Escape to Albany: A Fandangle-y Great Family Compound Near Art Prison in the Hottest Ranch Home Town in Texas

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This summer I had the chance to visit an amazing property in Albany, Texas, about 125 miles due west, where I understand Trevor Rees-Jones recently bought land. I’m hearing more and more about this part of Texas, which I called west texas until I actually SAW west Texas a few weeks ago!

Old Jail art center

When I was in Midland last week, I ran into the sister-in-law of a former neighbor, kind of high profile guy, and she told me all about the ranches in Albany and how everyone wanted land here.

Of course, the whole world discovered Albany when Hughes Professor of English Willard Spiegelman, at Southern Methodist University, penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal that focused national attention on Albany, in particular, its Old Jail Art Center. Texas Monthly has called it the “best small-town museum in the state — maybe the nation.”

Two hours west of Fort Worth, “the county seat of Shackleford County boasts a rarity: art in a former prison.” And what great art to be found in a town of about 2000: the 14,000 square foot art gallery holds about one piece of art for every citizen including pre-Columbian and Asian artifacts, and 19th and 20th century European and American Paintings and works on paper. I saw the original 1918 Modigliani oil portrait of a young girl with braids; I bought the poster to decorate my very first dorm room, it was such a beloved work. But in Albany, it’s only the beginning:

Another room features 11 vitrines of significant pre-Columbian artifacts. Beyond, the Sallie Reynolds Matthew Gallery will appeal to the menfolk with its pictures of the nearby Lambshead Ranch (whose patriarch, Watt Matthews, another Princeton alumnus, died in 1997 at the age of 98), and a miscellany of items including boots, saddles, rifles, a piano and an incongruous violin, reminding us that ranchers made their music at home. Elsewhere, one finds a top-notch Asian display of jades, porcelains and Japanese woodblock prints.

One intriguing specialty of the Art Center is work, as one would expect, by worthy Texas artists some of whom are probably unknown to East Coast city slickers. In one room hung two large pictures, “Seminole Canyon” (1994, pencil on paper) and “Cactus Land” (1998, pencil and crayon on paper) by Jim Malone. Pieces by Allison Smith, Camp Bosworth and Ken Little also make appearances. Art, like politics, thrives at the local level.

The museum’s roster includes household names—most of them represented by works on paper, but also by some oils—names like Rembrandt, Francisco Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, and more modern figures like Josef Albers, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Robert Rauschenberg and Kiki Smith. A charming Calder mobile swings gently from the ceiling.

You kind of have to pinch yourself to jolt the memory back to your location on earth: not Fifth Avenue, but Albany, Texas.

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Another artist, Randy Bacon,  lives right across the street from this now world-famous art gallery, in a most unique family compound at 300/308 S. 2nd Street, Albany,TX . It’s truly one of the most unusual compounds I have ever seen.

Where to begin?

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The very unique enclave is a series of homes, four, built around a series of private courtyards. Three of the four homes are smooth contemporaries. One is a restored 1907 Queen Anne cottage of 1569 square feet that was moved from the church across the street: they literally gave the house away. The home has been exquisitely finished on the interior — nary a crack in the plaster — and is being used as a bed and breakfast called Biscuit. But the home, with a foyer, large formal living, a dining room, commercial kitchen, Butler’s pantry and upstairs bedroom/bath, could easily be converted into a family home, which it actually was.

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Albany Jim's guest room

Albany was established by Scottish Presbyterians 16 miles south of Fort Griffin, a Civil War-era military post. The town has a few other claims to fame besides the Old Jail Art Gallery, which barely locks it’s doors — no one here does. No Ebola, no thieves, how refreshing. The town is “Home of the Hereford” (this is cattle ranching country) and a gorgeous county courthouse designed by James Edward Flanders, who has been called Dallas’ first architect. 

“He made his living designing eight or nine Second Empire style courthouses in Texas during the late 1800s. Sadly, the Shackleford County courthouse is the only one that remains.” It was built 1883-84 by kilted, yes kilted, Scottish Masons from stone quarried a few miles southwest of town. It was budgeted at $27,000.00, but final cost was $49,433.75. The Shackleford County courthouse has been restored and is in active use today as the county seat courthouse, the oldest courthouse in Texas still in use. It’s also a National Historic Landmark.

And what is right across from that elegant, historic courthouse with a pleasant hourly chime?

The 300/308 2nd Street compound of Randy Bacon.

Across from the Queen Anne cottage is a two-bedroom contemporary home of 2376 square feet with living, dining, den, architecturally dramatic steps, two upstairs bedrooms and baths, and the potential of another 730 square feet currently leased as office space on the first floor. Keep the tenant and enjoy the income, or easily incorporate the space into the downstairs living area as an additional bedrooms and bath.

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Through the gated courtyard, and completely separated by a herringbone-patterned terra cotta brick fence with unique Donald Judd-inspired pivot cedar and steel framed gates ( that’s a major Marfa name), is a 2043 square foot residence with living/dining kitchen, master bedroom, bathroom, laundry and storage. This home has an attached 2 car garage. Flanking this home is another separate structure that is Randy’s painting studio, but with a bedroom and bath, becomes additional guest room or bedroom. The yard is all Texas native, minimal water (15 min. once a week on average) and the low grass is Buffalo Grass — which is so dense, it grows out evenly and chokes out weeds — it gets a mow about once a month or less — good stuff.

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Albany Randy's DR kitchen

Albany Randy's room

So there you have it: four separate families could live there, be together as much as they want, or separate. That’s why this get-away is perfect for family gatherings, entertaining groups of friends, hunting parties – or just a quiet, safe, place to live if you want to escape Ebola and get out of Dallas.  Albany is about as small-town goodness as you can get.  There is a 14-block National Historic District, and the annual Fort Griffin Fandangle, the Oldest Outdoor Summer Musical in Texas that has been going on for 76 years, is performed every summer. Randy was even in it!

“If you love historic, small-town Texas, this is as good as it gets,” says Randy Bacon. The compound was designed by award-winning architect Rick Wintersole, AIA, with landscape by Sarah Carr of the famed Mark Word Design of Austin. It was intended to be flexible in use. Right now there are a total of five bedrooms, five full baths, three full kitchens, four half baths, a studio and some offices.  Could easy-peasy be ten bedrooms.   Oh and the first floors of all three buildings are handicapped accessible. Which would make it the perfect bed and breakfast, as it is now. The courtyard is planted with gravel and low maintenance landscape of native plants, including that Buffalo grass. There is also an  upper deck at the largest residence —  best spot in town to entertain friends and family while watching the annual Homecoming Parade, Fandangle Parade, Fourth of July Parade. Christmas Parade, watch a spectacular sunset or do some star-gazing. Yes, this town has a LOT of parades! Albany is poised to wipe Marfa off the grid as the art lovers mecca.  Plus, betwixt you and me, I have been haering about a lot more crime in Marfa. Albany has the look and feel of far-west Texas and a progressive attitude toward the arts and artists, as well as that small town wholesomeness. Plus it is so much closer to the Metroplex! We clocked a pleasant 2:45 hour drive from Preston Hollow (passing through Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Breckenridge) that would have been 2.5 had it not been for an abnormally  long wait at a fuel station restroom. The Albany airport, built for private jets, is only five minutes away, and the billionaires are taking full advantage. The stars at night are big and bright. You’re deep in the heart of Texas. And you can see them all because there is not much light pollution, either.  And at nearby Fort Griffin, where a historical village is under construction, you can even see the Milky Way with the naked eye. The topography is delightfully hilly out here, evoking the feel of the Texas Hill Country.

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So you get the arts of Marfa and the gentle elevation of Fredericksburg. In fact, Albany is definitely a budding Fredericksburg. I like a lot.

As private and quiet a get-away as you want, this could be perfect for creating a legacy with your family and grandchildren.   With absolutely no remodeling at all, the compound could be ten bedrooms.   All this for a recently reduced price of $1,649,000. That’s for four residences on a 15,000 square foot never-care site right where the hip but relaxed beautiful people will soon be gathering, in Albany.