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2009CriticsArchitecture & Lodging

Best Austin Homage
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport

One step inside the Barbara Jordan Terminal of ABIA, and you know you aren't in Kansas. You aren't in New York. And this sure isn't Orlando. From the first lilting twang of Texas tunes to the distinct aroma of smoked treats straight out of the barbecue pit, your senses tell you: You are entering a Lone Star State of mind. Ever since it first launched back in mid-1999 on the site of Austin's old Bergstrom Air Force Base, ABIA has reflected the character of its unusual hometown. The terminal itself is a veritable Austin theme park. And we're not talking about a couple of cow horns and boots tacked up on the wall for local flavor. Nope. It's about an open and airy design featuring towering windows taking advantage of so much natural sun power. It's about native wood and stone and a continued commitment to feature local art, homegrown vendors, and popular Austin businesses offering a taste of the town that built it. Whether you're coming or going, when you fly at Bergstrom, you know you're home.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, 3600 Presidential, 512/369-6600, www.cityofaustin.org

Best Bobcat B&B
The Crystal River Inn

For a town as storybook charming as San Marcos, it's a shock how few independent hotels and bed & breakfasts there are. If you (or for you students: your parents) spend a lot of time in Bobcat country, check out, or more precisely, check in to the Crystal River Inn, the closest B&B to Texas State University. This history-breathing, three-building complex and secluded garden boasts rates competitive with the area's faceless chains – none of which rivals the character, amenities, or personal touch of this family-run treasure. For two decades, innkeepers Mike and Cathy Dillon have graciously hosted guests to mystery weekends, mother/daughter getaways, breakfasts that alone could sustain the place as a fine-dining hot spot, and many a comfortable transition for nervous parents of new and returning Bobcats, year after year after year.

The Crystal River Inn, 326 W. Hopkins, San Marcos, 512/396-3739, www.crystalriverinn.com

Best Drive-by Strangeness Phenomenon, 2000
Pink Ape With Human Ass

Whether you think it's an eyesore or art, this statue of a bubblegum-pink primate with clown lips, a porno-style arched back, and a disturbingly human-looking ass is nothing if not strange. The fact that it sits isolated on the corner with no further explanation (we think it's supposed to promote the nearby bingo parlor) only adds to the joyous dissonance.

Best Improvement to the Avenue
South Congress, 1400 Block

The block between Gibson and Elizabeth streets now has a brand-new sidewalk! SoCo pedestrians no longer have to risk getting sideswiped by Congress Avenue traffic as they shimmy past parked cars or breaking a heel walking billy goat-style on what was for years a treacherous, uneven bank on the east side of that block. After a gig at the Continental Club, that short walk for a quick bite at Home Slice Pizza is now easier — and safer — to navigate for pedestrians, sober and irrigated alike. This is good for every day of the year, but especially during First Thursdays, South by Southwest, and other high-traffic times in the city.

Best in Sass
Barbara Jordan Memorial

Tired of those pale, male Confederate generals taking pride of place on the University of Texas' campus? We are too, and luckily some UT students agreed and took it upon themselves to try to fund a statue of one of UT's most illustrious professors – the inimitable Barbara Jordan. Hands on hips, jaw squarely forward, the bronzed lady gives off a vibe of pure … well … sass. Although we're unsure who she's staring down – that son of a bitch Richard Nixon who she argued for impeaching, nonchalant college kids strolling unaware of bedrock laid by folks like Jordan, or all those white generals stolidly staring out into space. Any way you slice it, tribute to this historic figure is long overdue, and in the tradition of other fine purveyors of sass (who often happen to be leaders of repressed groups … is sass a strategy of resistance?) could use three or four more statues to convey the enormity of her import.

Barbara Jordan Memorial, 24th & Whitis

Best Music to a Saint's Ear
Hotel Saint Cecilia

Patron saint of both coffee and comfort via Jo's and South Congress manor Hotel San José, Liz Lambert paid an even greater homage to this town's native spirits in opening the Hotel Saint Cecilia last December, just a whiff from the spot where Willie's own Opera House used to bust the seams. Sacred Cecilia, music's overseer, gets broader interpretation from Lambert, who sees her as mother of the arts. With clientele ranging from Drew Barrymore and Margaret Cho to Patty Griffin and Alejandro Escovedo, the Cecilia's intimate, five-building compound (try one of the bungalows) swathes the creative soul in nirvana.

Hotel Saint Cecilia, 112 Academy, 512/852-2400, www.hotelstcecilia.com

Best New Hotel Complex
AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center

Important business features such as over 40,000 square feet of meeting space and underground parking, hip tech gadgetry like "smart lecterns" and walls of hi-def LCDs to make the geeks swoon, and proximity to the university and the state Capitol make this new face on the south end of campus a sure bet, but that's not where they had us. They had us at green. More specifically, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver-certified green. Local limestone, 20% fly ash remnant concrete, and an extensive recycling program during construction was just the beginning. The gorgeous Lake/Flato and HKS Inc. design, so conscious of the University of Texas master plan, features native plants, reclaimed live oaks, and energy-saving standards used throughout. Recycling programs, motion-sensing climate control, and organic, local foods lifts it beyond sure bet to noble effort.

AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, 1900 University Dr., 512/404-1900, www.meetattexas.com

Lake/Flato Architects, 311 Third St., San Antonio, 210/227-3335, www.lakeflato.com

HKS Inc., 1919 McKinney Ave., Dallas, 214/969-5599, www.hksinc.com

Best Ode to the (Namesake of the) Road on Which It Resides
Rayo de Esperanza

Right outside the Terrazas Branch Library she looms. The César E. Chávez Memorial Project – awarded by the city of Austin Art in Public Places program to Connie Arismendi and Laura Garanzuay – is a literal nighttime beacon as brilliant as its potential to inspire hope. Like a (no disrespect intended) bat signal to justice, freedom, and equality, this soaring United Farm Workers phoenix ignites the night and reminds us that: ¡Sí se puede! … because yes we did! And with due diligence and the dedication to create a better world, yes, we will again!

Austin Art in Public Places, 301 W. Second, 512/974-9314, www.cityofaustin.org/aipp

Terrazas Branch Library, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez, 512/472-7312, www.cityofaustin.org

Twin Oaks Branch Library, 1800 S. Fifth, www.cityofaustin.org

3 more locations

Best Pee With a View, 1993
Headliners Club

The boom is back. Deals are on. And power lunches at the tops of bank towers will soon be de rigueur. If you find yourself making a deal at Headliners with one of its members, complete the experience with a trip to the head where four urinals overlook the hills of West Austin. (Women, have no fear: potty parity is here, although the two regular potties have no view.) What better way to sign off on a deal than with a dizzying piss 21 stories high?

Headliners Club, 221 W. Sixth, 512/479-8080, www.headlinersclub.com

Best Public Potty
Trail Restroom on Lady Bird Lake Trail

Is it an outhouse, or is it modern sculpture – perhaps by Richard Serra? For sure, it's the most intriguing creation in which you'll take a pee this year. An artful circle of 49 tall, rust-patina steel plates enclose a public restroom on the hike and bike trail – the first new one in 30 years. (There's also an outside shower and drinking fountain). Pro bono, award-winning design by Miró Rivera Architects was funded by the Trail Foundation in partnership with the Parks & Recreation Department. Look for it on the trail's north shore, near the Milago condos, just east of Downtown.

The Trail at Lady Bird Lake, The Trail Foundation, PO Box 5195, 512/733-3989, www.thetrailfoundation.org

Miró Rivera Architects, 505 Powell, 512/477-7016, www.mirorivera.com

Best Re-Opened Li'l Lounge
Continental Club Gallery

As Austin as bongs and pingpong, the Continental Club is a haven for bikers, cougars, New Age greasers, and tourists alike, hosting many local performances and playing host to some of the most rip-roarin' touring roots-rockers from across the planet. Those "in the know" are familiar with Continental's upstairs nook, the Gallery, where such beloved locals as the Greyhounds play, and you can dance away the blues to blues under a nice spread of local art. There's even a pingpong room, where you can teach that shit-talker a thang or two about a paddle. VIP only, space is limited in this newly renovated, up to code, beloved little venue.

Continental Club Gallery, 1313-A S. Congress, 512/441-2444, www.continentalclub.com

Best Yard Art, 1992
Ira Poole's Yard

Chances are Ira Poole has probably had more people stop at his home wondering if he was selling cemetery memorials rather than asking for a tour of his mini lawn museum. It's just too unbelievable that some guy would have: a 900-pound concrete sphinx sitting on a raised slab of Texas, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, a fountain, a 3-D granite map of the U.S. and Mexico, and another smaller map of Texas with a yellow rose bush growing, yes, in the "heart" of it.

Best-Kept Secret That's Going to Stay That Way, 1995
Mysterious Elf House and Pile of Rocks

The neighbors would neigh at the thought of disclosing the locale of this strange plot, and we'd rather not clog their small, dead-end street with onlookers. This is not the 37th Street Christmas light show, after all; it's a couple of piles of rocks in an empty lot. But since it screams "Austin" from the top of its barrel hoop perched way up on its little brick stairs, this teeny twilight zone earns its place here among the best. No, it's not really a park. It's just a random scattering of limestone – and a wee, magical elf house. Its Stonehengian mystery is safe with us.

Greenest Event Venue
The Barr Mansion & Artisan Ballroom

We fell in love with this gracious 7-acre country estate long before third-generation Austin hospitality professionals Melanie and Mark McAfee began the arduous process of having their entire business certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture three years ago, making it the only third-party certified organic event facility in the state (and probably the country). We admire the lovingly restored Victorian mansion, the beautifully landscaped organic grounds and gardens, and the enchanting artisan ballroom. In our minds, the seasonal menus based entirely on organic ingredients, the organic cotton and hemp table linens, its recycling and composting programs, and its energy-efficient geothermal heating and cooling systems are all really just icing on the cake.

The Barr Mansion, 10463 Sprinkle, 512/926-6907, www.barrmansion.com

Most Eco-Friendly Way to Do Your Doodie
The Rhizome Collective's Composting Toilet

Water is our most precious resource – so why do we flush so much of it down the toilet? Perhaps we'd do better to follow the example of environmental engineer Lauren Ross and carpenter David Bailey, who designed and built Austin's first (legal) composting toilet. It uses no water and prevents chemical-laden effluent from entering our waterways, preserving one valuable resource while creating another: fertilizer. An effort of the Rhizome Collective, the project took four years to wind through the city's zoning process, but in the end, Austin's greenest latrine prevailed – a victory for do-gooder derrières everywhere.

The Rhizome Collective, 300 Allen, 512/385-3695, www.rhizomecollective.org

Most Friendly Exit
Spider House

Young whippersnappers may not recognize the strange flame-headed character on the sign that salutes all who leave Spider House Patio Bar & Cafe as Happy the Oil Drop Man, a corporate advertising gimmick belonging to none other than Esso (now known as ExxonMobil). His signature wave and catchphrase "Happy Motoring!" are friendly and nostalgic to the max – like the rest of our beloved Spider House. Fancy patio lights and the vintage signage on the journey out make you wonder why you would ever choose of your own volition to leave such a place. But you gotta go: You've got a hot date, you're watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy with Mom, or you're packing for a trip to Brazil. Whatever the reason, when you finally step outside of your favorite cafe and onto the cold, impersonal asphalt to begin the hunt for your car, we know where you would rather be: back inside. Happy motoring!

Spider House Patio Bar & Cafe, 2908 Fruth, 512/480-9562, www.spiderhousecafe.com

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