Liz Lambert

43, hotelier, Austin
Liz Lambert
Photograph by Andrew Yates

She’s the avatar of cool for the inn crowd’s in crowd. Thirteen years ago the native Odessan, a UT and UT Law grad, purchased a seedy motel on South Congress Avenue, in Austin, and transformed it, with the help of San Antonio’s Lake/Flato architects and designer pals from California, into the sleek, modern, high-end, achingly fashionable Hotel San José—an early sign of life injected into what is now the Capital City’s famously vibrant SoCo district. Ten years later, she repeated her success in Marfa, renovating the fifties-era Thunderbird Hotel into an upscale, low-slung San José—style boutique hotel, complete with a pool in the courtyard that is, quite literally, an oasis in the desert. In 2006 she turned a large plot of land in Marfa into El Cosmico, a compound with Spartan trailers, tents, yurts, and wood-fired hot tubs. Now she’s at work on her next two must-stays: the St. Cecilia, in Austin, a small, exclusive hotel in a converted Victorian around the corner from the San José, and a bigger project, in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, where Lambert’s stripped-down, retro, ascetic, clean, calm sensibility is sure to be embraced by locals and visiting hipsters alike.

A Web Exclusive Interview

Do you remember a singular moment when you decided to leave your attorney job and remake the Hotel San José?

There were definitely a few moments where I realized that I needed to take a chance and make a big life change. The instance that I remember is when I learned a good friend was dying of AIDS—it was that week that I called a realtor to inquire about the San José. I wanted more creativity in my life than I was able to realize as a lawyer. Realizing that you want to do something different is really the small part. Actually doing it was where the real life transformation happened for me.

What are your expectations for your new project, El Cosmico in Marfa?

El Cosmico is a very personal project for me. I have roots in West Texas and it’s a special place. I’m inspired by nomadic dwellings (yurts, land yachts). I’m also interested in past examples and new ideas about how to interact with the land gently. What I hope to create at El Cosmico is an artistic playground, an inclusive and accessible place to escape and get your hands dirty and be out in a wide-open space for a while. More than anything I want to embrace it as a continual work in progress—something this unconventional is a series of discoveries and exchanges between ourselves and the land.

In your re-conceptualized idea of a hotel, what kind of experience do you try to give people?

In all my work, a sense of connection to the surrounding place and culture is really important. With the San José, I wanted it to be an Austin hotel—both in its physical landscape and in its connection to the neighborhood. I wanted to create a hotel for travelers, but also a place for Austinites. I want there to be a community engagement that I don’t see in a lot of hospitality models. It needs to be more than just a great place to sleep.

Do you think there’s a broader market for hotels like these—hotels that double as communal experiences?

Ultimately I think we’re all looking for communal experiences — places and times that connect us to the world in meaningful and beautiful ways. People argue that this is because we are living more and more separate lives. I’m guessing humans have always felt this way. I think I’m just a hippie at heart and to me there’s nothing more meaningful than sitting around a campfire with good friends. I hope there’s a market for it. So far, so good.

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