A derelict motor court in Austin, Texas, is reincarnated as the Hotel San José, a hip destination for boho travelers.
Julia Lewis -- Interior Design, 1/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
LIZ LAMBERT, OWNER OF Austin's newly renovated Hotel San José, personifies the old adage that it's not just what you know but who you know. A West Texas native and former attorney with no previous experience in the hospitality industry, Lambert purchased a run-down motel in 1995 with dreams of a radical career change. Although she knew nothing about hotel management, Lambert saw a potential niche in Austin's burgeoning south side, a funky, low-rent district scattered with restaurants, clubs, and shops that constitute a hip, local scene. "The location was perfect," says Lambert of the eclectic neighborhood, which, after a few decades of urban blight, has lately become a hotbed of renovation and renewal. And, by Lambert's account, Austin needed a new, urban hotel. "The city has some very fine hotels," she says, citing the historic Driscoll and the Four Seasons. "But nothing that evokes the real Austin." Lambert's goal was "a hotel with a soul."
Shortly after the purchase of the 60-year-old hotel, Lambert corralled a group of friends and acquaintances-a dream team of architects, designers, and artists-with whom she collaborated on the property's comprehensive renovation. Among them were David Lake of the award-winning San Antonio firm Lake/Flato Architects (whose wife is a friend) as well as San-Francisco designer R.L. Fletcher and Jamey Garza, an L.A.-based artist originally from Austin, both of whom were friends. Eventually, Lambert quit her job with the state's Attorney General to manage the hotel herself. The design development phase occurred while the motel was operating at 70 percent occupancy, recalls Lambert, who believes its "steady stream of junkies, hookers, and day laborers plus a few longtime residents" imbued the project with "a sense of history and texture." Bob Harris, the project architect, concurs: "The first time I went to survey the buildings, the police kicked down a door, which I later found out was a common occurrence. But, we discovered incrementally how great the place could be."
The renovation entailed a complete restructuring of the existing guest rooms in three buildings, the addition of a two-story, 16-room edifice where there had been a central parking lot, and extensive landscaping. Still, Lambert wanted the finished project "to remain true to the original architecture and to retain some sense of what the place had been." The Lake/Flato team understood perfectly. "Our task was not to do too much," says Harris. "We wanted the architecture to let the hotel's funky character come through." The new stucco building borrows architectural details from the original buildings, including tile-shed roofs and parabolic arches. "We did not set out to impress with scale or grand gestures," says Harris.
Positioned in the center of the compound, the new structure's presence forms side courtyards between the flanking single-story wings and a central court where there is now a swimming pool. Opposite stands the motel's original office/laundry/manager's residence building, which now houses the lobby, bar/lounge, and offices with a suite of small single rooms on the second floor. The property's configuration fosters a relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces. Many of the guest rooms feature shared or private porches enclosed by slatted cedar walls; others have balconies that overlook the courtyards. Although they are not completely removed from the San José's activity, says Harris, "these intimate spaces provide seclusion from the more public outdoor areas."
Like its architecture, the San José's interiors are simple and well-suited to the harsh Texas climate. "Cool and serene" is the way that Harris describes the ambience. Orchestrated by designer R.L. Fletcher and artist Jamey Garza, the hotel's public areas and guest rooms feature clean white walls and polished concrete floors enlivened by an off-hand blend of vintage and custom furniture. "The point was to make the hotel into a comfortable oasis. It has a really nice, loft-like feel," says Fletcher. "The spaces are so simple in plan, decoration didn't seem necessary. Instead, there is an emphasis on the beautiful, verdant landscape." The lobby and bar/lounge areas convey a "Texas modern" sensibility, says Garza, who oversaw the production of the hotel's custom furniture and metalwork. Tables and benches made of reclaimed Long Leaf pine, a native wood, accommodate small groups or larger parties of loungers.
The hotel's 40 guest rooms range in size from small, single-occupancy accommodations with shared bathrooms to large, multi-room suites. Reconfigured and improved with enlarged bathrooms, the rooms feature a minimalist aesthetic that is softened by interventions of color and warmth. Custom beds, side tables, and writing surfaces are rigorously simple and cantilevered to expose as much floor space as possible. Bed linens feature Indian prints, while vintage Eames chairs add period charm and cowhide rugs provide a nod to Texas vernacular.
The hotel's design took place in five months and construction was completed in approximately one year. Bob Harris extends credit to Lake/Flato team members Isabel Mijangos and Heather DeGrella.