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Best of Austin 2003, Critics Picks
Architecture & Lodging
Best Apartment Building: House on Castle Hill and 12th Street
Gawking at the enormous dusty-red brick front of the Victorian-style building on 12th and Castle Hill, with its wide expanse of lawn and gingerbread trim, a passersby might not realize that it is actually home to about 15 or so people at a time, inhabiting one- and two-bedroom apartments within. Some apartments are as spacious as a small house; others are so tiny that only a small girl and her cat can squeeze into the narrow spaces. Everything inside is painted in colors to the liking of the last owner: Pastel blues, greens, and yellows might all inhabit the same room – soft colors only so as to not offend the eyes of the ghost that lives on the secret third floor. This house serves not only as an anomaly in its surroundings (lots of trendy condos) but also as a testament to Austin’s history and growth: When it was built in 1888, it was considered out-of-town!Corner of Castle Hill & 12th
Best Architectural Botox: 1700 Block of South Congress
When you play host to the hippest party of every month (First Thursday), you want to look your best. Unfortunately, the 1700 block of the avenue was beginning to look a little … well, worn. Not that its history isn't part of its charm, but we all like to look our best. So the block – home of Texas French Bread, Lambert's American Kitchen, Camera Co/op, Mi Casa II, Gossip, Gallery Soco, and Hairy Situations – got the architectural equivalent of a Botox shot in the brow. Architect Ron Bassquette, the man behind the plans for neighboring Jo's Hot Coffee created an art-deco-style façade. A clean, sandy tan-toned and bright, terra cotta expanse has erased all the worry lines that prematurely age a brow (or street). Not major surgery, but a simple shot to take years off and leave one feeling up to a party.Ron bassquette, 444-7360
Best Commission of a Heaving-Bosom: Capital Area Statues (CAST)
You probably haven’t heard of Angelina Eberly, the 18th-century innkeeper who sealed Austin’s fate as the capital of Texas. She made her mark on state history when she alerted city residents to the presence of rangers, sent by President Sam Houston, who were removing federal documents from the city. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Pat Oliphant has created a dramatic vision of the buxom Eberly with her gown flowing in the night air as she fires the city cannon, igniting the Archive War that led to the documents’ safe return. Capital Area Statues, the group responsible for Barton Springs’ Philosophers’ Rock, is dedicated to beautifying Austin’s nooks and crannies with tidbits of Austin lore, ever vigilant so that we don’t forget the personalities that made our city great. Look for this stunning statue to appear at the corner of Sixth and Congress this spring.Capital Area Statues, 2801 Clearview, 479-9838
Best Everything Old Is New Again: Penn Field Renovation
Wanted: mixed retail space, close in, with ample parking. While most urban areas have this wish, developers usually come in, mow down a section of land, erect a generic succession of buildings, and call it a day. But South Austin's Penn Field is a wish come true. Named for Austin aviator Eugene Doak Penn, the historic 17-acre complex adjacent to St. Edward's University was once the site of a WWI-era airfield. And in modernizing the project, the developers were sensitive to the area's history and managed to keep the spirit alive – plenty of barracks, hangars, commissary buildings have remained. Plus, they retained the original water tank and added a snazzy new fountain. Among the tenants that call the complex home are the Design Center of Austin, the Austin Playhouse, Ruta Maya Coffee House, and Clear Channel Communications.Penn Field, 3601 S. Congress
Best Hindu Temple: Barsana Dham
To non-Hindus traveling out to the Salt Lick, the large spire of Barsana Dham’s temple might resemble an enormous Christmas tree ornament. For the devoted, it represents the holy land of Braj in India and is said to invoke the same sense of devotion here as it does back home. Founded in 1990, the temple and ashram is the main U.S. center for Jagadguru Kripalu Parishat (née the International Society of Divine Love), attracting millions of visitors, encompassing more than 200 acres of gorgeous Texas Hill Country. The architecture of the temple is ornate; there are 84 columns and five levels in the building, covering more than 35,000 square feet. Barsana Dham hosts traditional Indian weddings, celebrations, retreats, kirtan (chanting), yoga and dance classes, and classes in Hindi. They also offer overnight accommodations and meals. With its vast gardens, streams, flora and fauna, and roaming peacocks, Barsana Dham is an inspiring, tranquil spot for cultivating belief in something larger than ourselves, no matter what the religious background.www.barsanadham.org www.barsanadham.org
Best Ivy-Covered Wall: 801 Park Blvd.
The house at 801 Park Blvd. will send shivers up your spine. Not the shivers of today's blockbuster thrillers, not even those shivers born in nightmares. This stone-walled, ivy-covered home creates shivers that were cooked in the witch's oven before she tried to bake Hansel and Gretel. Shivers that Little Red Riding Hood felt when she realized who was posing as her grandmother. It is a picture imagined in the minds of children as they read the horrific fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Ivy crawls from the base of the looming oak tree out front, which stretches its curving arms across the length of the house, to the front wall of the structure, attaching itself to the shutters, and jumps almost to the front door positioned on the silo of the castlelike wonder. Well-kept it may be, but this extraordinary home poses the question: Is it really a fairy tale?801 Park Blvd.
Best Legs of a Patron Saint: Alec, Patron Saint of the Engineers
Old Alexander Fredericke Claire: If you've never strolled through UT's Engineering Library, you've probably never had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. "Alec," as he is affectionately known, has enjoyed quite the rollicking history. Originally "acquired" from Jacoby's beer garden by a bunch of mischievous engineering sophomores the night before April 1, 1908, the statue – of a regal-looking fellow hoisting his goblet in a hearty toast – was from that day forth dubbed "Patron Saint of the Engineers." Thus began Alec's long and messy history of custody battles, vagrancy charges, and governor pardons, all while being stolen back and forth between wacky factions of law students and engineering students. Today, what's left of the original Alec – his torso – sits in a hermetically sealed display across from a reconstructed Alec, bolted under a glass case in the Engineering Library. The new Alec highlights not only his eternally high spirits and good nature, but some curiously creamy-white thighs, which only add to his spritely, impish appeal.University of Texas, Engineering Library, Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall, 495-4500
Best Lightening Up of a Building: Harry Ransom Center
For 30 years, the imposing fortresslike façade of UT’s Harry Ransom Center made this repository of cultural artifacts about as inviting to visitors as the Bastille. But after a $14.5 million overhaul, the Ransom has a new, welcoming face. Glass panels across the front open up the entrance and allow natural light to illuminate and warm the interior, where spacious galleries beckon with items from the center’s astounding collection of 1 million rare books (including a Gutenberg Bible), 40 million manuscripts, 5 million photographs (including the world’s first), and 100,000 works of art. And since San Antonio design wizards Lake/Flato Architects Inc. saw fit to cover those glass panels out front with dozens of images from literature, art, theatre, and film, the HRC finally looks like what it is: a treasure chest of great works of art.Harry Ransom Center, 300 W. 21st, 471-8944 www.hrc.utexas.edu
Best Little Historic House in Texas: O. Henry Museum
William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry, aka "the Master of the Short Story" and the author of "The Gift of the Magi" – one of the most famous short stories ever – lived in Austin for more than 13 years. From 1893 to 1895 he lived in a homey little cottage downtown with his wife and daughter. The place has been lovingly restored and now sits, minding its own business, amid massive skyscraper construction, a great reminder of Austin's simpler time. A tour of the house yields some great information not only about the man, but also about the era in which he lived. The recently discovered Susannah Dickinson house (previously hidden inside a barbecue joint that was being knocked down to make way for construction) has been moved onto the property. Watch for this home of the only adult survivor of the Alamo to open soon for the double-whammy historical bonanza.409 E. Fifth, 472-1903 www.cityofaustin.org/parks/ohenry.htm
Best Livable Tree House: House on Hemlock and Walnut
Have you seen this place? Stories stretching into the towering oaks of French Place, wood everywhere you look, an aura of Never-Never Land encapsulating the whole vision. This couldn't possibly be someone's home, could it? But, yes, someone is lucky enough to wake up every morning in Peter Pan's hideout. French Place boasts many old, eclectic homes with wood floors, oddly shaped doorways, and brightly painted walls, but nothing comes close to this beauty. In fact, we can even envision a rope ladder, a secret hatch, and a sign reading "No Girlz Allowd," if we squint our eyes tight enough. A prime example of why the hordes are racing to French Place, this home at Walnut and Hemlock is the best tree house in Austin.
Best New Digs: Tillery Street Theater
Mrs. Baird would be right proud to see that her old bread factory is still nurturing the East Austin community. The former bakery at 701 Tillery is the new home (as of last year) of the Austin Latino/Latina Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organization – a delicious mouthful if there ever was one. ALLGO's new digs – including offices, an exhibit space, and a theatre – are a study in utter coolness, thanks to the restoration wonders of Peter Barlin (also one of a group of folks behind the redeveloped Penn Field on South Congress). Other artistic and cultural groups also make their home in this urban-industrial sanctuary. Knead we say more?701 Tillery, 293-1250 www.allgo.org
Best Rebirth: Ruta Maya
When the old Ruta Maya shut down and the more warehouse-district-appropriate Halcyon took its place, we were depressed, as it seemed to be another instance of old funky Austin being steamrolled over. No matter your opinion on the Fourth Street location, you'll be stunned by Ruta Maya's reincarnation on South Congress in the renovated Penn Field buildings. It's expansive, airy, and clean (and it has a/c!), yet it retains every bit of character of the old digs. Plus, it has a beautiful view from the front porch! We applaud them for expanding the South Congress coolness factor down below Oltorf.3601 S. Congress Ste. D-200, 707-9637 www.rutamaya.net
Best Unnecessary Blue Rectangles: Moments on Lamar
Driving under the Lamar bridge had been the same for years. Sure, an occasional train passed overhead, and graffiti additions appeared now and again, but when the blue rectangles arrived, we nearly wrecked our SUVs. Austin Art in Public Places has brought Carl Trominsky's piece, Moments, to life. Made of industrial road parts, it is at once organic and perplexing. Why are the angles so dissimilar? Where is the pattern? There is none – yet, there sort of is ... and that may very well be the point.Lamar & Second, under the railroad www.cityofaustin.org/aipp
Best Walking the Walk, Not Just Talking the Talk: Bob Cole for the Tavern and Hill's Cafe
Talking about the wonders of Austin past is a local addiction. KVET morning co-host Cole has put his money where his mouth is by first reopening Hill's Cafe, carefully re-establishing it as a South Austin landmark and community gathering place, and then, working with partners, he's just reopened the Tavern. Not only has Cole chosen fabled locations but his restaurants preserve the sense and style of these revered institutions. (The Bush administration should think about sending Cole and his co-host, the legendary Sammy Allred, to the Middle East, If they can work so well together every weekday morning after their very rocky, yearlong debut a decade back, they can certainly give lessons in peace and cooperation to anybody.) Just a thought here, but what about that North Lamar temple of great grease, the Stallion?
Most Beautiful Light Pollution: Strip Malls at Night Along Burnet Road
Streamers of light streak the night sky – no acid required. Along Burnet Road between 45th and 183, the business signage emanates light so bright that you can take a photograph without a flash. Strings of storefronts stay lit through the night, defining this strip of so many Seventies holdovers. The products for sale – mostly home goods like tile, lamps, light bulbs, and furnishings – sit regally behind storefront glass. Some shops keep their windows lit as well. Go up and have a look, study the colors; this museum of consumerism exists for you.
Most Controversial Store Windows: Blackmail
Whether taking on behemoth corporations or taking a stance against war, owner Gail Chovan always makes sure the store windows at Blackmail remind us of the eternal allure of the color black. As conceptual as the store itself, the windows showcase a variety of goods (all black of course) and have captured the public eye, as well as that of the media, with a blend of humor, cynicism, and irony. From the little Christmas elves drenched in black to the sign proclaiming, "Because nobody ever got laid wearing mauve," to making fun of Diesel clothing company when their own "blackmail" campaign hit a little too close to home, Austin's own Blackmail is a true Austin original.1202 S. Congress, 326-7670 www.blackmailboutique.com