Think you can shop for a refined 18th-century European secretary in a Texas cow pasture? Bet your cowboy boots you can. Just off I-290 midway between Houston and Austin, traffic slows to a crawl along a 25-mile stretch of Highway 237 near the tiny town of Round Top (population 90) for about two weeks twice a year in late September and March.
Clusters of circus-size tents, dozens of barns, and even old dance halls along the road are filled with everything from flea-market tchotchkes to exquisite French chests to ancient coins to Asian and Italian architectural salvage. Throw in multiple stops for fine wines, spicy barbecue, live music, and even a Junk Gypsy Prom, and you have a Texas-size extravaganza that rivals the famous markets in Paris and Italy.
Dallas-based designer Michelle Nussbaumer (with antique secretary, above) was one of four nationally known designers who presented at the first Designer Dream Spree seminar organized by Dodson and held this past September.
Surprised? So were four nationally renowned designers who shopped Round Top Antiques Festival this past September for a Designer Dream Spree hosted by Houston-based interior designer Julie Dodson. After a day of shopping, designers Barry Darr Dixon, Mary Douglas Drysdale, Kevin Isbell, and Michelle Nussbaumer (the only designer who had previously attended the show) gushed about the range and quality of wares.
“I was completely gobsmacked!” says New York City-based Isbell. “There are acres and acres of tents and something for everyone.”
New York designer Kevin Isbell strolls through one of several tents at Marburger Farm at the Round Top Antiques Festival, which covers acres of pasture land midway between Houston and Austin. The festival is anchored by several large vetted shows located on Texas Highway 237, including Marburger Farm, Arbor International Antiques & Interior Design Show, and The Compound.
Dallas-based Nussbaumer, famous for her worldwide travels and cultural-rich designs, puts Round Top on par with the best of Paris and Istanbul.
Dressed in classic black pants and tweed jacket, Drysdale easily switched from D.C. formal to Texas casual mode. “I have little experience with shopping tents and walking cow fields. But, I loved it! It is a huge, sprawling show,” she says. “From antique silver and jewelry to cowboy boots and furniture, it would take days to see it all. It reminded me of the Mercanteinfiera in Parma, Italy.”
Virginia-based Barry Dixon was so impressed, he bought dozens of custom-made lamps and shipped them home for his clients. “The continental antiques and mid-century pieces were especially plentiful—and of such good quality,” Dixon says. (To simplify shopping—and buying—Distinguished Transport, a moving and storage business that specializes in moving precious cargo, picks up items from booths and ships them anywhere.)
The show started modestly about 50 years ago when Houston antiques dealer Emma Lee Turney brought together several dealers in the Round Top Old Rifle Hall for two weekends. The show quickly mushroomed to what it is now, with hundreds of vendors along Highway 237 and in the towns of Burton, Carmine (say CarMEEN), Round Top, Warrenton, and more.
There is not one central show organization but rather numerous show producers who recruit vendors and return each year. Opening days vary from venue to venue, but there are always plenty of shopping options.
Adventuresome bargain-hunters often start near Warrenton at what’s called “the fields,” wide pastures dotted with vendor tents. Shoppers zip around in golf carts to cover the territory quickly, and the wares range wildly, from common flea-market finds to sophisticated mid-20th-century chairs. “You have to dig a bit more, but it’s super fun digging. And price points are good,” Dodson says.
One of the event’s mainstays is well-vetted Marburger Farm, where 350 vendors—some offering excellent European and American antiques—occupy about a dozen tents and several historic buildings. Shopping gets competitive there, with crowds showing up well before the opening hour to get first pick.
Another prestigious venue is the Arbor International Antiques & Interior Design Show, which hosts more than 100 dealers from 13 countries. Big white tents with wood floors offer a welcome relief from walking uneven pastures.
When it’s hot—as it often is in Texas—Dodson heads to the Arbor’s air-conditioned tent of Pandora de Balthazár, which offers exquisite antique and European linens. You can even climb into bed to test-drive Pandora’s luxurious pillows and sleep systems.
The Compound is another anchor with 30,000 square feet of exhibit space with four large barns, manicured grounds, and music and entertainment.
Traffic can be slow between venues, but that allows you to check out merchandise at roadside booths. “If you see something you like, pull off, park in a field,” says Dodson. “You never know what you’ll find. That’s what makes Round Top so fun.”
Finish off the day with wine and cheese at Prost on Block 29, a wine bar and patio in a cluster of historic buildings in Round Top. The property also includes the Round Top Inn, which offers charming boutique-style rooms in restored vintage cottages.
While in Round Top, stop at Townsend Provisions and treat your tired dogs to new cowboy boots—just what you need for another day of walking Texas cow pastures.
Round Top Antiques Festival is September 21 to October 8, and Texas designer Julie Dodson will host a Designer Dream Spree with Carson Kressley, Kathryn M. Ireland, Beth Webb, and Aaron Rambo. The designers will present “Exceptional Discoveries” September 27 at 3 p.m. at The Compound. Tickets are $30; proceeds benefit the Gardenia E. Janssen Animal Shelter. Ticket information at designerdreamspree.com; 713/780-9200.
Accommodations in the Round Top area can be hard to come by during the shows, so book early, if possible. For lodging information, go to the Round Top Chamber of Commerce site, roundtop.org.
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Barry Darr Dixon (pictured, far right)
- Follow a methodical “path” so that you don’t miss any vendor/dealer. See it all!
- Don’t wait to come back the next day for an item that you love. If it was special, odds are that it will be gone when you get back … and you double your time spent shopping.
- Ask other experts/shoppers what they’ve seen and who they like. This can be a time-saver when you’re covering a lot of ground.
- Don’t forget to look down. So many wonderful things are not necessarily up on a table or at eye level.
- Even if there’s a “sold” tag on an item, ask the dealer if it’s a sure sale and leave your info. Often a sale falls through and you may get the treasure you wanted. Sadly, this did not work out for me here at Round Top on a pair of incredible eglomise lamps I wanted for a client. I’m still dreaming of them. C’est la vie!
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The dealers usually have a solid understanding of age and provenance. But, look for details, such as dovetail joinery, which will help to corroborate their story.
- Go with an open mind and a childlike curiosity. The best finds are the ones you weren’t looking for but couldn’t resist.
- Be respectful of the fact that the dealers have spent an enormous amount of time and money to exhibit at these fairs. Ask for the best price, but don’t be insulting.
Mary Douglas Drysdale
- Find out how the show is organized, and measure that against what you are hunting.
- If you are looking for something in particular, check recent auctions—for example at Sotheby’s and Christie’s—and see what similar things are selling for.
- Don’t exhaust yourself. Your judgment will be compromised and you could miss some great pieces, as well as pay more than you planned.
- Always ask how long the dealer has had the piece and if they can provide the provenance. That is essential; if they can’t provide provenance, you could be buying junk.
- Get there early (grab a cup of coffee first) and wait in line so you will be one of the first to enter the fields.
- Take a checkbook and cash. Often you get better deals with cash.
- Have a notepad and write down booth numbers and dealers’ phone numbers so you can find your way back to a booth you liked.
- Take a friend (it’s more fun that way) and exchange mobile phone numbers in case you get separated.
- Some of my favorite stops are Pandora de Balthazár’s amazing linens at Arbor Antiques, Blue Hills (north of Arbor’s on Highway 237) for beautiful European bargains, and for quality that has been vetted, Marburger Farm rules.
- Shop ’til you drop. Then go to Prost in Round Top and unwind with a glass of wine.
Photography: Ryann Ford