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Small Wonder

Tiny Round Top in east Central Texas packs striking inspiration

My husband’s family goes back generations in Round Top. His great-grandparents, Friedrich and Katarina Kuehne, raised six children in a white farmhouse bought in 1898 that stands just steps from the town’s bustling Henkel Square and time-capsule fire station. Despite this connection, he and I had never explored the area until a recent stay spent ferreting out some of its less trumpeted attractions.

Though many are aware of Round Top’s famous pies and semiannual antiques show, some of the town’s gems hover just under the radar. With its gently rolling hills, array of cultural outposts and proximity to three major cities, Round Top offers a tranquil, chic respite for the skyscraper-weary.

Flophouze Hotel, a member of Fayette Electric Cooperative, on Round Top’s outskirts, provides a stylish antidote to frazzled urban pilgrims who make the sub-two-hour trek from Austin, Houston or San Antonio. Most wouldn’t consider staying overnight in a shipping container, the lodging for the hotel’s guests, a luxurious affair. From the outside, after all, it looks like a metal box.

Web Extra: Small but luxe Flophouze bedroom.

Jessica Ridge | TEC

But the container’s exterior camouflages the thoughtful, efficient design within. Featuring plenty of natural light, reclaimed wood, high-design furnishings and a portable turntable next to an eclectic selection of vinyl and board games, the modest square footage takes on airy, surprising dimensions. The 8-foot-wide “flophouzes” forgo TV (though there is Wi-Fi for those panicky about disconnecting), but windows bookending the unit offer their own peaceful programming: expansive views of the pasture that hosts the containers along with roaming cows, which seemed to register our presence with a ruminant’s equanimity. The hotel’s pool (also fashioned out of a shipping container), hammocks and fire pits ringed by Adirondack chairs—perfect for moon-gazing—round out the full analog recreational complement.

Web Extra: Flophouze’s compact but inviting pool.

Jessica Ridge | TEC

In the town’s center, Round Top Family Library, a Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative member, proved another example of good things flourishing in small spaces. The state’s smallest accredited library, its story unfolds like a fairy tale: Founded in 1999, it’s housed in the former Hope Lutheran Church, built in 1925. The building was dismantled and moved in seven pieces from nearby Milam County before ultimately being reassembled. The vestibule’s stained glass hints at the space’s former identity. Bookshelves are stationed where parishioners would have gathered almost a century ago—poetic placement for any bibliophile. “Books are special treasures,” said Barbara Smith, library director. The cozy yet sweeping scale of the interior makes an elegant backdrop for the library’s trove.

Web Extra: Festival Institute Concert Hall’s opulent interior.

Jessica Ridge | TEC

Perhaps the centerpiece of local cultural gems, Round Top Festival Institute—nestled in the woods down a nondescript road—hosts a jewel box of a performing arts venue, with intricate handcarved wooden panels, sumptuous red brocade seats and sublime acoustics that eschew microphones. For decades, it has provided education and scholarships to young musicians from around the world, and its Bybee Library boasts a formidable collection of 40,000-plus rare books and architectural artifacts.

The Bybee’s noncirculating collection is open for tours and research by appointment, with free admission. Associate curator of collections Pat Johnson showed us several highlights, including books in-scribed by Lady Bird Johnson and J. Frank Dobie and a pair of Italian Baroque armchairs from Arturo Toscanini’s New York residence, Villa Pauline—alongside a photo of the famed conductor seated in one of the chairs at home. We saw imposing cast-iron doors and a transom from Texas’ 1917 General Land Office building and a massive brass dinner gong from a 19th-century English manor that Johnson noted, correctly, my husband was just itching to strike. Said Johnson, a clay artist, “I don’t come out of here without having something inspire me.”

Texas native Jessica Ridge is a TEC communications specialist. She lives in Austin.