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The Austin Motel’s New Look

Liz Lambert on sprucing up another iconic South Congress hideout.

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The Austin Motel's iconic signage.
Photograph by Nick Simonite

When it was announced last May that Bunkhouse, Liz Lambert’s Austin-based hospitality group, would be taking over the thirties-era Austin Motel on South Congress Avenue, it seemed like a fated union. Lambert’s reputation as “SoCo’s hotel queen” has been gelling for some time now. She has revamped two other aging properties nearby—the Hotel San José, in 1995, and the Hotel Saint Cecilia, in 2008—and is at work on a third hotel in the neighborhood, the 89-room Magdalena, set to open in 2018. There’s her original outpost of Jo’s Coffee too; its spray-painted facade edges out even the Austin Motel’s bright red neon sign as the most Instagrammed spot on South Congress. (Bunkhouse also operates San Antonio’s Havana Hotel, Marfa’s El Cosmico, and the newly opened Hotel San Cristóbal, in Todos Santos, Mexico.)

So when the Dean family, who had owned the Austin Motel since 1993, decided to sell the funky motor inn, Lambert was an obvious heir apparent. The notably un-updated motel, beloved for its kitschy throwback decor, low rates, and that anatomical-looking sign (the most recognizable symbol of the city’s “So Far Out”–ness), had been one of the last holdouts on a strip that has become increasingly gussied up.

Now, after a year of tinkering, the 41-room hideaway has all the hallmarks of a signature Lambert reboot: minimalist rooms with bursts of color (in this case, orange vinyl tufted beds), slyly irreverent design elements (the bedside phones are shaped like lips, striped kimono robes hang on “Wall Willy” hooks by Eric Trine), a gift shop stocked with quirky-cool merch (rainbow Slinkys, Solid & Striped bathing suits), and “cultural programming” that lures travelers and locals alike to cozy common areas (see: synchronized swimming and live shows by the kidney-shaped pool).

Here, Lambert gives us the skinny on how she and her team have restored the iconic motel’s luster while preserving its original mojo.

Design elements in the motel’s updated rooms wink at South Congress Avenue’s colorful past.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

THE DETAILS
41 rooms / rates from $125 (full) + $245 (king suite) / free parking + wifi / kid- and pet-friendly / pool bar + snack menu / restaurant coming soon

What’s your earliest remembrance of the Austin Motel? How has its existence shaped South Congress Avenue over the years?
I’ve been in love with the Austin Motel since the nineties when I first started thinking about buying the San José. They were built two years apart—the San José in 1936 and the Austin Motel in 1938—when car culture was just beginning and South Congress was the main road from San Antonio to the state capitol. In many parts of the country, these types of classic, one-story motor court motels have been torn down and replaced with taller buildings for higher density, so it’s pretty exciting to have these two historic properties side by side.

If you had to describe the pre-reno Austin Motel in three words they’d be…
The Phallus Palace. The longtime staff at the hotel have been calling it that for years—if you’ve seen the sign, you get why.

The lobby’s new general store sells everything from risqué magazines to inflatable water wings.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

How would you describe the vibe now, post-update?
I would say it’s comfortable, with a sense of humor and more of a community feel in terms of places for guests to hang out on the property. We tried to keep the casual feel and the playful spirit that have always made the hotel special without being kitschy or theme-y.

Where did you start with this project? And were there any surprises along the way?
The challenge was how to give the place new life but not raise the room price too much, so we were working with a very limited budget and tight timeline. There were several surprises, as they are very old buildings, so there were plumbing issues, uneven floors, you name it.

What sorts of imagery or bits of inspiration were on your (literal or figurative) mood board for the new design?
There were a few decades that stood out as important moments in the motel’s history: the 1930s, when it was built; the 1950s, when it was in its heyday, and the 1980s, when Austin was sort of at the end of its “cosmic cowboy” era, right before the city started changing. Everything flowed from the motel’s sign and from the time periods that were meaningful to me—the curviness of the thirties’ art deco element, color schemes of fifties-era motels, heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses and lip-shaped phones from the eighties.

“Wall Willy” robe hooks by Eric Trine.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Which is your favorite room or suite?
I’m very excited about the Pool Suites, which will feature Magic-Finger vibrating beds, the kind that you put a quarter in to operate.

Which person, living or dead, would be most likely to take up an extended residence at the Austin Motel? 
I’d really like to hang out with Ann Richards at the Austin Motel. I can’t say she’d be the most likely to live there, but she’d certainly be the most entertaining. She’d have a lot to say about a lot of things going on in Texas and in the country these days—and probably something to say about the motel sign too. She spent a lot of time fighting the same issues in the other phallus palace up the road.

Bunkhouse obviously knows a thing or two about renovating older properties. What’s the secret to respecting a place’s history while also transforming it into a fresh, new world?
Well, my first rule would probably be to start by eliminating the unnecessary. I think people want hotel rooms to be an escape from the clutter of home and daily life, a place where your imagination can flourish. The longer a hotel has been around, the more likely it is to have accumulated things over time like a tumbleweed.

When it comes to respecting a hotel’s history, I think the same principle applies to hotels as to people: it’s important to listen. You observe the way people use a space, learn the history, and apply your best creativity to addressing its challenges.

Guests can enjoy live music, water aerobics, and punk-rock water ballet by the kidney-shaped pool.

Photograph by Jackie Lee Young

The San José is beloved not just for its rooms and amenities but for its lively, welcome-to-all-comers events. What will the Austin Motel have by way of programming or community gatherings?
We’ve built a bar to serve guests at the pool, so we’re thinking we’ll have programming like renegade synchronized swimming performances and Richard Simmons–style water aerobics classes. We’re excited to start the community events, because that is what will bring it all to life. And there’ll be plenty of poolside Frosé on tap.

Can you share a detail or two about the forthcoming restaurant?
We’re working on it!  The dream is a healthy diner. Stay tuned for more info.

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  • shannon

    Really?? My husband and I always stay there when we go to concerts and fun weekends in Austin. Our king room cost us 145.00 and it is now 245.00. What a shame. We like staying on Congress. Our weekends of lets go to Austin are now over. Who wants to spend 500.00 for a two night stay just for the hell of it! They have just priced normal folk out of the area! So sad.

    • Cindy J. Ray

      Agreed

    • Jed

      if only there were other hotels in austin. terrible!

  • Erica_Blair

    Will the Magdalena logo be a slaughtered golden goose? I used to love going down to SoCo but it’s getting less and less worth it as more of it becomes hotels.

  • Bethany Brandon

    We lived in the front apartment back in the day, $310 a month for the one bedroom, ABP. Our kitchen window looked out over Congress, where we monitored the nightlife, and I walked to work at the Statesman on Guadalupe — yes, Guadalupe. Wow. Where has my Austin gone?

  • Katy D.

    Fantastic interview Jordan! I would like to thank Liz Lambert for giving new life to an Austin gem. Many investors would have torn it down and built new with the real estate boom on South Congress. If you do the research on Austin hotel prices, the price is amazing! Movies aren’t $1 anymore either people! It looks great Liz and I can’t wait to try a Froze with you! Well done!