Christine Messina knows a thing or two about staging events. So when her husband, Austin music titan Louis Messina, turned the big seven-oh, she knew just what to do. She threw a tuneful party at Arlyn Studios and made sure that every detail, down to a fantasy candy counter, sang.
An air-conditioned tent invited guests in from this sweltering South Austin night. Studio co-leader Freddy Fletcher welcomed visitors deeper into the quiet, low-ceilinged rooms, which turn out to be ideal for chatting in a crowd. Not far off was Bobbie Nelson, Freddy’s mother and Willie Nelson‘s sister. The guests nibbled from savory and sweet offerings and at one climactic moment, threw back Jello shots, perfect for the music promoter who cut his teeth on the New Orleans scene.
The well-mannered Texas Gentlemen performed, but never far from the stage were major musical artists George Strait, Ed Sheeran, Shakey Graves and Shawn Mendes. You see, the birthday boy runs a high-powered Austin-based promotion business whose clients have include Strait, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and other top-grossing acts. Ages ago, he also started the concert end of what is now the Live Nation touring behemoth. Swift’s 13 Management team and parents Andrea and Scott Swift were also at the party.
His wife, who serenely oversaw the sprawling scene, held high positions in business and the arts in Houston and, since moving the family — older boys, younger girls — to Austin, she’s been active in philanthropy. She also founded a sweet business, the Candy Jar in the Hill Country Galleria.
Back to the party, DJ ulovei (Miguel Angel) kept things cool. He showed me some wounds from his well-reported sword stabbing earlier this year. Among the other guests were John Graham (director of the Frank Erwin Center), Dan Murphy (VP of the New England Patriots), Ron VanDeVeen (CEO and president of MetLife Stadium), Clint Higham (Morris Higham Management in Nashville), Jason Owen (CEO and president of Sandbox Entertainment Nashville), Steve Moore (former CEO of the Country Music Association).
I talked for some time with Austin’s Anna and Will Hardeman, while passing pleasantries with Rebecca and Bryan Hardeman. Jewelry designer Nak Armstrong and interior designer Mark Cravotta seemed always just out of conversational reach.
Meanwhile, Louis was his usual warm, youthful, slightly mischievous self. Many more such parties to come, I’m sure, after his actual birthday, which is July 25.
By the way Ed Sheeran touched me. By accident, but still …
UPDATE: Additional guests were added to this post and some roles were clarified.
Not surprisingly, Congress Avenue, sometimes called the Main Street of Texas, counts more coffee shops than any other 12-block stretch of the city.
Before we dive into the local outfits, though, we should note that Starbucks operates at least six reliable coffee outlets within easy walking distance of Congress Avenue.
So the field is doubly crowded.
Houndstooth. 401 Congress Ave. 512-394-6051. houndstoothcoffee.com. Paid parking in area garages; very little on the street. Decaf (Americano), teas, chai. Unobtrusive music, plenty of quiet spots.
The last time we met a friend at this sublime downtown coffee shop on the ground floor of the Frost Tower, he ordered a Japanese frozen coffee cocktail, while I had an iced decaf Americano without a hint of the grainy, musky qualities that sometimes linger in an Americano. This shrine to coffee, the second in the Houndstooth family, blossoms in Scandinavian red tile and blond wood. The ceiling soars above the mixed crowd sitting at counters and tables on curved stools, but it rarely sounds too loud. The espresso and other coffee drinks are superb. The snack and alternative beverage options are minimal. Bags of beans await your inspection. The outside tables are seductive in the morning, less so in the afternoon.
Caffe Medici. 200 Congress Ave. 512-827-2770. caffemedici.com. Paid parking in area garages; very little street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Modish music. Quiet upstairs.
It was something of a shock when Caffe Medici, which operated a low-key, high-quality coffee shop in an old house on the border between Clarksville and Old West Austin, went into an entirely different direction with shop no. 2. Located in the soaring Austonian downtown, this edition blended modern and contemporary styles with exquisite taste. A few tables are scattered on the sidewalk for people watching, while two large customer areas await inside. Upstairs is a quiet work area; downstairs includes multiple social and lounging options. One orders at a counter at the back, then espresso drinks are picked up at a nightclub-like island well. During big festivals, I’ve watched some visitors who confused “caffe” with “cafe” and expect more to eat. Locals know better. On their own, the drinks compete with the best on the avenue. Bonus: There’s a baby Caffe Medici that opens to the sidewalk with copious outdoor seating in the 900 block of Congress.
The Hideout. 617 Congress Ave. 512-443-3688. hideouttheatre.com. Paid parking in garages; very little street parking. Decafe, teas, chai. Mellow music. Performance venues in the back and upstairs.
The sole survivor from the Middle Period of downtown Austin coffee houses, the Hideout is doubly known as a performance venue that has hosted artists and audiences in a least four of it interior spaces. A knowledgable barista tells us that only two are now in use. The vibe here his creative, funky and authentic, but that doesn’t mean its food and drink service has slacked off. In fact, by my estimates, it has improved enormously. Workers behind a streamlined counter fetch espresso drinks, beer, wine, beverage novelties, pizza, pastries, tacos, snacks, juice and water, just to get you started. A dozen table and a high counter hold a mix of meeters and laptoppers within dimly lighted painted brick walls. During the past few visits, the staff has proven extraordinarily alert and helpful.
Caffe Aragona. 914 Congress Ave. 512-505-8784. caffearagona.com. 7 .am.-6 p.m. Mon-Fri., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., closed Sun. Paid parking in nearby garages, very little street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Minimal music at all. Outdoor seating under European umbrellas.
What started out as a franchise outlet of a old Italian coffee chain is now locally owned Caffe Aragona. The Lavazza branding remains everywhere, but the first thing we noticed is that the food offerings seem more substantial than we had remembered. Sure, one can still order pastries, panini and gelato, but now the emphasis seems to be on hearty fare such the Chicken Bacon Ciabata, Sausage Roasted Pepper Pizza, Italian Baguette, Salmon Salad and such. The shop’s hours are likewise trimmed to serve downtown workers, not stray tourists or clubbers. Like clockwork, the lunch masses rush in around noon. Some are Capitol types attired in suits, but the rest reflect the usual Austin casual look. They linger among stylish brightly hued chairs, tables and counters. Recall that Little City, which launched the modern urban coffee shop movement in Austin, once thrived in the spot right door. It closed in 2011.
Slake Cafe. 120 E. Seventh St. 512-476-0060. slakecafe.com.7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Paid parking in nearby garages, very little street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Fairly loud music at lunch.
We like a cafe that’s serious about coffee. Slake is such a one. The L-shaped room starts off with a briskly run counter service that includes a full breakfast and lunch menu as well as piles of tasty pastries and a multitude of drink selections. Customers often use the high island counter nearby as a waiting station for take-out orders. Around the corner are a dozen or more well-spaced tables and a full bar, which I assume gets more more use as the hours crawl by. This is a place for eating and drinking, though, not working. Rare is the laptop. If you don’t live or labor downtown, it’s easy to forget this spot just to the east of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. But if this is your hood, you stop by here as often as possible.
Brian’s Brew Coffee. 515 Congress Ave. 512-738-7713. briansbrew.com. 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Parking in area garages, virtually no nearby street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. No music during our visit. No obvious place to sit.
Imagine operating a coffee kiosk not much bigger than an old-fashined phone booth, if you can remember what those were. You’d need just the right personality to fill it and Brian’s Brew gets that. Our barista on our only visit was alert, able and funny. While serving me, he kept up a brisk chat with a member of the office tower’s engineering staff, who had repaired one of those giant, old, expensive espresso machines, but not the slimmer, newer models like the one here — that needed some loving care. One can find handy spots like this one all over office buildings in larger cities, but it’s not that common a sight in Austin. A helpful sandwich board out on the sidewalk points the newcomer in the right direction, but one must explore a bit beyond the elevator lobby to find counter with an amazing array of edibles and drinkables for such a tight fit. As I left, the barista asked if my iced decaf Americano was just right. To be honest, it seemed a bit stout, but he was so kind, I replied: “Exactly.”
Floyd’s. 301 Congress Ave. 512-330-4044. floyds301.com. 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Fri. Parking in area garages, virtually no nearby street parking. Decaf. Fairly quiet.
“Hard to find. Easy to love.” That’s the motto for Floyd’s, based deep inside the ground floor of an 1980s-era office tower that has undergone some spiffy renovations lately. The shop seems streamlined to suit exactly the tastes of those customers who can find it, in other words, white-collar workers in a hurry. The main beverage menu is split among classics, specialities and chocolate drinks. Breakfast fare includes bagels, tacos, sandwiches and breakfast bowls. Lunch goes the way of presses, wraps and build-your-own sandwiches. The place is light and airy for a room without exterior windows; the tables and chairs are utilitarian. No fuss was made about it, but my coffee drink hit the spot.
Texas birds, Texas musicians, Texas media stars, Texas festivals and a guide to the Texas Capitol stack up on our state shelves this week.
“Book of Texas Birds.” Gary Clark with photographs by Kathy Adams Clark. Texas A&M Press. For some of us, there are never too many Texas bird books. This one might not fit as easily into a backpack as snugly some of the more traditional guides — not to mention its weight at more than two pounds — but the clarity and beauty inside more than make up for its relative girth. It seems manufactured to last, too, another crucial argument in its favor, since it will get a lot of use. Gary Clark’s easy journalistic style — he writes a column for the Houston Chronicle — nicely matches Kathy Adam Clark’s generous images. We plan to keep it handy whenever possible.
“When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath.” Stuart Isacoff. Knopf. Curious how Van Cliburn mania comes in waves. Texans are particularly prone to flights of fancy about their native son who won the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1958, then was lionized around the world, including a ticker tape parade in New York. He is now the subject of two new books, this one by piano expert Stuart Isacoff, who doesn’t stint on the socio-political context, and “Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How one Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War” by Nigel Cliff. Isacoff is particularly good at describing Cliburn the performer both at his peak and during his declining years. We were lucky enough to hear him several times during that autumnal period. The freshness had vanished, but never the glamour.
“It’s News to Me.” Olga Campos Benz. Self-published. One special treat that awaits those who ply Austin’s social circuit is to land at a table next to media savvy Olga Campos Benz. Not only is she a first-rate storyteller, but she’s got ripe stories to tell from her years as a top Texas broadcast journalist and afterwards, when she became one of Austin’s most visible volunteers and activists. She’s met a crazy character or two along the way. This brisk, fluent novel is informed by all that experience. Now, I can’t tell you how much of this story is based on real people — the same is true with Rob Giardinelli’s sweet and recently published society memoir, “Being in the Room” — but I can confirm some parallels between the fictional photojournalist of the novel and flesh-and-blood husband Kevin Benz. This volume confirms the instinct: If you’ve got a novel in you, please write it.
“Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition.” Amy L. Stone. Trinity University Press. Fiesta is one of those singular things that sets San Antonio almost completely apart from its sister Texas cities. One aspect of this annual holds special meaning for the state’s LGBT community. Fiesta itself goes back to the 1890s and, like Mardis Gras, its sprawling celebration is staged by not one, but dozens of local groups. That structure generated isolated pockets of social exclusion, while allowing a broader cross-section of the population to participate in novel ways. Cornyation is a drag spoof of Fiesta’s debutante Coronation of the Queen of the Alamo. It goes back at least to the early 1950s and was embraced as part of the accepted party landscape. Author Amy Stone has fun with this phenomenon, while taking it seriously on a sociological level. The pictures are out of this world!
“Legends & Lore of the Texas Capitol.” Mike Cox. History Press. What would we do without Mike Cox? The journalist and author had published more than 3o books, a great many of them about Texas and its history. Here he delves into the enduring myths and verifiable facts about one the state’s most charismatic shrines, the Texas Capitol. Cox was working for our newspaper in 1983 when a fire that started in the lieutenant governor’s office nearly brought down the building. In response, our leaders lovingly restored the building and the grounds while adding a clever underground extension to alleviate horrific overcrowding in what had become a firetrap. At the same time, almost everything we assumed about the Capitol’s legacy was reexamined. Cox is very good at sorting out the legends and lore, making this an essential read for any Texas history advocate.
LLANORIVER VALLEY – Checking into our Junction motel, we asked the desk clerk about fun things to do in town. She quipped, “When you find out, let me know.”True, for a student at Texas Tech University-Junction like her, this old Edwards Plateau ranching town offers little social life. Yet for buddy Joe Starr of Houston and me, it served as an ideal base camp for our 13th rivertracing. (Our goal: Trace 50 Texas rivers from source to mouth.)
Of all the constant-flow Hill Country rivers, the Llano remains the least altered. As John Graves observes in “Texas Rivers, ” it is dammed only intermittently between its headwaters in Edwards and Sutton counties and its happy meeting with the Colorado River at Lake LBJ. The Llano has yet to inspire a single fancy resort, and city folk have built only a fistful of second homes.
At the juncture of the South and North Llanorivers, Junction attracts mostly hunters and the occasional road-tripper netted off Interstate 10. As for other towns, Mason has been discovered by outdoor types, as well as history buffs; Llano by those two tribes, plus weekend ranchers who pack the coffee shops and courthouse-square eateries. Kingsland, long a vacation camp on the “Llanorado” peninsula, leads to Leviathan lake-side homes and quaint railroad-era inns but is marred by an eye-melting stretch of highway commercial culture. (Lady Bird Johnson would shudder.)
The lack of development upstream – cherished by river lovers – is rooted in historical isolation. The LlanoRiver Valley has supported only traces of permanent civilization. Local Indians were prey for raiding Comanches and Apaches; the Spanish explored the area, but never planted a presidio or mission here.
Germans and Americans filtered into the valley by the mid-19th century, but the trans-Atlantic rails and highways generally passed it by. Even Interstate 10 has not dramatically changed the upper valley, where we spied unfamiliar birds at South LlanoRiver State Park, surveyed limestone, sandstone and granite bluffs and clambered around courthouses, forts and parks.
Why the blessed development lag on the Llano? Catastrophic floods. The evidence is everywhere, from the strewn-by-giants boulders to the Inks Bridge plaque that records a 42-foot wall of water that roared down the canyon in 1935.
We cherish these memories of strolling through Aldridge Place and its sibling district, Hemphill Park.
Originally published Dec. 16, 2010.
Walking through an old Austin neighborhood with a sharp eye is like scrutinizing the tree rings of an ancient oak. One finds evidence of lean years and fat. Of rapid change and relative stasis. Of momentary crisis and long-term stability. The social trunk in the tiny, paired Aldridge Place and Hemphill Park neighborhoods – north of the University of Texas campus – is incredibly compact. Just two streets – 32nd and 33rd streets between Guadalupe Street and Speedway – make up Aldridge Place proper, according to some of its most ardent advocates.
Others, pointing to the original plat, insist on including Wheeler and Lipscomb streets, plus Hemphill Park, split down the middle by upper Waller Creek and its tree-pegged banks. A later strand – Laurel Lane – was added to the old subdivision. Notable families have lived here, behind deep, shaded front yards and a variety of provincial European and American-style façades. Golf guru Harvey Penick brought up his children here. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie owned a house at 3109 Wheeler St. The Rather clan, which produced broadcaster Dan Rather and political activist Robin Rather, lived down the way on Laurel Lane.
Late journalist and presidential press secretary George Christian Jr. was born and grew up here in the house of his father, an assistant attorney general and judge, George Christian Sr., on Wheeler Street. Regan Gammon, lifelong friend to former first lady Laura Bush, lives in a surprisingly modest house adjacent to a guest cottage. (Bush visits frequently. Follow Secret Service advice: Stay away.)
Musicians Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison raise their children here. James Galbraith of the famed scholarly family lives not far away in a multifaceted house. Add to that Texas French Bread founder Judy Willcott and arts leader Laurence Miller, along with “house whisperer” Kim Renner, academic Terri Givens, actress and musician Chris Humphrey, and Silicon Laboratories’ David Welland and his wife, Isabel, both prolific contributors to the Glimmer of Hope, Miracle and Sooch foundations. Nearby live Rick and Nancy Iverson in a 19th-century stone structure that reportedly served as a stagecoach stop. Among the gay couples are Austin social all-stars Steven Tomlinson and Eugene Sepulveda, along with Web designer Bob Atchison and oenological consultant Rob Moshein, known as the “Austin Wine Guy” – and my guide on this fine fall day.
But let’s start with the land. As with almost all Austin neighborhoods, this one is defined by higher elevations roosted above waterways. Upper Waller Creek is sometimes merely damp, thanks to this area’s many springs. Yet it drains a huge amount of land to the north and becomes a raging stream after any storm. “It takes on a crazy amount of surface water, ” says house rescuer Renner, who lives just to the creek’s east. “The rise is amazingly rapid.” The creek is also famous for its tunnels, which lead to the Texas State Hospital grounds a mile to the north. Brave neighborhood children crawled up these tunnels to what was once called the “insane asylum.” A metal floodgate now bars passage.
The ascent on both sides of the creek is not steep, but it’s unmistakable. On Wheeler, it forms a gentle curve for houses on a ridge whose properties back onto Guadalupe near Wheatsville Co-op. On the eastern side of the creek, the rise merely makes for a healthy cardio workout. Pecans, oaks and elms dominate the canopy, myrtles and other ornamentals the lower strata. The area hosts an unusual number of magnolias, trees that don’t usually thrive in Austin’s alkaline soil without help. “We almost lost that one during the last drought, ” says Renner, pointing to a double-trunked magnolia outside her spacious bungalow overlooking the park. “We nursed it back to health.”
According to neighborhood historians, the region north of what became the UT campus was first settled under a land grant to Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar in 1840. The bluff above today’s dual neighborhood, where the Kirby Hall and the Scottish Rite Dormitory now sit, saw the first houses. Exposed to Comanche attacks during the mid-19th century, the land later supported dairy farms, general stores, schools and, eventually, residential subdivisions such as Harris Park, Hyde Park and the lesser known Grooms, Lakeview and Buddington.
On May 15, 1912, Lewis Hancock, developer of the Austin Country Club and namesake for Hancock Center, began selling tracts in Aldridge Place. Deed restrictions included a minimum sale price, no apartments, and, in line with growing segregation, no sales or rentals to African Americans unless they were live-in servants. Located so near the campus, churches, trolley lines and retail development along Guadalupe Street, Aldridge Place and Hemphill Park grew rapidly during the 1920s. “It’s residential but urban, ” says Willcott, who started Texas French Bread in the basement of her former house on 33rd Street, then opened her first store in a converted bowling alley at Guadalupe and 34th streets.
This day, our walk started on Laurel Lane at Speedway. “Aldridge Place looks down on us, ” Moshein jokes. “We’re on the wrong side of the tracks.” A pair of fanciful houses, designed by UT’s first architecture dean, Hugo Kuehne, flank the lane’s entrance. Carol McKay’s is notable for its steep, curling roofline and hidden gardens. On the other corner, Moshein and Atchison live in the old Rather house, best described as “Hollywood Spanish Colonial.” The surprise inside is a treasure trove of Czarist art, antiques and artifacts that the couple have collected for decades. It’s more than a little disconcerting to attend a party here, where Russian royalty stares down at the folks dressed in the usual casual Austin wear sipping exceptional wines.
None of the houses in this neighborhood are what one would call grand, more akin to ones found near almost any American university campus. These proud structures housed large families, until the kids grew up and the parents grew old. Then, college students moved into rentals – a point of contention for some residents – until new families, not all of them with children, fixed up the homes, now deemed historical by the so inclined. Renovators are transforming houses that had “gone hippie” during the 1960s and ’70s. “We are under huge pressure from the university, ” says former museum director Miller, who shares his current house on 33rd Street with Willcott. “To keep the neighborhood intact, you must be constantly vigilant.”
In fact, one neighborhood constant has been the number of people who have never left the area, or returned after a few years. Retired psychologist Mary Gay Maxwell has lived in three nearby houses; Clayton Sloan lived down the street from her current residence when she was a student. “I thought I was the luckiest person in the world, ” new mom Sloan says. “Living on this pretty street, walking distance to everything. Trees arched over. It’s an urban environment, but it’s very safe.” Maxwell agrees: “People never go away.” This loyalty fits neatly with the stories I heard up and down the streets from people walking their dogs, or working in their yards, or just passing by. (There seem to be as many canines as humans here, and at least one feline doesn’t seem to mind. Whirley, a dark, mottled cat, follows pedestrians up and down the streets, far away from his home on 32nd Street.)
Givens, who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and her high-tech husband, Mike Scott, moved to Aldridge Place from the West Coast. Before they purchased their house on 32nd Street, the previous owners interviewed them carefully, and when tests were passed, gave them a party. “We realized we were not buying a house, ” Givens says. “We were buying a neighborhood.”
One reason residents might act so neighborly is the subdivision plan: All houses must face the inner streets or the park; alleys are forbidden and sidewalks are mandatory, making it a front-porch society. “We all know each other, ” Renner says, recalling regular holiday parties and a July 4 parade. “I would say (the urban plan) completely fulfills its original intentions.” The residents so treasure this life, they fought tooth and nail, as part of the larger North Campus Neighborhood Association, against the so-called “super-duplexes” and other concentrations of sometimes rowdy students who did not share their web of seemingly constant social connection. Student parking was also a sore point, until the City of Austin nixed nonresident parking during weekdays. “You couldn’t get down the street during the day, ” Moshein says. “You’d try to come home for lunch and couldn’t make it down the narrow streets for all the parked cars.”
Here, preservation is less about tax breaks and more about enduring social bonds, an argument one hears from East Austin to Old West Austin. “It was important to keep this neighborhood as it is, ” says Maxwell, who ran herd on the planning commission and Austin City Council to solve some of the destabilizing development. “This street was in decline, but it’s come back.” Gentrification and higher land prices might actually contribute to stability – at the potential price of diversity, Moshein points out – but neighborhood leaders won the battle to direct dense housing toward West Campus instead. That student-saturated neighborhood is now home to numerous midrises and ever-greater arrays of commercial life.
This leaves Aldridge Place-Hemphill Park almost completely protected. It can’t claim the same historical significance of Hyde Park, a few blocks to the north and a generation older. Yet its residents are, if anything, more intensely loyal and alert to historical distinctions (you’ll discover that if you ever mix up Hemphill Park or Aldridge Place!). “We’re not going anywhere, ” says Robert Marchant, as his children frolic on a shared swing aside his family’s humble home. “It’s paradise, ” says Scott Sloan, balancing an infant in the kitchen of his renovated bungalow. “And people are optimistic about the neighborhood. That makes it a good investment.”
As Maxwell says: “It’s a little enclave of real neighborhood experience.”