Once upon a time in the 1970s, James Dick, a world-class pianist, asked, “Why dream the ordinary?” He envisioned an international center for music and learning nestled in the hills outside the tiny Texas town of Round Top. His path intersected with local teenager Larry Birkelbach, a young man who wasn’t yet a master carpenter but who already believed, “The impossible just takes longer.”
Two men. Four hands. One goal: to build Round Top Festival Institute, an international center for music and learning.
In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s, food, family and local culture intersected at Birkelbach’s Café in Round Top. It was an unofficial community center. Because his parents, Herman and Lucyel, owned and operated the restaurant, it was both playground and training ground for young Larry Birkelbach.
“I grew up helping in the restaurant,” Birkelbach, who was born in 1956, said. “It wasn’t by choice but by mutual understanding. My dad said that’s the way it’s going to be—and that’s the way it was.”
Although Birkelbach spent most of his time in the kitchen, he was keenly aware of the strong sense of community that existed because of the regular impromptu gatherings at the restaurant and elsewhere. People who congregated were a mix of family and friends.
“When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a babysitter,” Birkelbach said. “When Mom and Dad went to dances, we went along and slept on the floor under the tables. As kids, it gave us exposure to the adult world. We learned to socialize with people and knew we were part of something bigger than ourselves.”
In a small town, the line blurs between family and friends, especially when one’s family helped pioneer the area. The Birkelbachs arrived in the mid-1830s, and the Sacks, his mother’s family, landed about the same time. The family spoke German at home.
“German was the primary language spoken between my grandparents and parents,” Birkelbach said. “If I wanted to know what was going on, I had to pay attention and speak German, too. There’s nothing more genuine and connecting than learning about your grandparents’ lives directly from them.”
His command of German was also useful at the restaurant where old-timers would gather to tell stories.
“In those days, there was nothing going on in Round Top in the evenings except the café, which didn’t close until 8 or 8:30,” Birkelbach said. “All the old bachelors would come and sit around on the porch and talk about their lives back in the day. I wish I’d had a tape recorder. I miss all those characters—and the accent that was so prevalent then. It was a gift to hear all of that.”
On Friday and Saturday nights after the restaurant closed, people met to play Skat (pronounced Scot), a popular but complicated card game that originated in Germany and requires at least three players. The restaurant’s storeroom became the Skat Room.
“As a kid, I thought they were going to kill each other because of all the cussing and loud talking,” Birkelbach said. “I thought they were mad at each other when actually they were mad at their hands.”
Despite watching “at least 1,000 games,” Birkelbach never learned to play.
“Dad didn’t have time to go one-on-one with me to teach me all of the intricacies,” Birkelbach said. “I’m just thankful I got to watch and be a part of it all.”
Father and son did find time to play straight dominoes.
“Straight dominoes were the only game where I ever beat my dad,” Birkelbach said. “I think he let me win every once in a while just to keep me playing.”
Birkelbach also played the drums. His parents bought him a used bass drum and snare drum. Larry set up his stereo at the restaurant and played along to 45s. Eventually, he played drums, a set of Ludwigs with a psychedelic paint job, in a country western dance band.
“Western swing is my cup of tea,” Birkelbach said. “It’s way on the other side of classical.”
In the summer of 1975, Birkelbach was repairing the restaurant’s screen door when local contractor Newton Peschel and Fayetteville-based architect Clovis Harmsett came in for lunch. They were meeting to discuss the Clayton House, the first historic structure to be moved to Festival Hill.
Peschel, who had watched Birkelbach grow up, suggested the young man gather some tools and join his crew.
“I asked Dad what he thought,” Birkelbach said. “He responded, ‘Well, you’re going have to do something.’”
The next day Birkelbach showed up at the job site with a cloth nail apron (compliments of a local lumberyard), a pencil, a wooden fold-out ruler with a broken end-section, a two-foot level and a hammer with a loose head held on by two bent nails. He had no carpentry experience and was the youngest crew member by several decades.
“Newton’s advice to me was simple. ‘Keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open—and you’ll be fine,’” Birkelbach said.
Three weeks later, Birkelbach set foot on Festival Hill for the first time. It was Oct. 12, 1975. His first job was replacing the rafters on the Clayton House. When the roof was dried-in about a month later, Birkelbach was assigned to work on the Black School, the structure that was original to the Festival Hill site, with Arnold Prasifka, a master carpenter from Fayetteville.
“Arnold’s advice to me was simple. ‘Keep your mouth shut, and do what I tell you—and we’ll get along,’” Birkelbach said laughing. “Arnold was a fine, fine finish carpenter, but he was hard to get along with. He either liked you or he didn’t—and he decided which within five minutes of meeting you. Once he made up his mind, he didn’t change it.”
Round Top Festival Institute, an international center for performance and learning, ensures that the hills of Fayette County are alive with the sound of music and conversations about art and ideas.
Beginning with six acres and one 19th century school house purchased at a foreclosure sale in 1971, Festival Institute now encompasses 210 acres and 18 buildings including the 1,000-seat Festival Concert Hall, which is not only one of the nation’s most acoustically perfect performance venues but with its rich Gothic-inspired woodwork arguably one of the most beautiful. The institute’s other historic public facilities are picture-perfect studies in restoration and preservation.
Throughout the year, the institute hosts forums on topics ranging from poetry and theater to herbs as well as a variety of performances including dance, puppetry and, of course, music.
Each summer about 100 of the world’s most promising music students, chosen by blind auditions of more than 700 applicants, gather for six weeks of intensive, advanced study with some of the world’s most gifted teachers and conductors.
“Talent is fulfilled by studying, performing and giving your talent away by sharing what you’ve learned with others,” Dick said. “The creation of this place is my way of giving back by serving the needs of prospective great musicians so they can carry on the tradition of excellence.”
The pair ended up getting along fine. Under Prasifka’s tutelage, Birkelbach became a master craftsman. In return, Birkelbach helped Prasifka, who never learned to read, navigate the information-driven modern world.
“Arnold knew how to live life, but he wasn’t very good at communicating,” Birkelbach said.
The two worked side-by-side at Festival Institute until the oil bust of the 1980s disrupted work. The Festival Concert Hall had just been started. The crew went their separate ways with Birkelbach striking out on his own to build high-end houses in Lakeway near Austin.
Two months later Birkelbach got a call from Richard Royall, Festival Hill’s managing director. Festival Hill’s leaders wanted then-30-year-old Birkelbach to take over where Peschel left off.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Birkelbach said. “The concert hall had just been started. I didn’t know how to build a concert hall, but I figured the only way to know if I could do it or not was to try.”
Birkelbach’s first hire was Prasifka. They worked together until Prasifka passed away in 1997. The elder craftsman left an assortment of his specialty tools to Birkelbach.
For more about Round Top Festival Institute, read No Ordinary Dream.
by Lorie Woodward Cantu
photos by Anna Spencer Morse