Fredericksburg is known for its quaint German stone houses, its proximity to Hill Country wineries, and, increasingly, its rowdy out-of-town visitors that fill an ever-growing supply of short-term rentals. But as historic preservationists work to landmark the city’s midcentury gems, a more complicated vision of the small town emerges.
Midcentury modern isn’t a design style often associated with Fredericksburg, the charm capital of the Hill Country. And that isn’t likely to change any time soon, with throngs of bachelorette parties and weekend visitors swarming the town for its stone houses and German kitsch. But Anna Hudson, the city’s historic preservation officer, is working nevertheless to preserve all of the town’s history, and that includes the work of architect Jack Stehling.
Stehling, a Fredericksburg local, graduated from the University of Texas in 1953 and went on to establish an architectural practice in the town, working out of the Security State Bank & Trust building, which he designed in 1963. Stehling left Fredericksburg a few years later, undertaking projects in Mexico, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and even Connecticut and Florida.
The hallmarks of Stehling’s style can be seen in a well-preserved home, owned and restored by Fredericksburg resident Cassell Heep and her family, which is now — as you may have guessed — an Airbnb. Originally built by Stehling for himself, the home still showcases wood paneling, stone walls, and entry tile, all of which might have been materials left over from the Security State Bank project. A floating cement bridge leads to the house’s front door, now an eye-catching blue. A U-shaped form surrounding a central courtyard that now contains a pool (an addition by owners in the mid-2000s), the house is filled with abundant light admitted through floor-to-ceiling windows. A distinctive inglenook fireplace is the centerpiece of the main living area. The house avoids kitsch, instead highlighting natural materials and the bright Texas sunlight. It sits on an ordinary street dotted with traditional family homes just outside Fredericksburg’s historic downtown.
Heep, whose brother and stepfather began the process of renovating the home before she and her mother eventually bought it, intends to keep it as long as she can keep up with the work of maintaining a short-term rental. She worries about what might happen to the home if it is sold to someone less interested in preservation.
Houston-resident Sarah Talley purchased a Stehling home in July. Located next to the original headquarters of KNAF radio, the home was originally built for the Fritz family, owners of both the radio station and the area’s first cable company. The house, with one of Stehling’s hallmark gables, looks almost like a chapel. Hudson helped secure historic landmark status for the home, and Talley is now working to renovate it as accurately as possible. The family intends to retire to the home and make a life in Fredericksburg — something that is increasingly difficult to do with the state of the property market.
A quick search of Realtor.com reveals that most properties on the market are explicitly being sold as investment properties. “Would make a perfect B&B,” says one. “Investment property for STR and recreation,” declares another. Many are offered fully furnished. Driving around Fredericksburg’s historic district, the signs of short-term rentals are everywhere: welcoming signs at the front door; cottages named with some variation of “Haus”; backyards filled with firepits, Adirondack chairs, and string lights. It’s a kind of cookie-cutter charm that can grow stale when every house on the block looks the same.
According to data released by Airbnb, Gillespie County hosts earned $40 million dollars on the platform in 2021. Wineries, weddings, and flexible work arrangements have led to an influx of visitors to the destination, and the town has benefitted. But its residents are starkly divided on the issue, with local politics being driven by short-term rental policy — and relief might not be coming any time soon. Despite a referendum passed in April 2022, legal challenges at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have limited the ability of towns to enforce restrictions on short-term rental properties.
A new hotel hasn’t opened in the area in years, although that is set to change when New Waterloo’s Albert Hotel, located on historic Main Street, welcomes guests later this year. With 106 guest rooms, it may ease some of the demand for downtown lodging, but it seems like the destination’s popularity will only continue to grow. Fredericksburg lies in the path of totality for the 2024 eclipse, which will bring even more visitors.
For historic preservation purposes, the town’s popularity is a mixed blessing. The downtown core’s historic stone houses are modest, often with just one or two bedrooms, and not well suited as family homes. But they make for perfect getaway cottages, with rental fees that allow for the upkeep of the properties. In many ways, it is easier to preserve these landmarks because of their popularity as short-term rentals. Their value, however, has driven up housing costs, making it difficult for citizens who work in the town to afford to live there. Local apartment complexes have months-long waiting lists for every opening.
The midcentury architecture is popular on Airbnb as well, with properties listed for up to $600 per night. Some of the town’s true midcentury treasures, however, are buildings that few tourists will ever see. Stehling’s Security State Bank & Trust building features a spectacular mosaic, designed by the architect, that depicts the history of the town. Just a few blocks away sits another midcentury bank, the Community Savings and Loan, designed by Ed Nicholson, who was an architect based in San Antonio. Now a PNC bank, the building’s architecture has been maintained, its soaring windows and gabled roof giving it the look of a church. These buildings are even more striking in their setting, dropped between old stone architecture and contemporary re-creations of the local German fachwerk architectural style.
The fantasy of the small town, both as a perfectly preserved snapshot of a particular moment in time and a close-knit community where everyone knows each other’s name, is part of the reason visitors flock to places like Fredericksburg. But the encroaching reality of a housing market saturated with short-term rentals that price out locals threatens to create a Disneyland facsimile of perfectly preserved charm instead of something real. And the farther the town goes down that path, the more architectural outliers like Stehling’s works are destined to be pushed out of the spotlight.
Hudson, however, is dedicated to doing the hard work of preserving all types of Fredericksburg history. “Fredericksburg will always be known for its fachwerk and stone houses — and rightfully so — but hopefully as midcentury architecture matures there will continue to be a growing appreciation,” she explains. “In Fredericksburg, we do not have a large collection of midcentury masterpieces, but those we do have should be protected as they are finite and represent a time of business and personal success for many local families.”
Enthusiasts looking to find a well-preserved slice of midcentury design would do well to visit the town and seek out some of the area’s unexpected destinations and municipal buildings. But how can would-be visitors balance their desire to visit one of the Hill Country’s most popular destinations with the growing sense of unease about the impact of short-term rentals on local communities?
“Historic preservation has served Fredericksburg well over the decades and will continue to be important to its future as it tries to retain a small town feel and an authentic sense of place,” says Hudson. “Affordability is a major issue across the country. Fredericksburg has some unique factors that intensify the problem as compared to towns of its size.” She says local regulations like design guidelines and zoning are currently the best ways to manage the response to the town’s growth.
For now, residents and visitors alike are stuck walking a tightrope between preservation and growth, between tourism and community. As Hudson describes, Fredericksburg is far from the only small town in the U.S. where this push-pull is happening. Local and state governments will need to find a way to increase density, building more affordable housing and regulating short-term rentals to preserve not just the architecture of their towns, but the towns themselves.
Alyssa Morris is a freelance writer based in Austin.