The Iconic Austin Motel Reopens With a Refreshing New Look

Texas hotel tycoon Liz Lambert has taken on ownership of the South Congress landmark. 

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time when one of Austin’s most-instagrammed sites Jo’s Coffee, a site of classic Austin to so many, was the new kid on the block. It was 1995 when then-lawyer Liz Lambert had just come back home to Texas and decided to buy the then-seedy hotel now known as the Hotel San Jose and start Jo’s soon after. Now Lambert’s contributions to South Congress Street are intrinsically linked with Austin’s cityscape. But one icon of Austin’s past, pre-Lambert, pre-Franklin BBQ, pre-Continental Club, pre-SXSW still stood next door, The Austin Motel, built in 1938.

Like the “I believe in Nashville” mural in 12 South or the fountain in Savannah’s Forsyth Park, the Austin Motel’s old-fashioned neon sign that hung over the sidewalk had become something of a civic mascot. So much so that when Lambert and her property group Bunkhouse (which also owns Hotel Saint Cecilia, Hotel Havana, and El Comsico) recently took over ownership of the motel she made sure one of the first things they did was assure locals and visitors that the sign would stay.

Run by the same family for decades, the Austin Motel will still have the same charm and character its longtime staff and fans have come to love about it, but Lambert and her team have given the 41-room property a facelift that steers more into the realm of pop art and ‘50s nostalgia than her Western-chic, haute-desert aesthetic at other locations like San Antonio’s Hotel Havana or Marfa’s El Cosmico.

In the rooms, you’ll find colorful vinyl-tufted beds reminiscent of the iconic sign, long wall-mounted golden wood desks with burgundy laminate, wall willy robe hooks by Eric Trine, classic push-button phones and vintage silkscreened music posters. At the center of the property: the famous kidney-shaped pool and lounge area with midcentury chairs, tables and lounges set under classic red & white umbrellas.

“In terms of the scope of the overall renovation, we wanted to honor the spirit of the motel as it has evolved over time but give it a breath of fresh air and tidy it up a bit,” says Lambert. “It had accumulated things over the years, and a lot of the renovation was subtraction and cleanup. Previously every room’s walls and bedspreads were different, so we lightened things up with white linens and walls, standardized the bedding, added some cool art, built a little market in the lobby, added a bar at the pool. We removed a paved section and added decomposed granite so it was more of a hangout area than a parking lot. Not major changes so much as enhancements."

Rooms are still available this weekend for the last weekend of music at the annual SXSW conference or if you need pool-side escape from this freak winter weather.

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