Come Hotel or High Water

 

A West Texan turned urban tastemaker, hotelier Liz Lambert combines a rancher’s steely drive with a South Austinite’s laid-back cool.

After kick-starting the revival of South Congress, she’s turned her unique vision to other corners of Texas. But can she make even San Antonio hip?

Most hotels offer a place to visit—an oasis of calm and leisure, usually tucked along the side of a highway, near an airport or convention center, or in a tourist zone of exceptional natural beauty. Hotelier Liz Lambert, BA ’85, JD ’91, on the other hand, helps cultivate places to stay.

From the Hotel San Jose in Austin to El Cosmico in Marfa and the recently-opened Hotel Havana in San Antonio, Lambert hotels serve not just guests but communities as well, providing places to share food, music, and culture. Her design choices radiate beyond hotel walls to reflect and inform the character of the unique surrounding neighborhoods. First in Austin, and later in San Antonio and Marfa, a Liz Lambert opening has signaled to travelers not just a new hotel worth trying out, but an emerging city or region worth exploring. The New York Times calls it the “Liz Lambert touch.”

But when Lambert got started in the late 1990s, Austin’s South Congress district wasn’t much of a tourist destination. “Most every business down here opened at 8 in the morning and closed at 5 in the afternoon,” says Steve Wertheimer, owner of the Continental Club. “A lot of musicians and artists lived in the neighborhood. But when the sun went down, the seediness sort of came out.”

The neighborhood featured two lodging places, Austin Motel and the pre-Lambert San Jose Motel. Both catered to long-term and itinerant guests, mostly down on their luck. “Any time we ran into problems at the club, it was usually someone who had wandered across the street from the San Jose,” Wertheimer says. “Unfortunately, that was the clientele.”

Enter Liz Lambert, a bored young lawyer living in bohemian Travis Heights and searching for a more creatively fulfilling career. Wertheimer remembers her sitting at the end of his bar and looking out at the rundown San Jose, dreaming of renovating it. One day, Lambert finally decided to walk across the street and inquire about buying the place. “I figured if you don’t ask, you never know,” Lambert says. In fact, the owners were just then preparing to put it on the market.

Overnight, Lambert became a small-business owner. It was a steep learning curve. At UT, she’d studied poetry. “I didn’t realize how long it would take to raise the money for renovation, and I didn’t realize that I was pretty lacking in any business experience,” she says. “I learned as I went. I learned to surround myself with people who knew more than I did.” Her long-term collaborators include the San Antonio architectural firm Lake Flato and her team at Bunkhouse Management, a property management company for Lambert-designed projects.

Lambert spent years running the San Jose as a $30-per-night flophouse before the bank loan came through to fund her renovations. She made a documentary, Last Days of the San Jose, as a chronicle of that time. It’s a fascinating portrait of a neighborhood in transition, the daily struggles of people on the margins of society, and the sense of community that can thrive even in such difficult circumstances.

There’s a scene in the film in which an exhausted Lambert turns to address the camera. “I spend half my day asking people for money—tiny amounts,” she says. “And I spend the other half of my day asking people for money—huge amounts.”

The camera registers the anguish of a creative mind forced to think of nothing but collecting rent and begging for investments. But it also witnesses the birth of a creative entrepreneur. The business style that would bring Lambert to national renown is already evident in those early interactions with shady tenants. Ask her once and she’ll play it off warmly with South Austin slacker charm. Ask her twice, and a glint in the rancher’s daughter’s eyes tells you she’s sticking to her guns.

The most touching scene in the film comes after the loan for renovations has come through, when Lambert throws a goodbye party for the long-term tenants who will be displaced as the hotel moves upscale. Her conflicted emotions are evident onscreen as she sees off the people whom she has befriended and, in many cases, cared for over the previous three years. One might expect bitterness from the evicted tenants, but the opposite is true. It’s as if, after spending months and years living in the stew of setbacks and disappointments that was the old San Jose, they’re thrilled to see someone finally realize a dream—if Lambert can do it, maybe they can, too.

In 2000, Lambert opened the new Hotel San Jose to near-instant acclaim. “It was pretty dicey in the first two months, but it caught on quickly,” Lambert says. “People started finding us. Then one thing led to another and the whole neighborhood started to change.” The hotel was helped along as Lambert opened Jo’s, a hip neighborhood coffee stand, nearby. Soon Jo’s and the San Jose formed the social nexus of an increasingly lively pedestrian shopping and restaurant district.

Lambert is quick to attribute her hotel’s success, and the subsequent transformation of South Congress, to natural causes. “There had been years of urban sprawl, and I think people were wanting to start living downtown,” she says. “There just had to be a few businesses to anchor the neighborhood and that infill would start to happen.”

But the Hotel San Jose was not just any business. It became a defining landmark of a new urban lifestyle fit for an emerging creative class. “Definitely for here in Austin, if not the entire state of Texas and maybe a big part of the country, it was one of the first truly boutique hotels,” says Wertheimer, who partnered with Lambert on the project. “Now you’re seeing these places pop up all over the country, but when she did it, it was one of the first. Because of that, it got tremendous publicity all over the world. Every fashion or design magazine had something about the Hotel San Jose.”

Among followers of cutting-edge design and architecture, Lambert quickly became another in a long line of iconoclastic Austin icons. “The real draw for me to move to Austin was some of the stuff I was seeing, and design-wise that was Liz Lambert,” says Jack Sanders, an instructor in UT’s School of Architecture. Sanders came to Texas from Alabama in the early 2000s and now collaborates with Lambert regularly on design-build projects. “She, [filmmaker] Rick Linklater, and maybe Willie Nelson are the three people who inspired me to come out here.”

Lambert grew up in a ranching family with landholdings stretching from Odessa to Marfa. As a child, she’d accompany her grandfather on trips to downtown Odessa, where he’d smoke cigars and conduct business in the lobby of a prominent hotel. “She’s of West Texas,” Sanders says. “Of the dirt, of the dust.”

Perhaps the starkly beautiful landscapes of the Chihuahuan Desert contributed to the signature Liz Lambert aesthetic: simplicity. “I like to give a sense of calm, particularly in hotels and gathering places, and let people be the color in the room,” she says. “You achieve that through purity in color, or in massing so there’s not too much going on. If you plant the same thing over and over in one mass, it’s a lot more calming and a little more dramatic.”

After her success with Hotel San Jose, Lambert turned to two new projects: the Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin and El Cosmico in Marfa. Hotel Saint Cecilia was a conceptual tribute to rock ‘n’ roll decadence inspired by the Exile On Main Street-era Rolling Stones. It was a new South Austin project to fit a neighborhood coming into its own, years removed from the seediness of the old San Jose.

Lambert’s other new project, El Cosmico, took her far away—and far out.

Lambert has described her Marfa property as “a Trans-Pecos kibbutz for the 21st century.” El Cosmico certainly doesn’t look like anyone’s conventional idea of a hotel. Guests stay in vintrage trailers, safari tents, and two large teepees arranged around a central axis in a spiral pattern meant to evoke the cosmos. Overflow guests, who number many during El Cosmico’s annual music festival, are welcome to camp in tents on the property.

El Cosmico is a big-tent utopian community built on the frame of a hospitality business. Both as an architectural space and as a community, it has come into form more or less organically. “We just sort of had a party out there, and through that party saw where people congregated socially,” Sanders says. Those social alignments formed the basis for much of El Cosmico’s current physical configuration.

Although it has been open to the public since 2009, the property continues to grow and develop. “That’s sort of how Liz works,” Sanders says. “It’s not one of those things that’s built, and as soon as it’s built it becomes old. It’s constantly evolving and changing.”

Similarly, an informal El Cosmico family of builders, students, and return customers has grown up out of construction crews, design and songwriting workshops, and other events. Concerts also play an important role in drawing guests across the desert from Austin, Dallas, and other far-flung cities. Recent musical events have featured the band Mumford and Sons, Jimmie Dale Gilmore of the Flatlanders, and Lambert’s romantic partner, the singer-songwriter Amy Cook.

The slow pace of El Cosmico’s development can be vexing. It remains, in senses both euphemistic and heartfelt, a labor of love. “In a way, I wish that I had millions of dollars,” Lambert says. “I see it in my mind’s eye as a much bigger place with more trailers and a swimming pool. Part of me wishes that I could snap my fingers and it would all be there. But it’s a little bit of a blessing that it’s growing so slowly.”

For now, El Cosmico retains the feel of a live-in art project adrift on the endless desert plain. It’s an appropriate fit for Marfa, once the playground of the prominent minimalist artist Donald Judd. El Cosmico, as it grows, makes a case for Lambert as a conceptual artist working in the long shadow of pioneers like Judd.

“At the end of the day, it’s a one-of-a-kind idea,” Sanders says. “Nobody said, ‘Hey Liz, you’ve been so successful with San Jose, here’s all the money, go build El Cosmico.’ But by going that route, she’s created something that really is unique.”

“To have that kind of success, at the end of the day you have to trust your instincts,” he adds. “And I think she does that pretty fearlessly.”

Lambert’s newest challenge has brought her back to Central Texas and away from the hip creative-class enclaves that incubated her previous successes. Under the auspices of the Bunkhouse Group, she opened Hotel Havana on the San Antonio River Walk in 2010.

When people think of the River Walk, they don’t normally think of Liz Lambert trademarks like simple designs, local flavor, and a strong relationship with the surrounding city. They’re more likely to think of the Hard Rock Cafe and the Rivercenter mall. “What we’re doing here is changing the vernacular of River Walk discussion,” says Kevin Osterhaus, VP of operations for Bunkhouse.

That change in vernacular starts with a fresh eye to the things that make the city special. “San Antonio’s a great town,” Lambert says. “It gets a lot of focus around Sea World and the Alamo and the River Walk, but San Antonio is so much more than that. Shamu can only go so far. The Arts District, the Pearl Brewery renovation, the Art Walk, the architecture downtown, the food—San Antonio could use more hotels that are about that kind of experience rather than just convention travel and River Walk tourism.”

So far, it’s been a tough sell. A lot of travelers seem to like Shamu just fine. “San Antonio has added 25 percent more rooms to its hotel inventory since the recession started,” Osterhaus says. “It’s taken some time to find the guests who are going to support us long term. We’ve had to create that demand.”

To find the community that might eventually sustain the hotel, Lambert and her collaborators reached into her old bag of tricks from El Cosmico and the San Jose. They partnered with nearby cultural institutions like the San Antonio Museum of Art. They opened a restaurant, Ocho, and invited San Antonio-born rock musician Alejandro Escovedo to do a two-month performing residency. “Now we have a place to bring people and have them experience the hotel,” Osterhaus says. “We’ve really started to create a lot of awareness in the community, simply by people being able to hang out and have fun.”

The jury is still out, but it seems that the Hotel Havana is beginning to make a place for itself in San Antonio. If it can hold on and continue to cultivate a community, the north end of the River Walk might yet catch up with South Austin in hip tourism cache. “If there’s anyone who can offer people more of a connection to that part of San Antonio, it’s Liz,” says Sanders, who also contributed custom welding to the Havana.

Looking back, none of Lambert’s projects have exactly been easy rides. From the long years collecting $30-a-night rents at the old San Jose, to the early days in Marfa scratching architectural plans into the earth in lieu of money to start construction, Lambert’s projects have often seemed to survive for years on enthusiasm alone. The enthusiasm slowly spreads to the surrounding neighborhood, and suddenly there’s something there that wasn’t there before. The same process is under way in San Antonio.

Looking ahead, Lambert is considering new projects across the country. But no matter how far she goes, she’ll always be known as the queen of Texas cool, the pride of her neighborhood and of her state’s design community.

“There’s just something about what San Jose and Saint Cecilia offer that you can’t get anywhere else,” Wertheimer says. “People come here and they try to see what she’s doing and try to repeat that. I think that’s as nice a form of flattery as you can get. I don’t know where she gets it from. She grew up in Odessa.”

Photos from top: Hotel San Jose by Allison V. Smith, Hotel San Jose by Allison V. Smith, El Cosmico by Eric Anderson, Hotel Havana by Allison V. Smith

 

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