the shop with his brother, Scott, steamed a hat into shape for a customer—slowly turning the hat at different angles. Though you’ll find some “finished” cowboy hats on the shelves, most of the hats here have yet to be custom-molded, and still feature wide, flat brims and spherical tops. A world map covered with thumbtacks hangs on the wall behind the register. “That’s our market,” Travis said proudly. He told me a story of two men traveling separately in Ecuador who instantly recognized the custom work of each other’s hats. The gentlemen had someone snap a photo, and then mailed it to the Catalena family with regards from the Equator.

Next, I walked a few blocks to The Village, a café and art gallery that serves coffee, beer, wine, and light fare made with locally sourced produce, meats, cheeses, and eggs. The cafe also offers an all-Texan wine and beer menu, hosts regular live music, and features the work of area artists on the walls. Wednesday and Saturday nights are Salsa Nights, and as the dance floor filled up, I joined about 20 other people—a mix of first-timers and the more-experienced—to learn the basics. While I appreciated the instructor’s encouraging demeanor, my feet remained uncooperative. Taking a break, I sat down to cool off with a glass of sangria and strike up conversation with my neighbors. They shared some of the things that go on in Bryan, like “First Fridays,” a monthly open-house involving downtown shops, restaurants, and bars. Among the many restaurants they recommended was Caffé Capri, which features contemporary Italian cuisine, a nice wine selection, and desserts such as a classic tiramisu. I made a mental note to try it on my next visit.

On the way back to the La Salle, I stopped in at Revolu­tion, an eclectic bar hidden away off Main Street. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a mural inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night overlooking a courtyard filled with people talking and laughing. Revolution serves as a gathering spot for people to unwind, check out a new band, and exchange stories. I saw many familiar faces here, including Cassie Baker, one of the bartenders at the La Salle hotel lounge. A native of Bryan, Cassie grew up here, went away for college, and has now returned.

We chatted about the changes in Bryan and the city’s growing art and music scene, and she shared with me the unofficial slogan for the city: “It is where the adults come to play.” 

“Growing up, no one wanted to come to Bryan, and there wasn’t much to do. I never used to be proud of my hometown,” Cassie said with a smile. “But I am now.” 

Resources

Downtown Bryan

Bryan and its sister city, College Station, are in central Brazos County, 100 miles east of Austin and 90 miles northwest of Houston. For information about restaurants, lodging, and attractions, contact the Bryan-College Station Convention and Visitors Bureau, 715 University Dr. East, College Station, 979/260-9898 or 800/777-8292; www.visitaggieland.com.           

Lodging

  • The La Salle Hotel, now managed by Magnolia Hotels, is at 120 S. Main St. Call 888/915-1110 for reservations, or 979/822-2000 to reach the hotel directly; www. lasalle-hotel.com.

Restaurants

  • Caffé Capri is at 222 N. Main St. Call 979/822-2675; www.theplaceforitalian.com.
  • Madden’s Casual Gourmet is at 202 S. Bryan Ave., within the Old Bryan Marketplace. Call 979/779-2558; www.pmaddens.com.
  • Revolution Cafe & Bar is at 211-B Main St. Call 979/823-4044.
  • The Village is at 210 W. 26th St. Call 979/703-8514; www.thevillagedowntown.com.

Shopping

Attractions

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