The Hills Are Alive

The Texas Hill Country and the town of Fredericksburg draw visitors interested in wildflowers and architecture

Sidebar: The LBJ Ranch 

Six years ago, my husband was awarded a fellowship at the University of Texas. We had been living in Manhattan at the time and only expected to be in Austin for three years. But like so many others who have fallen in love with the capital's easygoing lifestyle and mild climate, we decided to stay and make Texas our home.

We also began exploring the surrounding countryside—a land of hills, caverns, and pristine lakes—as well as a number of historic towns noted for their architecture. Fredericksburg is one of those towns. About a million people visit Fredericksburg each year. Many come for the shopping—stores and gift shops line Main Street—but others are drawn to the town's German heritage and several hundred significant structures located within a 40-block historic district. Most of these buildings represent the architectural styles of the mid-1800s, from limestone to fachwerk, a crosshatch of timber and other materials.

I had driven through Fredericksburg a few times, but never had a chance to linger, a situation I rectified last spring. Driving west along Highway 290, I took in unbroken views of rolling hillsides dotted with grazing herds of cattle and sheep amid the scrubby cedar and mesquite trees. Clutches of blooming wildflowers, such as Bluebonnets and Black-eyed Susans, flecked the grassy shoulders of the open road.

Once in town, I made my way to the Pioneer Museum, a compound of historic buildings located on the far western end of Main Street. Here, I strolled the grounds with Clinton Stork, a spry, blue-eyed, 87-year-old descendant of the German immigrants who first arrived in Texas in the 1840s. Due to overpopulation, unemployment, and upheavals in their homeland, 120 Germans immigrated to the Gulf Coast of Texas, before journeying inland to Fredericksburg. At first, Stork told me, the Germans struggled, but after about a year, their colony began to prosper, and many of their buildings started to go up. The earliest of these is the Kammlah House, built in 1849 on one of the lots parceled out to the German settlers. Highlights of the building include a large stone cooking hearth and exposed fachwerk, revealing the intersecting timber beams and limestone, plaster, and other materials.

If you go ... 

Fredericksburg is just over an hour's drive from Austin, site of the 2010 National Preservation Conference, Oct. 27-30. You'll find information about conference sessions as well as scholarships at PreservationNation.org/conference.

Some of Fredericksburg's Sunday Houses have been converted to guest lodgings. For more information about staying at the Metzger Sunday House, call 830.997.5612. For other Sunday House rentals, call First Class Bed & Breakfast Reservation Service at 888.991.6749.

Also located at the Pioneer Museum is the one-room White Oak School. Stork told me that his wife of 63 years, Evelyn, attended a school much like this simple white structure (hers was about six miles west of town). As we stood in the austere room amid the rows of wood school desks, Stork, who went to a high school at which only German was spoken, proceeded to sing the ABCs in German in a melodic voice that rose and fell. Written on the chalkboard on the far wall was a German phrase that Stork translated for me: "Work makes life sweet. Laziness stiffens the joints."

We ventured next to the Weber Sunday House, one of several such Sunday Houses—utilitarian weekend residences for ranching families—scattered around Fredericksburg. The single room of this house, just 16-by-20 feet, contained a bare-necessities kitchen with a wood-burning stove, table and chairs, and a cot ("for grandmother," Stork explained).

After seeing two more Sunday Houses nearby—charming structures with tin roofs that offered protection from damaging hailstorms—Stork and I parted ways. I wanted to see two churches from different eras: the Marienkirche (1863) and St. Mary's (1908), which happen to be next-door neighbors. Not surprising, given its name, the Marienkirche was built largely by German parishioners. Its elegant, cathedral-like glass windows, displaying the 12 apostles, allowed a diluted blue light to fill the humble interior, permeating the space with a meditative, almost underwater quality. By contrast, St. Mary's is much larger and more ornate. This Gothic church, known as one of the "painted churches" of Texas, features more elaborate stained-glass windows and colorful interior stenciling.

Fredericksburg's Germanic architectural roots are also on view at the historic Marktplatz (or "market square"), where a replica of the Vereins Kirche ("Society Church") stands. The original was designed as a Carolingian octagon, an example of an ancient German architectural style exemplified by the original portion of the cathedral of Charlemagne in Aachen. Initially built in 1847, the structure served as a town hall, schoolhouse, and fort. In 1896, after falling into disrepair, the Vereins Kirche was demolished. A reproduction was constructed in 1935 and now provides exhibition space for historical photographs and archaeological artifacts.

Amid all of this history, I realized that something was noticeably absent in Fredericksburg: the ubiquitous Starbucks. Due to strict city ordinances, I learned, chain stores and restaurants are prohibited. "The town felt strongly that if it succumbed to the chains," said Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau as well as a fifth-generation rancher, "it would lose its appeal as an authentic small town."

I spent the rest of the day wandering through the labyrinthine exhibitions of the National Museum of the Pacific War. Why is this museum landlocked in Texas Hill Country? Because Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, was born in Fredericksburg. Part of the museum is housed in the historic Nimitz Steamboat Hotel (dating to the late 1840s). Highlights include a B-25 Mitchell Bomber, a PT boat, and a Japanese midget submarine. Located just across Main Street, a block away, is Nimitz's birthplace, a simple stone and wood structure that now houses Grace's Art Gallery; it's an example of the combination gift store/historic building that typifies so many of the establishments on Main Street.

After a day in Fredericksburg, I could not help making a small detour to another German town, Luckenbach, located 10 miles to the southeast. You see, my stepfather's name is Carl Luckenbach (he is an accomplished architect who worked on such buildings as the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit), and when I was a teenager, he'd often play the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson duet "Luckenbach, Texas" on the living-room stereo. I knew I had to go.

In this small community established in 1849, I found an old-fashioned dance hall, a post office/general store, and a makeshift stage located outdoors: rows of wood benches shaded by a canopy of oak trees and filled with spectators enjoying live music and bottles of beer. A circle of older musicians performed original and familiar tunes, such as "Mustang Sally." An amicable audience lingered on the benches, enjoying both the music and the beverages. The waning light dappled the dusty ground. As Carl's anthem suggested, nobody was feelin' no pain.

At sunset, I arrived at Settlers Crossing, a 35-acre property down the road from Luckenbach featuring seven historic guesthouses. There, I stayed in the spacious Von Heinrich House, a reconstructed house originally built in Pennsylvania in 1787. Inside the two-story structure, each room was well-appointed with folk art and antiques. Antique glass filled the windowpanes, and some of the exposed walls featured fachwerk. In the early morning, I stepped outside to the golden rays of the rising sun, just as two white-tailed deer sliced through the woods nearby. I headed home to Austin, feeling an increased connection to this landscape and to Texas, and giving thanks to Carl, who had passed along his abiding interests in both on to me.

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