In South Austin, among the assorted Tex-Mex restaurants, neighborhoods, trendy shops and rising condos, sits a secluded hilltop jewel. Ensconced behind a fortress of colossal oak trees at the corner of South First Street and Cardinal Lane sits the majestic 104-year-old Mercury Hall, a former Baptist church that’s taken on new life as an events and performance center.
Resting on four lush acres that resemble the countless bucolic scenes of Texas’ picturesque Hill Country, Mercury Hall is an oasis, a marvel of history and ingenuity, and truly a thing of beauty.
Managing every last little detail concerning Mercury Hall is Herb Taylor, the man charged with booking events and weddings, fielding calls and emails about the venue, providing tours and consoling nettled brides, among other duties.
“My role is often that of a tissue provider and a therapist,” Taylor says with a laugh. “I think of myself as an advisor for all the wedding parties, musical events, fundraisers and other occasions we host at Mercury Hall.”
Though Taylor has worked as Mercury Hall’s events director and manager for only three years, his knowledge of and earnest regard for the site belie his short time spent there. Taylor is a remarkable storyteller, and hearing him describe the grandeur of Mercury Hall and recount its history is like tripping back through time to turn-of-the-century rural Texas with Stephen F. Austin himself as a tour guide.
“I enjoy coming to work. I really love my job, I have to say,” Taylor affirms. “Being in such a beautiful space every day is lovely.”
Several years before Taylor landed the job at Mercury Hall, the historic structure underwent some extensive renovations that included disassembling and uprooting the century-old church from its original home in Mercury, about 120 miles northwest of the capital city, and relocating it to its new home atop a South Austin hillside.
The church had been discovered in its original setting by Anne Walker-McBay, a producer working with famed local film director, Richard Linklater, and was then purchased, dismantled and transported to Austin to become a backdrop for Linklater’s dreamy 2001 animated flick, “Waking Life.”
Once the filming was complete, Mercury Hall was transformed in to a private reception facility, intact with its striking, genuine wood floors and white clapboard walls, and nearly all of its original ornate stained-glass windows. Walker-McBay eventually sold Mercury Hall to a group of local buyers – including restaurant and bar mogul Daryl Kunik – who still own the venue today.
Though it has undergone some additional renovations to add larger bathrooms and glass walls, rearrange the kitchen and trade out some ceiling fans for charming chandeliers, Mercury Hall is essentially as it was for so many decades in McCulloch County. The 1,400-square- foot main hall still feels somewhat like a chapel, which, combined with its quaint beauty, is surely why so many wedding parties opt to have their ceremonies performed there. But Mercury Hall is hardly a monument to reverence; concerts, holiday parties, wine tastings and the like have become regular events for the venue.
“It’s not a church anymore. I think we have definitely drunk and danced all the Baptist out of Mercury Hall,” Taylor divulges.
Several Austin musicians have recorded albums in this versatile space, including the Asylum Street Spankers, whose 2004 release “Mercurial” was named for the site. Dozens of theater productions, corporate luncheons and meetings, parties and fundraisers – many for gay-related charities like Equality Texas and AIDS Services of Austin – also take up temporary residence for events at Mercury Hall.
“I go out of my way to get the gay community to come to Mercury Hall,” Taylor says. “We host lots of fundraisers for the gay community out here, and it’s our little way of supporting and giving back to the community.”
Though Taylor does what he can to court gay-related nonprofits, arts and music groups, and other such organizations, he says the bulk of Mercury Hall’s bookings are weddings, though not always the traditional orthodox sort.
“From Hindu weddings to Wiccan weddings – you name it, we’ve hosted it at Mercury Hall,” Taylor says. The venue has also become a popular spot for commitment ceremonies, though not without some obvious reserve on the part of betrothed couples searching for an open-minded locale.
“We do have a lot of commitment ceremonies out here, and many times I’ll have a young woman or man come and look at the space for their wedding,” Taylor recounts. “I’ll never see the fiancé, and all of a sudden I’ll realize they want to have a commitment ceremony. Then they ask if that’s OK, and that really breaks my heart. It’s kind of my job to ease that tension. Being a bridesmaid and never a bride, I feel kind of like the big gay ambassador for Mercury Hall!”
Born in Houston, Taylor moved to La Grange when he was just a boy. In high school, he was the president of several clubs, was a drum major in the band and, though he was also drawn to theater, describes his teenage persona as “the geeky, smart science child.” After high school, Taylor moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas as a microbiology major, but dropped out senior year in search of a more compatible lifestyle.
Taylor then began waiting tables and bartending in between travel excursions. He got a job as a waiter and manager at Castle Hill restaurant for a couple of years.
Later, after taking the position at Mercury Hall, he continued to hone his acting skills by picking up a few minor film roles, as his job at Mercury Hall afforded him the flexibility to audition periodically. But Taylor soon grew weary, longing for something more in his life.
“I sat down and had a come-to-Jesus talk with myself,” he relates. “I thought, 40 is coming up real quick, and I wanted more. When I leave this planet, I want to leave something behind that I’m proud of.”
So Taylor enrolled in a 3-D animation program at Austin Community College, and is now in his third semester there, enjoying the new graphics-based storytelling skills he’s acquiring.
When Taylor is not at school, he can often be found holding down the fort at Mercury Hall. And though he brings on a management staff to handle day-of event details, Taylor essentially works alone, save his two best friends: Flash, a rambunctious and sweet Airedale; and Cowboy, a spirited and cuddly wire fox terrier, both of whom accompany Taylor to work every day and no doubt appreciate Mercury Hall’s wide-open spaces and frequent visitors.
Though Taylor says he can’t see himself managing Mercury Hall for a lifetime, he’s perfectly content in his current circumstances, and appreciates the casual aspects of his job, including the fact that he can show up to work wearing flip- flops, shorts and a T- shirt. It is South Austin, after all.
But Taylor’s favorite part of the job is his interaction with the people who choose Mercury Hall as the location for their special events.
“The best thing about this job is getting to meet people and their families, and having a good laugh with them as we plan their events,” he says. “I really feel that everybody who comes here becomes my extended family.”