Liz Lambert is an improbable success story in the world of hospitality design. Originally a New York trial lawyer, Liz returned to her Texas roots to open a succession of hotels and other properties that have captured the quirky character of Austin. From a wonderful moment of serendipity through years of perseverance launching her now-famous Hotel San José, Hotel Saint Cecilia, and Jo’s Coffee and Jo’s Downtown, she has woven soul, meaning and pleasure into each unique property. Now ready to launch her El Cosmico creative campground in Marfa and the revamped The Havana hotel on San Antonio’s River Walk, Liz continues to deliver a rock-and-roll sensibility and ‘mañanifesto’ vibe.
What I love about your story is your willingness to switch gears radically in your career and also delve into work with multiple facets, especially since conventional wisdom dictates otherwise. Was there a particular catalyst that made you leave your work as a trial lawyer in New York and buy your first hotel property in Austin?
Well, there was a moment between those where I moved back to Texas from New York and I took a job at the attorney general’s office here in Austin, so I practiced law for a little bit longer when I got back to Texas.
I would say there were a few things that contributed to the jumping-off point. When we moved back to Austin, I moved a house onto a property — relocated an old house — and sort of redid it from the ground up. I did all the design on it, and I really, really loved doing the work on rehabbing an old house. So that was one thing. The other thing was I had a really good friend who died of AIDS-related causes at the time, and I think it was sort of a wake-up call for ‘what do you really want to do with your life?’ or every day being meaningful to a certain degree. And, you know, being a trial lawyer can be a bit of a hamster wheel. So I was looking for something that integrated meaning or pleasure into my everyday existence, rather than working all day and then trying to snatch those few hours to do those things I enjoy.
I spotted the Hotel San José from a bar stool across the street. I had moved into the neighborhood, and South Congress was one of those parts of town, right off of downtown like in a lot of cities that when the freeways come in, there is an old main avenue or artery that sort of becomes ignored and falls into disrepair. So South Congress, where the Hotel San José is, was like that. And as urban infill starts to happen and it becomes revitalized, at first rents are cheap. I think it happens over and over in downtowns, as people are starting to take back the urban core. So South Congress at that time was sort of that place. There was one bar directly across from the San José, The Continental Club, which has been open since 1957 and never shut its doors. But other than that, all the other businesses on South Congress had either shuttered or changed. The San José, for example, had become a $30 a night place — full of junkies, hookers, and folks who just got their disability check and needed a shower. And you never knew how crowded the San José was, because the people who stayed there didn’t have cars or luggage or wouldn’t come out during the day. So sitting at the bar at the Continental Club, I would look over at the San José a lot and think how fantastic it would be to have sort of a vital hotel that reflected Austin’s quirkiness and kind of bohemianess right across from this legendary music club.
So finally one day I went over and knocked on the door, and there was this Taiwanese couple that had been there for about 15 years. And they did everything, they were the whole staff. Except for there was this one guy named Mr. Wu who was like a few years older than God — and, I swear to god, close to blind — and he cleaned the rooms. So I asked them if they would ever be interested in selling the place. And it was complete serendipity that they said they were thinking they were going to put it up for sale in the Chinese newspaper the next week. And I said, ‘Don’t do that. Let me get a realtor in.’ So one thing led to another, and it happened pretty quickly. I qualified for some liens that were on the place, and suddenly I had the keys. I mean, we didn’t even shut down a night.
Over the years, I’ve thought of all the things I didn’t know about the hotel business — I don’t think it had even occurred to me to get somebody as a housekeeper! So it was certainly trial-by-fire.
Let’s go back to the early days of the Hotel San José. I understand you had to be patient for a few years before you had the financial means of renovating this hotel. Did your vision for the place remain constant, or did it actually evolve as you operated it?
I had a vision, but it definitely evolved as I operated it. First, I continued working as a lawyer for the first year, thinking that I somehow was going to buy it and redo it room by room and never have to close it. And I learned some pretty hard lessons pretty quick. One is that it was relatively full and cash-flowing at the time, but if I was going to upgrade it from a $30 a night hotel to, say, a $65 or $70 dollar a night hotel, I didn’t have a market. Those people didn’t know about it — they’re usually the kind of people staying in Super 8′s on the freeway — and how am I going to entice somebody to come, have this great experience at a hotel and have redone one room, and then there’s a guy selling crack next door? I learned pretty quickly that I was going to have to shut the whole thing down. I also tried to put in some nicer sheets and things like that, and they were ripped off, bled on, burned, you name it. I mean, it was sort of a last stop for a lot of people living in a motel like that. You know, they’d been kicked out of their house or something was going on. So it was not a completely respectful environment, and I learned it was going to be really hard to redo it room by room by room.
But I worked the desk there for about 2 or 3 years, and as I did that, the ideas I had for the property evolved a lot. And one was that, studying the financial model, it had 24 rooms to begin with, and I realized that if I built more rooms, even though it would initially be more to bite off, we were going to do better over the years and it would perform a lot better. And also, adding more rooms, it just makes it denser and more interesting too, I think. So we added on 16 more rooms.
It was interesting at the time not to really know what I doing, but at the time we ended up designing and making all of our own furniture and using reclaimed lumber for it. We did all of the steel and metal work. So much on that project was custom, because at the time there wasn’t a lot available. If you wanted hotel furniture that was different at all, you really had to go down the custom road. I think a lot more things are available now and it’s kind of a different climate we’re in.
Was there any experience or interest in your years growing up that was sort of a prelude to the work you do now?
I had 3 brothers, 2 that were really creative. And one of them, my brother Lyndon who died right before I opened the San José, was a lot of inspiration for me. He started a business in San Francisco called George that does a really well-designed line of dog-related products. He worked for ICF (International Contract Furnishings), and had done a lot of interior and design work. And I lived with him on and off over the years, and I realize looking back that he was a big influence on me just kind of being aware of good design and my surroundings. He always said that people should be the color in a room. And I think that’s true. If you create something that’s calm enough, whether it’s through massing or color or just simplicity of lines and pureness of form, it gives people the opportunity to be the color in the room.
The eclectic nature of your designs across your various properties seems like the perfect indulgence for a creative mind. What’s the starting point for each new project — the vision for what you’d like to create or is it a business opportunity that then calls for you to create the vision?
My girlfriend would say it’s like a t-shirt. Like I create the logo first and then we get to all of the rest of the details — you know, like whether it’s viable at all! You know, it happens different ways, but it really is about getting a sense of the place and kind of telling a story.
Like at the Saint Cecilia, it was this old Victorian in a residential neighborhood in Austin, and there was something a little bit decadent — maybe not decadent — the shine was off of it, but it had been really beautiful at one point. And there was something that felt really sort of rock-and-roll to me about it. It had been a bed-and-breakfast for years, and I was really reacting against the bed-and-breakfast thing. What do you do with a building besides taking up the doilies? So I don’t know why I was struck with this image of Mick Jagger in the driveway in kind of like a Bentley, like a Beggars Banquet sort of period of time or Exile on Main St. And for some reason, it kind of summoned that kind of thing up for me. And once I had that image, it was really easy to go from there.
Let’s talk about the soul and sort of counter-culture vibe that are central to the personality of your properties — for instance, Hotel Saint Cecilia being named for the patron saint of music and poetry, and the laid-back ‘Mañanifesto’ of your new El Cosmico property in Marfa. You seem to have an intuitive sense of what people are longing for in our culture.
That may just be based on how I fill myself, probably. You know, it kind of goes back to why I got involved in this business in the first place — it was about meaning. On a few different levels — one, I think that I am really trying to create something that means something not only to the people that visit it but to the people who work there and is sort of enriching in one way or another. And I think that it also works on a level that it’s not going to just disappear tomorrow. The more layers you put on it, the more experience that it’s infused with, then the richer it becomes. And I think that’s sort of a reaction to a lot of boutique hotels that feel like they’re designed for, you know, like a disco or completely for the moment — like what’s hot or what’s trendy. And you know that they’re going to have to do a complete upheaval in the next few years! I’ve never had a desire to create anything like that. I think the place should just become better over time — and not just the experiences people have there but just the layers of paint and conversations and events and somebody who strums the guitar in the courtyard. You want it to be an inspiring place.
What sources of inspiration do you love to tap into?
That’s a good question. I was just looking yesterday at the blog A Continuous Lean, and he had a list of American companies, folks that produce stuff here in this country. I saw a lot of things with really great craftsmanship and things that were of a region. You know, whether it was leather goods in El Paso or sail canvas in Maine, it’s really nice to see people that are still paying attention to the craft. One nice thing about the internet and all these style and design blogs is that you can really look around see what’s out there. And, as so many things are disappearing and going out of business, because of the internet you get better access to the ones that are out there.
I have a friend, Nina Garduno, who has a store in Malibu called Free City Supershop, and a lot of times I’m inspired by Nina. She used to be the men’s buyer at Fred Segal, and she hasn’t been for, I guess, the last year and a half, but she started a vintage department there too. But the process that she goes through to make some of the clothes she makes with water-based inks and running 17 different colors through the screen to make one image — I think a lot of the things she does are really inspiring. She’s been a stylemaker and trendsetter for the fashion world for years and years, and a lot of things really start on a small scale with her — and then the Gap picks it up. But if you go into her shop in Malibu, you can see, from music to beaded stuff to scents that she has made, she does a really amazing job.
I think anyone who lives in or has visited Austin would agree that you have managed to beautifully capture that quirky and colorful personality of this town through what you have created. Does the evolving character of Austin and Texas impact how you approach your projects, or are you really just thinking ‘what would I like?’
I think I’m thinking ‘what would I like?’ You know, we’ve looked at so many different hotel projects, and I’ve gone down the road of exploring or starting to develop something, and then something will happen. So I’ve looked at a lot more projects than we’ve actually produced. I think being really aware of your context or of what’s going on around you in the community and the environment around you is really important. So, of course, whatever’s going on in Austin will affect the project, the hotel, whatever it is. But I think if you’re asking do we try to give the people what they want or what I think they might like to experience, I think it’s probably the latter. So it’s probably a little bit of both.
For instance — and this is just a very small for-instance — in the bar in the San José, we’ve always tried to curate our wine list as something we think is interesting and that people might not get at other places. And at one point a couple of years ago, a bar manager snuck a chardonnay onto the list because so many people had been asking for it, and I got it off the list pretty quickly. I mean, the point being that if they like chardonnay, they might like to try these other things, and you don’t just respond by giving them exactly what they’re asking for.
The holistic and sometimes humorous way you connect with all the senses — incorporating music, food, gardens, all the visuals — is incredibly appealing. Is this all coming from your own imagination, or do you have a team you work with?
I think we have a good team of people now, and I’m certainly very involved, but it took us a long time to find somebody to do the website that we wanted. It’s a company in Austin called Coloring Book, and they really listened and they got what we were looking for. And then I have somebody that does graphics. It’s definitely that the more established we’ve become, the more really good creative folks we have around to turn to or collaborate with. The landscaper that I’m working with, Mark Word, that is working with me on El Cosmico and who did the Saint Cecilia, is somebody I started working with within a year of the San José.
Where are you with El Cosmico and what was the inspiration for it?
As of November 1, we will have a general manager for the first time and be open for business. We’ll be open within a couple of weeks of that, which is a big step for us. It has been a labor of love, for sure. When I first conceived of it and tried to figure out how to afford to put sort of this different lodging experience in the desert — which is vintage trailers and yurts and camping spots and now a teepee — the original idea to finance it was to sell trailers as sort of condos and then take that money to develop the rest of the property. And I figured out after a few months of going down that road that I really wanted to be in control of the whole process, and I didn’t want to create a condo regime in far west Texas. And basically we were going to have absentee condo owners, and there were a whole lot of reasons why it wouldn’t work. So instead it’s just sort of been a slow development when I have money and when we have workers out there. And I think we’re finally at the point where we’re ready to open.
It hasn’t fulfilled my full vision of it yet — and it has in some ways. But eventually we’ll have a swimming pool at the center of the property and we’ll have a nice bathhouse. And then I think for years we’ll layer on different sorts of things, whether it be a printmaking studio or a big garden, or who knows what will happen next? But we’re finally going to be open for business.
We do an annual festival, which is a blast — this was about 2 weeks ago. We had Heartless Bastards and Ben Kweller and Amy Cook and Tift Merritt, and about 200 people come camp, and it’s a really great weekend. It happens every October.
I realized what I wanted to do in Marfa, which is kind of a second home for me, was something that was really different. I was trying to figure out a way to be successful in Marfa at running a business — it’s a challenge because the place is either packed full of folks and a lot of people descend on the town, or everybody disappears and the sidewalks roll up. And so I was trying to find a business that can expand and contract in response to that. And a campground is a perfect opportunity to have 200 people, or 500 people if you want, camping — or we can contract to where it’s just 5 trailers.
So that’s the business side of it. But the heart and soul of it is to have a place in the desert where you can actually see the stars, and you can be around a campfire, and you can have all of those experiences that drive the reason you go out to far west Texas to the high desert in the first place. So something that will develop over the years. Again, Marfa is a place that has a super-creative element and is a really cool place where that can be expressed. And people can get excited by collaborations and different ideas.
What started out with the simple Jo’s Coffee you’ve now extended into Jo’s Downtown with full meal service and live music. How natural has this extension into the restaurant world been for you?
Truthfully, I don’t like restaurants! The little Jo’s on South Congress was sort of a natural because it’s kind of part of the San José and is a small little box that you’re serving coffee out of. And Jo’s has become a lot about community for a lot of people in the neighborhood. It’s a place where people meet, and we do a lot of events there because we have a huge parking lot outside. If you ever come here for SXSW, Jo’s does like 10 bands a day for 4 days in a row.
The Jo’s Downtown was an experiment to see if we could translate that to a whole different community, and I made a few missteps in that calculation. One is that it’s a restaurant more than it is just a coffee shop, it’s a lot bigger, and it serves a wide variety of food — more than just pastries and sandwiches all day long. It’s also in a long box, it’s in a big building — not anything free standing.
All that said, I love downtown Jo’s, and I’m proud of it and I’m really happy that I did it. But it is a whole different animal. One is 500 square feet and the other is about 3000 square feet, which makes a big difference as far as operations go. I’ve learned that I don’t really like the restaurant business — it just takes a really special person. My brother is a chef and has restaurants — Lambert’s here in Austin and in Fort Worth – and he really gets it. It’s just harder for me.
Your Bunkhouse Management company takes your energy and capacity well beyond your own projects in service of the ideas and businesses of your clients. What led to this branch of your operations?
I had people calling me all the time asking me if I wanted to do this project or that project, and I realized fairly early on that I didn’t have the bandwidth or skill set to be able to do it all. So I have a partnership with Bill Gernstein, who is the CFO of the company, and with Greg Marchbancks, who is the CEO, and those guys are really talented at what they do and it helps free me up to be the creative person. So it was just a matter of figuring out a way to grow and build a solid company.
What’s next on the horizon for you, and what do you love most about your work?
Next on the horizon is we are about to start a renovation, kind of a revamp, of a hotel in San Antonio that we’re buying called The Havana, and I’m really excited about that. And we should be back up and open by March or April of 2010. It’s on the River Walk in San Antonio.
And what do I love about my work? I really love all the creative people I work with, and I love people coming to my properties and really being happy. I like people’s response to the properties.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?
I love to travel. I really like to go see movies. I like good coffee, good wine. I really love the time I spend in Marfa — my girlfriend and I have a place on one of my family’s ranches, and I really love the time that I spend there because it’s so different than being at work or really busy. It’s a place where everything just kind of slows down. And I like good music!
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