Like many Central Texans, Clark Lyda recalls stopping with his family at the Stagecoach Inn in Salado, an ancient refuge from the road 50 miles north of Austin.


"Yes, I remember the hush puppies, the tomato aspic, the strawberry kiss and the iced tea," Lyda says with a grin. "All the waitresses were old women. No alcohol. It was all so quiet."


And historical.


A stage line between Austin and Waco was established as early as 1852, with a crossing at picturesque Salado Creek. The oldest parts of the current hospitality complex date back to 1861. According to the Handbook of Texas, Sam Houston, George Custer and Jesse James stayed at the Shady Villa Hotel there.


The iconic restaurant in the wood-frame structure did not arrive until 1943, when Ruth and Dion Van Bibber bought the old Shady Villa. It changed little over the next decades. The waitstaff rattled off the prix fixe menu, which included odd selections — tomato aspic? Really? — that would have seemed like relics from a previous historical era to a young, alert Lyda.


A modern motel was added in the 1950s when the interregional highway, now known as Interstate 35, passed to the west of Salado, a village that had become an arts and crafts mecca earlier in the 20th century.


The whole affair felt suspended in amber, never to alter, no matter how much went on in Austin and the rest of the world.


Change did come to the Stagecoach Inn in the form of an interim owner, who neglected the place. Then road crews arrived to expand Interstate 35, starving Salado’s quaint Main Street — and, therefore, the Stagecoach Inn — of business for five years.


Yet Lyda, a successful restaurateur, former Georgetown City Council member and a developer most recently of the Commodore Perry and Music Lane projects in Austin, could see the gleam underneath the crustiness of time. He purchased the then-recently closed Stagecoach Inn in 2015 and was shortly joined on the project by his Williamson County partners, David Hays and Austin Pfiester.


Two years ago, along with the La Corsha Hospitality Group, which helped guide the reopening of Green Pastures as Mattie’s, Lyda reopened the Stagecoach Inn restaurant.


Introduced by a welcoming lobby and a full bar, the eatery features a new menu with items that echo the past but are prepared in line with some of the most inventive cuisine in Austin. The hush puppies, tomato aspic and chicken salad are back, indeed, but with definite twists.


Earlier this year, Lyda opened the first 48 completely renovated motel rooms. Its currently discounted prices go for a range between $139 and $169, not far off from those of, say, a Hampton Inn these days. Along with the 48 luxury rooms, the hotel offers a heated and cooled pool and sensitive landscaping that includes vine-covered coves, palm trees and broad green spaces that replaced a crumbling parking lot.


"The hotel doors are custom-made," Lyda points out, "and are painted red, blue, green and yellow, which sets each one apart."


Soon, 52 more rooms will complete the courtyard, and a sound screen is planned to block noise from the interstate. Renovating the old conference center next to the creek will be part of the next phase of construction, along with additional landscaping to open up the part of the property that slopes gently down to Salado Creek.


Central Texas roots


While some Austin developers brandish oversize personalities, Lyda, 58, who comes from an old Central Texas ranching and investment family, keeps a fairly low profile. When questioned, the strongly opinionated Lyda often responds thoughtfully but sardonically.


For instance, when asked which were his favorite real estate projects, he responds with typically dry humor.


"I hate them all," he says. "By the time they are built, I’m so tired of all the problems and compromises, I’m ready to forget them. They leave a sour taste in my mouth. But I do projects nobody else wants to do because I’m stubborn, impractical, and actually I do like the creative process. I get to collaborate with really talented people, amazing people who make a difference."


His father, Don M. Lyda, was born in 1920 and grew up in rural Burnet County. After earning his degree in accounting at the University of Texas and serving as a pilot during World War II, the elder Lyda dove into Austin banking, accounting, real estate and charitable work, especially the United Way. A certified public accountant, he owned and operated a working ranch near Florence, not far from Salado.


He died in 1992 and lies in the Lyda Cemetery on the ranch.


Clark’s mother, Mary Click "Nicki" Smith Lyda, was born in Kingsland in 1919 and grew up in Llano and Burnet counties before teaching school, mostly in rural classrooms. She and her husband purchased and renovated several old Austin homes. They also acquired small farms and ranches, including ones in New Sweden, Jollyville and Leander.


They raised a daughter, Peggy Lyda McKenzie, and two sons, Clark and Don Lyda. Nicki died in 2013 and was buried next to her husband in the Lyda family graveyard.


A native Austinite, Clark Lyda attended school in the 1970s at the Commodore Perry Estate in the Hancock neighborhood, across the way from what had been the original Austin Country Club. Over the past few years, he has molded that 1928 estate above Waller Ceek into a hotel and retreat that is expected to open in early 2020.


"I had a strange fixation with this real estate," Lyda told the American-Statesman in 2011 when a first phase of renovation at the Perry Estate was completed. "It’s an odd duck. … Everything is off-kilter."


Clark earned a degree in business administration from Southwestern University in Georgetown and a law degree from the University of Texas. He flies airplanes and produces movies. He now lives part time in New York City, although he also owns a pristinely restored 1934 Spanish Revival home in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood.


His youthful fascination with architecture and architects — and especially preservation — has served him well as a developer. In Georgetown, he opened and still owns two restaurants, the Monument Café and El Monumento, inside historic properties.


As the District 2 Georgetown City Council member after a contentious 1999 election, Lyda led the charge to block the construction of a big water park on the highway and encouraged the protection of the district around the courthouse square, one of the best-preserved and -used such historic zones in the state.


In the 1980s and ’90s, he revitalized the Austin Opera House in South Austin as the Terrace, which was the name of the midcentury motel that originally employed the low building as a conference center. With partners, he is transforming much of the rest of the land where the motel stood into the multilevel Music Lane mixed-use project and the boutique Hotel Magdalena.


What’s new, what’s preserved


It’s hard to miss the 175-year-old oak tree that wraps around the Stagecoach Inn’s restaurant. Poke around further and you’ll find a spring house with a deep well that has never dried up in living memory, as well as other natural and historical wonders.


Crossing over a dry creek from the restaurant to the former motel is like stepping into another century. The inn must have seemed pretty Space Age back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when this reporter spent special nights there with his family.


Now the rooms come with big windows and midcentury style designed by Austin architecture firm Clayton & Little and inspired by the creator of the California ranch house, Cliff May.


Each room is like a little ranch house, trimmed in Naugahyde fabric, Saltillo tiles, cypress wood, fabrics made in India and the kind of comfort that one expects from top Austin luxury hotels. The whole place seems primed for guests, and not just for large wedding parties or family reunions. Old postcards and pencils in each room recall road trips of yore.


Before opening, the motel project slowed down each time the builders found another set of structural problems.


"We thought it would be a remodel," Lyda says, "but it was a rebuild."


It is telling that the entry to the complex is now back where it started, on Salado’s Main Street. The freeway to the west is something to ignore, not celebrate.


What about the artists and artisans who once lined Main Street, including the famed fashionista Grace Jones? (Not the singer.) A five-year TxDOT project to widen Interstate 35 chased some two-thirds of them away.


Lyda expects artists to return. All it would take is for a few key figures to relocate to a reinvigorated Salado. The Stagecoach Inn complex will be waiting for them.


All of Lyda’s projects have something crucial in common: A respect for design. He harks back to a time when ordinary people came into contact with significant buildings — post offices, courthouses, schools, churches, even private residences — that lent weight, atmosphere and dignity to everyday public life.


"I’m a big believer in the power of architecture to affect people’s lives in positive or negative ways," Lyda says. "Thoughtless architecture takes a toll on everybody who comes in contact with it. On the other hand, well-thought-out architecture can have a distinctly positive affect. I want to create places that are beautiful, that inspire and that function well."