From the Hill Country to the parks, 7 Austin parties that made our nights smile

Isn’t this the perfect time of year to indulge in Austin’s rapturous social scene?

Michael and Kim Levell with Phillip and Heather Wilhelm at Hill Country Nights for Hill Country Conservancy. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

Hill Country Nights. A dreamy indoor-outdoor affair, this benefit for the Hill Country Conservancy moved from the excellent Brazos Hall to the larger and more flexible Fair Market last year. They better conserved the air conditioning at the new spot this year. The laid-back event attracts a young-ish crowd in cocktail attire worn with Western flair. Servers circulated tempting snacks and drinks, then we sat down to plates overflowing with tasty Salt Lick BBQ. The captain of the evening, George Cofer, updated us on the group’s conservation efforts and progress on the Violet Crown Trail, which will extend from Barton Springs through southwest Austin to Hays County. Is there a more respected leader in the environmental community? I can think of some peers, but almost no betters.

Marice and Trevor Brown at Building Bridges for ARC of the Capital Area. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

Building Bridges for ARC of the Capital Area. Although we would have welcomed the program earlier in the evening, we are always deeply touched by this event that aids a venerable nonprofit, which has helped those with intellectual and development disabilities for decades. The highlights of the evening are always the artists themselves, whether showing their art for sale, one of the innovative programs for the ARC‘s members, or speaking from the dais. The Texas Cowboys — taller every year — were on hand to help out, along with jocund emcee Ed Clements. Fate handed me another plum, sitting next to Jesus Garza, president and CEO of the Seton Healthcare Family, which led to a long, fruitful discussion of the new medical school and adjacent medical center. If all works as it should, few things will make more difference in Austin’s near future.

Jenna Bata and Jihan Barakah at Night Under One Sky for iACT. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

Night Under One Sky for iACT. Heavenly weather. Heavenly food. Heavenly speech. Fans of iACT, the interfaith group that helps with housing, refugee services and other crucial needs, gathered in the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum for one of those flawless nights in the Barton Creek Canyon. Generous helpings of spicy eats beckoned at every point in the party. New to me: A trio of young people who custom brew beer and ciders for events and weddings (expect to read about them Auri Auber‘s column before long). I tried all three superb selections. The headliner of the evening was Gregory Vincent, University of Texas vice-president for diversity and community engagement, who just returned from the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. His speech, however, was about the place of faith in American civic life and he drew on his own experience, from the historic St. Philips Episcopal Church in Harlem to groundbreaking St. James Episcopal Church in Austin.

Michael Barnes September 28 · Reagan Sansom and Brian Walsh at Party for the Parks benefiting AustinParks Foundation. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

Party for the Parks. Hosts too seldom consider guest circulation. Not the Austin Parks Foundation. They’ve figured it out. At Brazos Hall, they had a mass of distinctly young guests moving from station to station, upstairs and downstairs, with an ease and fluidity that would be the envy of any party planner. Also handy was an oversized map of the foundation’s citywide projects in 2015. Head honcho Colin Wallis made an ever-so-brief address to the assembly, then he returned to mixing with the guests, including Charlie Jones from C3, which has given Austin parks $20 million through the ACL Music FestivalIn fact, this annual party serves as a sort of kick-off for the two-weekened fandango in Zilker Park. DJ Mel was masterful, not too loud, but certainly lively. You might know him from other C3 events, also President Barack Obama parties, plus sporting events.

Jess Pearce and Jonathan Pearce at Words of Hope Dinner for Caritas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

Words of Hope Dinner for Caritas. If you are attending this impressive dinner, be sure to sit next to one of the Harvey Penick Award winners. It was my lucky break to share a spot at a table with super-smart donors Sarah and Ernest Butler, Headliners Club skipper Sue Meller, as well as Rep. Paul Workman and his wife, Sherry. Sarah and I talked bird-watching, world travel, her childhood memories of Austin, the arts, especially Ballet Austin. As always, this event for Caritas of Austin ran as smoothly as cruise ship sailing on calm waters, from the expert videos and the awards to Gary and Susan Farmer, even down to the best cuisine I’ve ever tasted in a Hyatt Regency Austin banquet room.

Don Bice and Jennifer Ransom Rice at the Texas Book Festival Author Line-Up Party. Contributed by Miguel Angel.

Texas Book Festival Author Line-Up Party. Make no mistake, we will attend both days of the Texas Book Festival, as well as the First Edition Literary Gala. But I couldn’t make this preview affair, which features mostly area authors. Luckily, one of my trusted spies did: “It was a great mix of literati and newsies, a cross section of politicos, academia and Austin insiders,” says Jennifer Ransom Rice, director of the Texas Cultural Trust. “It was humbling to be in the room with such literary Texas giants –- amazing to think of how the Book Festival began, and has now grown to this internationally known literary festival. From a cultural perspective, I am proud of the work they have done to bring attention not only to our state, but to put such an emphasis on the importance of the literary arts at all levels.”

Pastries at the new Sheraton in Georgetown.

Grand Opening: Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel & Conference Center. It’s a long name. But surely descriptive. I couldn’t make this one, either, just too many overlapping social events. And nowadays, I commit to only one a night, and usually the first to invite me wins my attention. I heard that this opening went well, but it also gives me a chance to talk about a longtime need: Social spots in the suburbs. I’ve always wanted to attend more suburban parties, despite the worsening traffic — not the fourth worst in the country, stop reading bad studies! Well, the Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel & Conference Center might make it easier to host all sorts of convocations one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Preservation Austin lauds our people and places with 2016 Merit Awards

ALERT: The Preservation Austin Merit Awards are on their way!

The Merit Awards Celebration will take at the Driskill Hotel on Friday, Oct.28 from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The featured speaker will be Paul Gunther, executive director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in New York City.

And now for the winners:

Hendrick Southside Medical
500 Chicon. Photo by Kevin Halliburton, AIA

500 CHICON (1923) – East Cesar Chavez  Recipient: Texas Society of Architects Preservation Award for Sustainability.

Highland Avenue Bungalow. Photo by Whit Preston.

HIGHLAND AVENUE BUNGALOW (1918) – Old West Austin Recipient: Nick and Kathleen Deaver Preservation Award for Contemporary Addition to an Historic Building.

Neill-Cochran House Museum. Photo: Bill McCullough

NEILL-COCHRAN HOUSE MUSEUM (1855-1856) – West Campus Recipient: National Society of the Colonial Dames of America Preservation Award for Restoration.

Sparky Park_Photograph Courtesy of Austin Parks and Recreation Department.JPG

NORTH AUSTIN ELECTRIC SUBSTATION AT SPARKY POCKET PARK (1930) – North University City of Austin Parks & Recreation Department Preservation Award for Rehabilitation.

ARNO NOWOTNY BUILDING (1857) – University of Texas “Little Campus” Recipient: University of Texas at Austin Preservation Award for Restoration.

Pohl House. Photo by Trey McWhorter, Courtesy of Mid Tex Mod.

DR. DONALD AND MARJORIE POHL HOUSE (1955) – Highland Park West/Balcones Recipient: Trisha and Douglas Shepard Preservation Award for Rehabilitation. (Here’s my story on saving Austin’s midcentury modernist gems.)

CEMETERY MASTER PLAN + OAKWOOD ANNEX LADIES RESTROOM City of Austin Parks & Recreation Department Special Recognition for Outstanding Planning + Preservation of Cultural Landscape. (Here’s my story on Oakwood Cemetery.)

SAVE MUNY Special Recognition for Outstanding Public Service: Lions Municipal Golf Course National Register Listing . (Here’s my story on a century of Lions Club life in Austin.)

JILL AND STEPHEN WILKINSON  Special Recognition for Outstanding Public Service: Neighborhood Preservation in Aldridge Place and Heritage Neighborhoods. (Here’s my story on the Wilkinson’s campaign.)

Best Austin coffee shops near South Congress Avenue

You’re always a short walk from good coffee vibes on South Congress Avenue.

Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden. 121 Pickle St. 512-481-0694. 7 a.m.-midnight, Sun.-Fri. 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat. Lots of onsite parking, but cars overflow onto side streets at busy times. Decaf, teas, chai, beer, wine, cocktails. Music is lively, but one can find plenty of quiet spots in the garden.
Cosmic is cosmic. The latest adventure for Austin hospitality guru Paul Oveisi transforms a former industrial site into a garden of earthly delights for young and old alike. Across the way is a rock-climbing studio, gym and wine-tasting room. In between is a vast array of low, comfortable chairs set next to tables, fires and water features. Could use some more shade when the heat arrives, but Oveisi told me he is taking care of that. The counter to the back of the interior zone is simplicity itself. Adult beverages appear more prominent than the coffee offerings, but this is no dive. Kids wind their way through the garden, where old hippies, young hipsters and, yes, South Austin rednecks hang out. It recalls not only ABGB but, going further back, the Armadillo World Headquarters (1970-1980), Scholz Beer Garten (1866-today) and other beloved Austin casual spots. Is Oveisi making history again?
UPDATE: Paul Oveisi’s last name was misspelled when this was first posted.
Bennu Coffee. 512 S. Congress Ave. 512-448-3919. Open 24 hours 7 days a week. Limited parking in a shared lot with many restrictions, additional street parking up the hill on South Congress Avenue. Instant, free WiFi with no password. Decaf Americano. Low volume music.

East Austin favorite Bennu Coffee has taken over the slot occupied for years by social-justice-driven Dominican Joe. Good news: Bennu, which also pledges fair trade, local vendors, reduced waste and philanthropy, has given the L-shaped space a needed shot of energy. Open 24 hours, Bennu added seating indoors and outdoors without forcing a feeling of overcrowding. Despite the larger and younger crowd, the place — wonder of wonders! — is not all that loud. Lots of laptoppers, but also friends visiting in a leisurely way. The owners have simplified the decor and the drink menu, too, now divided into Hot, Cold and Smoothies categories. The food choices, on the other hand, have expanded to include more sandwiches and pastries. The heart of the place, however, hasn’t changed: The inviting counter and coffee stations operate quickly, efficiently and gracefully. My barista, for instance, didn’t shut down my preliminary decaf order, as so often happens at other shops, but rather emphasized the superiority of decaf Americano. Thank you! And mine was, in fact, superior.

RELATED: Best Austin coffee shops near South First Street.


Jo’s Coffee. 1300 South Congress Ave. 512-444-3800. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Good, free Wi-Fi. Decaf (Americano), tea, chai. All open-air seating competes with street sounds.

In 1999, this spot revolutionized the delivery of coffee, the design of shops, and even the flow of street life, not just on South Congress but all over Austin. Overnight, a simple green and red box was planted on the corner of the avenue and West James Street, and — this is key — right at the sidewalk line. One ordered through a walk-side window; the seating was open air and shaded, much of it facing foot, bike and auto traffic. Instantly, street life became theater for those who stopped for espresso and other coffee drinks, then a growing array pastries, tacos, chips, waters, teas, sandwiches and, for a while, beer. The last one was huge because alcohol laws had always forbidden anything that looked like open beverage take-out service. (It has since disappeared from the menu.) The coffee has always been good, even if it has been bested by a few specialists around town. Nothing can take away from the location, though, enfolded in the bosom of the Hotel San Jose and its adjacent social and entertainment events. Jo’s didn’t invent SoCo, but it is impossible to think of the city’s charismatic tourist attraction without it. Despite its popularity, there’s almost always an empty seat, subject to the weather.

RELATED: Best Austin coffee shops near Lower South Lamar Boulevard.


Mañana Coffee & Juice. 1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-872-3144. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Free underground parking. Strong, free WiFi. Decaf, tea, chai. Quiet inside and out.

One of the last pieces in the South Congress Hotel puzzle is in place. Conceived by the New Waterloo group, Mañana Coffee & Juice slips into a narrow spot behind the urban dining magnet Central Standard. You can enter this light, trim space from East Monroe Street, or from the hotel’s courtyard, where spillover tables invite guests to linger on clement days. Many of the interior seats line long counters rather than tables, and so attract solo typists more so than folks chatting. The coffee drinks — made by alert baristas — are potent and the beans come from Cuvée Coffee, while the teas are drawn from Kusmi Tea. A rare offering for an Austin coffeehouse: cold-pressed juices, along with milks, plus fruits and veggies overseen by chef Michael Paley. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman makes the quite fresh baked goods and snacks. These days, our downtown hotels rely on in-house Starbucks outlets, but that won’t do on idiosyncratic South Congress, where almost none of the businesses hail from out of town. Despite the lack of venues to rendezvous inside Mañana and the oddly uncomfortable stools at the bar, it’s likely to become a regular haunt.


Sage Cafe. 2810 South Congress Ave. 512-916-8804. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. Free parking at Great Outdoors. Decaf, tea, chai. Free wifi with password. Quiet inside and outside.

Formerly Garden District Coffee, then Sage Coffee, this nature-loving spot is now called Sage Cafe. And for good reason, since the small outfit on the grounds of the Great Outdoors nursery offers a lot of food and drink. The outer terrace is swathed in green, cooled by deep shade on most days. Inside, which fills up quickly, old furniture is grouped into a few meeting or reading areas. One orders at a short counter from a multitude of offerings that include frappes, kombucha, protein drinks, cold-brewed and espresso-based drinks. Compared to the rest of the interior, the kitchen looks pretty spacious. What was this building in past eras? Its bones look like something out of the 1930s road culture. Nowadays, it’s as laid-back as possible for St. Edward’s University students from across the avenue and shoppers at the Great Outdoors. It should be remembered that, before the city of Austin improved the streetscape from Oltorf Street more more or less to Ben White Boulevard a decade or so ago, this stretch would not have a convivial location for a coffee shop or a cafe.


TOMS Austin. 1401 South Congress Ave. 512-350-2115. 8 a.m.-8 p.m Sun.-Fri., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.. Street parking only. Decaf (Americano), no tea or chai. Email entry required for Wi-Fi. Muted music inside and not too loud outside.

Don’t know what it is about coffee and philanthropy, but they seem to go together. In 2014, charming Blake Mycoskie — briefly a citizen of our city — followed up his famous “One for One” shoe-and-eyewear charities with roasted coffee which helps pay for clean water projects. Showcased during SXSW that year, Mycoskie transformed a century-plus-old home on a rise at South Congress and East Gibson Street into a chic retreat, with oversized porch swings, lounge furniture, fireplaces, sheltering oaks and landscaping front and back. Two shopping niches offer the shoes and eyeglasses, while laptoppers congregate in an oddly arranged area to the back. Coffee comes by way of drip, cold, pour-over and espresso. A limited number of other beverages have been added, but there’s still a minimalist feel to the place. Good fit for the SoCo scene, with just enough local authenticity. Sometimes, little parties gather in the back, but the interior spaces, painted in playful colors, are hushed. One thing: It’s not as legible from the street as a coffee shop as, say, Jo’s down the hill. But it is cleanly branded as TOMS.

UPDATED: Apanas has closed on South Congress.


Art by Mike Sutter
10,000 Coffee Shops. In 2007, we proposed a series titled “10,000 Coffee Shops.” We found only 100 around Austin, but it felt like 10,000. Our point: That in the 1980s, there had only been three such spots here! We’re sure to count more than 200 during a new run in 2016-2017.

Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 2

As you Texas river buffs might remember, we traced the lower part of 65-mile Buffalo Bayou from its mouth at the Lynchburg Ferry, through the industrial maze of the Houston Ship Channel, then along several urban parks and trails, to its semi-tamed midpoint at Bayou Bend in River Oaks.


The next day, we went to the source.

And that source — the juncture of Willow Fork and Cane Branch in southwestern Katy — surprised us. Really not that far from Brookshire and the Brazos River, truth be told, master-planned communities stretch in very direction. Even here at Kingsland Boulevard, the bayou looks channelized, stressed by litter and anything but dangerous. But wait!


There would be no West Houston if, in 1945, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not thrown up a huge earthen dams to create the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, located on either side of Interstate 10. There’s never much of a lake at the Barker Reservoir, except when it floods, but here’s the deal: When Upper Buffalo Bayou flooded in the past, just about everything west of Memorial Park was deemed under threat.

And, of course, there are reports that the Addicks and Barker dams have not been adequately maintained, leaving the city below at “extremely high risk.” Yikes!


We headed down the curving Westheimer Parkway to take advantage of the vast George Bush Park located in the green lands above the Barker Dam, checking out the soccer fields before hiking a short distance through a water-tolerant forested area to a straight-as-a-line bayou channel where joggers and fishermen shared the banks.

Next we turned onto Westheimer Road (FM 1093), only to find a wide intersection blocked with more than a dozen emergency vehicles. There had been a horrible wreck. We worked our way via backroads to Wilcrest, where we headed north and met the bayou where the city has done a miraculous job of creating a sophisticated hike-and-bike trail among the conifers and hardwoods.


I’ve walked the dogs along here many times while staying with relatives in the greater Memorial area.


I can remember hiking, too, along the bayou banks as a boy scout at what was then Camp Hudson, but I can’t find any traces of that sweet spot these day.

The bayou continues from Wilcrest through several tony neighborhoods, some dubbed “villages,” where, along Memorial Drive and elsewhere, the mansions grow to enormous sizes in ever more extravagant styles. It is no exaggeration to call some of these places “palaces.”

img_3648The bayou enters the piney retreats of Memorial Park just west of Loop 610, where we scrambled down the muddy kayak ramp to discover quite a bit of nature underneath the residential towers that poked up above the pines. From here, Buffalo Bayou forms the undulating southern boundary of the park. There are many access points behind the picnic areas and the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, again a place we must visit in the milds of spring.

Music, food and fashion vie at 6 spirited Austin parties

The band plays on at Field of Dreams for Dream Come True Foundation

Field of Dreams for Dream Come True Foundation. We hit some minor road bumps on our way to two rewarding discoveries. At first, we couldn’t confirm the exact location of Sterling Events Center on the web. That’s because the spot next to the Sheraton in US 290 at Interstate 35 had not yet officially opened. No matter. When we arrived, we were surrounded by folks dressed in baseball gear. Didn’t get that memo. So we pretended to be team managers in sports coats with open collars. Once the event got going — and we had scarfed down some scrumptious mini-hamburgers and hot dogs — we beamed as our dear friend, Eugene Sepulveda, was honored with the Dream Achiever Award. The surprise? His resume. Even though we’ve known him for decades, we hadn’t kept up with all his achievements in business, charity, politics and education. The other big thing we learned during the extended ceremony: the Dream Come True Foundation, in its official words, “lifts individuals of exceptional potential through mentoring, education, financial assistance and access to community partnerships.” Judging from the night’s testimonials, it works!


A.J. Bingham and Monica Peraza at Authentic Mexico for the Hispanic Alliance

Authentic Mexico for the Hispanic Alliance. This has become one of those events where you expect to meet the real players. Of course, the Hispanic Alliance founder, businesswoman Monica Peraza, is in a category all by  herself. Then so is State Sen. Judith Zaffarini, recipient of the Trailblazer Award, as well as Long Center namesakes Joe and Teresa Lozano Long, emcee and former TV news anchor Ron Oliveira, former District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza, State Reps. Donna Howard and Celia Israel, and star chef Pati Jinich, host of “Pati’s Mexican Table.” Food and drink are always a rewarding part of the Authentic Mexico experience, and this year was no different. But music played an even bigger role, as Mariachi Las Coronelas and Austin Soundwaves Orchestra switched places back and forth with authentic tunes. It was a bit hot in the new Long Center events tent, but I didn’t even notice until other people pointed it out.


Dr Teshana Murray and Dr Sara Gowin at Ballet Austin Fete.

Fête and Fête-ish for Ballet Austin. Creativity has always been a hallmark of this signature Austin event. The two-part party’s theme usually is informed by a selection from Ballet Austin‘s season. So characters from “Alice in Wonderland” skittered through the upper lobby of the JW Marriott Austin, while guests grabbed drinks and swag from leafy holes. Even the floral arrangements and innovative dishes followed the theme. We landed at an exceptionally entertaining table and cheered the news, already in wide circulation, that the company would tour China and had received a $3 million endowment from Ernest and Sarah Butler to back new works. After a protracted live auction, the barriers magically vanished between the banquet and dance rooms. And so the Fête and Fête-ish — the young leaders’ sub-party — finally joined for some late-night frolic.

Vernon and Veneatra Reid at VH1 Save the Music at South Congress Hotel.

VH1 Save the Music Dinner at Central Standard. We figured that some music would figure into an event titled “Musically Mastered Food.” After we learned from VH1 Save the Music Foundation leaders about its programs to provide new instruments for thousands of schools in hundreds of districts, and heard from Central Standard chef Michael Paley on his own musical inspirations, KGSR’s Andy Langer ushered onstage the musical guest: Anthony Hamilton & the HamiltonesSo some 75 lucky guests heard an incredible set from this Grammy Award-winning R&B singer and his band, right there in the courtyard of the South Congress Hotel. It was an exclusive treat in the way that industry day parties at SXSW used to be. Paley’s food, served family style, was terrific, but I must admit I was distracted by the stunning stories told at our table of six, including one about comic Bill Cosby close-up that I won’t soon forget.

Jane Mollenkamp and Sharlene Strawbridge at Women’s Symphony League Fashion Show and Luncheon.

Women’s Symphony League Fashion Show and Luncheon. Thumbs up on all three: The speaker, the runway show and the crowd. All reflected an increasingly modern League. The celebrity was Longview-bred stylist, photographer and designer Brandon Maxwell, who had attended St. Edward’s University before crashing the gates of New York’s fashion world. Unrehearsed and dressed casually, Maxwell told fabulous stories about his eccentric childhood and 10-year rise to stardom, which includes a popular line he launched just a year ago. Funny, thoroughly authentic guy. The tightly disciplined runway show, run by proficient Sue Webber, revealed all sorts of Julian Gold looks to adapted classical music. The crowd? More men, more young women, more much-needed diversity. All going in the right direction, raising money for the Austin Symphony.

Danneel Harris Ackles, Jensen Ackles, Lana Carlson, Steve Carlson, Jared Padalecki and Genevieve Padalecki at the Imaginarium.

Imaginarium for the Thinkery. We couldn’t make this always charming event, but one of our accredited spies sent in this report: “The event raised funds for Thinkery‘s Open Door initiative, which provides free admission, school tour stipends and camp scholarships for thousands of Central Texas families each year. Event chairs Rachel Irvin and Amanda Dudley added a separate ticketed After Party this year and kept the fun and fundraising going well into the night with music from Austin’s AJ Vallejo. The gala dinner started with an on stage experiment — pouring liquid nitrogen into warm water which caused the water to go from a liquid state to a gas state – or steam. The (party’s) Glow theme reminds us of the importance of providing hands-on steam activities to help “glow” future problem solvers. Along with a silent auction, diamonds direct raffle and Kendra Scott mystery boxes, Thinkery partnered with Pop Austin to present “DayDream” an interactive light and sound art installation.”

Frances Sneed “Fannie” Simnacher, 1912-2016

Joan Havard posted on her Facebook page today that her grandmother, Frances Sneed “Fannie” Simnacher, has died at age 104 in the home where she was born on Dogshead Bend in the Montopolis area.

Joan Havard and her grandmother, Frances Simnacher, in 2014.

Here’s an excerpt from my 2014 profile of Frances Simnacher (she also plays a prominent role in the introduction to my book: “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories”).

“Frances Sneed Simnacher, who turns 102 on Aug. 14 (2014), lives in the house where she was born.

It was built in the 1850s by her ancestors, the Sneeds and the McCarthys, just east of the Montopolis area. Perched above Carson Creek — formerly called McCarthy Creek — it rises just a few yards from a bend in the Colorado River.

When she needed something in town, Simnacher drove a horse and buggy. Once, the horse just fell over dead. But she got there anyway.

“Lots of people came across the river on the ferry,” she recalls, as a distant light appears in her green eyes. “I didn’t go to church too much because it was too far.”

Raised Catholic, she sometimes visited St. Ignatius Catholic Church in South Austin, and she still hangs religious symbols above her tiny kitchen table.

“I helped my mother and daddy,” Simnacher says. “They had so much to do. I couldn’t find a job that would pay anything. Sometimes I’d pick pecans. Of course, we weren’t always beekeepers. We planted cotton. Ran cattle. I even planted mesquite trees.””

UPDATE: The headline to the original post gave the wrong date of birth.

Hill Country Nights: 19 promising parties that lift Austin into early October


Socially, we aren’t holding out for the real fall. We’re hitting the nightly Austin parties like it was already sweater weather. That means some indoor-outdoor events. But anyone who has lived here for a few days knows to prepare for both. And yes, the biggest party here — Austin City Limits Music Festival — is all open air. Here’s hoping for a bit of chill by then.

Sept. 23: Hill Country Nights for Hill Country Conservancy. Fair Market.

Sept. 23: Tribeza Style Week Kick-Off Party. ACL Live.

Sept. 23: Grand Opening. Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel and Conference Center.

Sept. 24: Trash Makeover Challenge for Texas Campaign for the Environment. Scottish Rite Theater.

Sept. 24: Green Gate Farms is 10. 8310 Canoga Ave.

Sept. 25: Urbanity Cocktail Party for Octopus Club. 360 Condominiums Clubhouse.

Sept. 25: Inherit Austin’s Somewhere in Time. Huston-Tillotson University.

Sept. 25: Ken Hafertepe signs “The Material Culture of German Texans.” Neill-Cochran House.


Carver Museum East Austin recognition/reception awards ceremony with Powers 2008
Gregory Vincent will speak at iACT’s A Night Under One Sky party.


Sept. 27: A Night Under One Sky for iACT. Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.

Sept. 28: Austin City Social. Nordstrom Domain.

Sept. 28: Austin Book Arts Center’s First Birthday Bash. The North Door.


Sept. 29: Tribeza Style Week Fashion Show. Brazos Hall.

Sept. 29. Caritas Words of Hope / Harvey Penick Award dinner. Hyatt Regency.

Sept. 29: Equal Opportunity Day Gala for Austin Area Urban League. Austin Hilton.

Sept. 30: ACL Music Festival opening night. Zilker Park.

Oct. 1: “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Musical” opens. Zach Theatre.

Oct. 6: Travis Audubon Luncheon. Austin Country Club.

Oct. 9: Franklin Barbecue, Bourbon & Brews for Project Transitions. 800 Congress.

Oct. 12: Film and Food Party for Austin Film Festival. Driskill Hotel.

48 Austin authors to toast on O. Henry’s Birthday

Every year on the short-story writer’s birthday (Sept. 11), the O. Henry Museum does readers an enormous service by producing a roll call of Austin authors with recently published books. We asked for a copy of the list to share with you. Not sure there’s another Texas city that could produce such a decent one. (Forgive the fact that they listed me. Didn’t lobby.)

  1. Zach Anner (“If at Birth You Don’t Succeed”)
  2. Michael Barnes (“Indelible Austin: Selected Histories”)
  3. Chris Barton (“Whoosh!”)
  4. Robert Jackson Bennett (“City of Blades”)51idip5zial-_sx331_bo1204203200_
  5. Sarah Bird (“A Love Letter to Texas Women”)
  6. H.W Brands (“The General vs. The President”)
  7. Douglas Brinkley (“Rightful Heritage”)
  8. Brandon Caro (“Old Silk Road”)
  9. Carolyn Cohagan (“Time Zero”)
  10. John T. Davis (“North Beach”)
  11. James R. Dennis (“North Beach”)
  12. Brent Douglass (“North Beach”)
  13. Casey Dunn (“Marfa Modern”)
  14. Jessica Dupuy (“United Tastes of Texas”)
  15. Ryann Ford (“The Last Stop”)
  16. Amy Gentry (“Good as Gone”)
  17. S.C. Gwynne (“The Perfect Pass”)
  18. Kali Nicole Gross “(Hannah Mary Tibbs and the Disembodied Torso”)MrLincoln-683.jpeg
  19. Stephen Harrigan (“A Friend of Mr. Lincoln”)
  20. James Haley (“The Shores of Tripoli”)
  21. Noah Hawley (“Before the Fall”)
  22. Bethany Hegedus (“Be the Change”)
  23. K.A. Holt (“House Arrest”)
  24. James Hornfischer (“The Fleet at Flood Tide”)
  25. Varian Johnson (“To Catch a Cheat”)
  26. Austin Kleon (“The Steal Like an Artist Journal”)
  27. Cynthia Levinson (“Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can”)
  28. Beverly Lowry (“Who Killed These Girls?: Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders”)
  29. Jessica Luther (“Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football the Politics of Rape”)
  30. Karan Mahajan (“The Association of Small Bombs”)
  31. Barbara Morgan (“On Story”)Poet.jpg
  32. Karen Olsson (“All the Houses”)
  33. Daniel Oppenheimer (“Exit Right”)
  34. Maya Perez (“On Story”)
  35. Rene S. Perez II (“Seeing Off the Johns”)
  36. John Pipkin (“The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter”)
  37. Mary Beth Rogers (“Turning Texas Blue”)
  38. Ire’ne Lara Silva (“Blood Sugar Canto”)
  39. Jose Skinner (“Tombstone Race”)
  40. Dominic Smith (“The Last Painting of Sara de Vos”)
  41. Drew Nellins Smith (“Arcade”)
  42. DJ Stout (“Variations on a Rectangle”)
  43. Don Tate (“Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton”)51lafcijwvl
  44. Helen Thompson (“Marfa Modern”)
  45. Andrea Valdez (“How to Be a Texan”)
  46. Emma J. Virján (“What This Story Needs Is a Hush and a Shush”)
  47. Bill Wittliff (“The Devil’s Sinkhole”)
  48. Lawrence Wright (“The Terror Years”)










Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 1


Some readers might ask why we have included a bayou in our quest to trace 50 Texas rivers. Actually, it’s our second one. Years ago, we traced Bastrop Bayou in the tidelands of Brazoria County.

In this case, Buffalo Bayou is one of the state’s most important waterways, historically and economically. At 65 miles long, it outstrips some watercourses that are given grander names (the Comal River, for instance, flows only 2.5 miles before it reachers the Guadalupe).

When you boil it down, a Texas bayou is really a river that was named by someone from Louisiana; a Texas creek was named by someone from Tennessee; and an arroyo was named by someone from Spain or Mexico, and so forth. Those names stuck.


We began our bayou adventure where we ended our tracing of the San Jacinto River — at the San Jacinto Monument. On dead-flat, brushy land at the juncture of the two waterways, the Texan army defeated Santa Ana and his Mexican troops. Surrounding that point at the Lynchburg Ferry are miles and miles of industral plants and gritty residential neighborhoods strung along the Houston Ship Channel, the largest such industrial agglomeration in the country if not the world. It’s awe-inspiring, though not in an entirely positive way.


Joe Starr and I started by perusing the small, old-fashioned historical museum at the base of the monument before ascending the tower — taller than the Washington Monument and built during the Depression — in a tiny elevator. The small interior deck faces mostly west, but also south and north, where we spotted the mouth of the bayou near the docked Battleship Texas. Pretty spectacular setting.


We next headed to old Harrisburg, a former port on the bayou and town that predated Houston, but now is a grim neighborhood within the city limits, split brazenly by freeways and railroad tracks. It took a little iPhone detective work to find the main historical marker here, located outside a modern drive-through bank. We never discovered the location for the marker that tells about Texas’ first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado, which embarked from here in 1853.


Getting down to the docks themselves has never been easy, even less so since 9/11. We were politely turned away, for instance, from the Turning Basin at the head of the Ship Channel by a security guard. But just upstream on the still-wide bayou, we tromped around Hidalgo Park, part of an Hispanic neighborhood alongside Navigation Boulevard that goes back to the turn of the last century. Here, the banks are high and thick with brush, but we got a good view of a rusty railroad bridge and, from a distance, the Turning Basin. A reminder how the port and the rails made this town.

Except for a landscaped area around the original Ninfa’s restaurant, this is an unlovely stretch of Houston that I predicted would resist gentrification. I was wrong. Already, the section of Navigation that abuts downtown has attracted condo-buyers, bicyclists and dog walkers, three signs of what’s to come.


Only a raving man camping atop a littered hill greeted us on the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike Trail near South Jensen Drive. A bankside theater sat across the bayou, but there was no human activity on either side. It continued to confound me that the bayou is so wide here. Later, I read that it is tidal all the way inland to Allen’s Landing, the starting point for historical Houston. Explains a lot.


Dodging the freeways that entangle downtown, we found a lovely historical bridge on McKee Street next to James Bute Park. A handy marker informed us that this area was also a little town with a spotty history. It, too, eventually was overshadowed by the metropolis around it.


Attempts to beautify and civilize the bayou get really intense at Allen’s Landing, whose old brick buildings were rediscovered by hippies when I was young, then later by the builders of University of Houston-Downtown.


Beautiful walkways, gates and other structures makes some sense as tourist attractions, but that’s not the crowd that huddled there this day.


We next explored Buffalo Bayou Park, part of a gargantuan program by the city to “green” its signature stream, mainly from downtown to the west. The amenities, including an upscale restaurant at Lost Lake, are, indeed, impressive. We walked out on a grand, empty pedestrian bridge.


I’m sure that if it were not so incredibly humid, more joggers and bikers would have taken advantage of the park’s intricate, recently flooded landscaping.


Our last stop of the day took us to Bayou Bend, the former home of philanthropist Ima Hogg, now an outpost of the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. The parking lot located on the northwest bank off Memorial Drive was empty because, it turns out, the pedestrian bridge over the bayou, which leads to the house and gardens on the southeast bank, was under construction. We’ll come back in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom.

It’s worth noting that the bayou will still very high from summer rains. The vegetation along the banks in the River Oaks area is quite verdant. One could imagine what explorers or early settlers thought about this near-jungle when they first encountered it. We didn’t hike around the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. In fact, by this point, we could hardly stand being outside.

We settled instead for excellent Belgian fare at Cafe Brussels on Houston Avenue. The next day: Buffalo Bayou from its source to Memorial Park.

UPDATE: The river at the mouth of Buffalo Bayou was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this post.


Five Austin parties that fired up early fall


Juliette Dell and Christopher Holmes at Beyond Batten event at David Booth home.

Beyond Batten. First, there’s the house. None other like it in Austin. Dimensional Fund head David Booth invited fewer than 50 guests to his still-new residence planted on several landscaped acres above Lake Austin. Sculptures and installations outside, mostly contemporary paintings and smaller pieces inside. Assembled from alternating, angled planes of glass and white walls, it could very well double as an art museum. Security is paramount. So no photos of the museum-quality art, thank you. Then, there’s the cause. Austin’s Charlotte and Craig Benson created Beyond Batten Disease Foundation when their daughter, Christiane, was diagnosed with the extremely rare, harrowing condition. So far, they’ve helped put together $16 million for research. They have also combined the resources of other Batten families and foundations with related neurological disease groups to help identify a new treatment that promises to slow its progress. Now they are seeking $6 million over the next 18 months to prep the treatment for human tests. Like the house, their story is like none other.

Blake & Christine Absher at Big Give for I Live Here I Give Here.

The Big Give. Sometimes a simple change of locale makes all the difference. Last year, I Live Here, I Give Here, the group best known for Amplify Austin, staged their Big Give in the Zilker Banquet Room at the Hyatt Regency. A neat space for the right event, but too big and chilly for the nonprofit’s casual young leaders’ group. This year, they moved over to the Sunset Room, formerly Textile, a brick events space near the Austin Convention Center that sees a lot of action around South by Southwest. Ideal. Just enough space to feel chummy yet chic. Incredible bites from Pink Avocado catering, including some of the best ban mi sandwiches I’ve ever had. Then they announced the evening’s two honorees: Terrell Gates of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area nabbed the Patsy Woods Martin Big Giver prize, while Creative Action edged out AGE of Central Texas and Food Bank of Central Texas for the RetailMeNot Nonprofit Award.

Letsie “Khotso” Khabele and Naledi Khabele at Austin Symphony Orchestra season opener

Symphony Season Debut. They packed the Long Center to the rafters. They came in jeans. They even came in shorts. Not a tuxedo in sight. The Austin Symphony Orchestra first-nighters listened intently to the all-Mozart program and giggled along with actor Martin Burke, who read from the composer’s revealing letters, before cheering a slightly muted Mozart Requiem. We sat next to a couple who were members of Symphony BATS, the orchestra’s reinvigorated young backers’ group. We had hoped to drop by their party on Red River Street, but the big Longhorns game nearby proved a disincentive. I like how, without sacrificing the seriousness of the musical selections, the symphony now markets its concerts as an evening out. And the season debut sure felt like date night for young and old alike.

Author Skip Hollandsworth explains Austin in the 1880s at the O. Henry Birthday Party.

O. Henry Birthday Party. This annual assembly at the O. Henry Museum — and the Susanna Dickinson Museum next door — honors authors. Among the first duties is to read out the names of Austin writers with recently published books. Among those in attendance was Stephen Harrigan (“A Friend of Mr. Lincoln”) and Skip Hollandsworth (“The Midnight Assassin”). The main event, however, was Hollandsworth’s audio-visual show about Austin’s serial murderer from the 1880s. Over the course of 10 years’ research, the Texas Monthly veteran (“Bernie,” etc.) never found the killer, but he got to know 19th-century Austin very, very well. We plan to interview him on that subject when the paperback of “The Midnight Assassin” comes out in the spring.

Chris and Carol Adams at Night of Stars.

Night of Stars. For its 10th anniversary, Dancing with the Stars Austin, which benefits the Center for Child Protection, looked to the past to find its fleet-footed celebrities. They brought back stars from the previous galas to dance with the pros in December. Among those introduced before several dozen guests at Dine were Tribe founder Alex Winkelman, attorney Bill Jones, ACC District Trustee Gigi Bryant, chef David Garrido and breast cancer advocate Susan Lubin. That’s not all: Consider insurance man Cole Adams, financial services provider Dan Neil, children’s advocate Erin Johnston, music enthusiast Jackie Mooney, Telluride developer Katrine Formby and all round good guy Vaughn Brock. I spent most of my time during the reception, however, huddled with actor Barbara Chisholm, who returns as a judge. I served once, impersonating Bruno Tonioli. Glad to back Babs instead.