How Liz Lambert Became the Hippest Hotelier in Texas
First Liz Lambert took over a seedy motel in Austin. Now she oversees some of the state’s coolest hotels—with even grander plans to come.
Set back in an ivy-draped courtyard holding a 50-foot heated lap pool at the Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin’s South Congress neighborhood is a large neon light sign proclaiming, in bright red letters with a streak of blue down the middle: SOUL.
This word captures the upscale cool-kid vibe of the property that is at once luxurious and laid back, with meandering green lawns and rooms designed with an early 1970s Rolling Stones vibe.
But it also encapsulates the wider ethos of owner Liz Lambert and her somewhat surprising career as one of Texas’s hippest hoteliers.
Lambert is the mastermind and creative force behind the Austin-based Bunkhouse Group, which includes two boutique hotels in Austin, one in San Antonio, and a “nomadic hotel and campground” in the artist mecca Marfa, where mod travelers are flocking to stay in her retro-fitted trailers, teepees, and yurts.
While most of her work has been Tex-centric (minus a property in the works in Todos Santos, Mexico, which recently got a shout-out in The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2016”), Lambert’s company is poised for a breakout.
In July, the Bunkhouse Group received a huge boost—not to mention an international vote of confidence—when André Balazs’s Standard Hotels acquired a 51 percent stake in the company.
Well before “experiential travel” and “authenticity” became 2015’s most tired buzzwords, Lambert was creating fresh and exciting spaces that embraced their local communities to benefit both guests and the neighborhoods surrounding them.
“I never, ever would have imagined it would become what it is today or that I would be in the hotel business in a bigger way,” Lambert tells The Daily Beast, remembering the early days after she acquired her first hotel on a bit of a whim. “I just really thought I was going to re-do that place room by room and it would be a nice thing.”
After earning a law degree from the University of Texas, Lambert spent three years working for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office before returning to her home state to take a gig with the attorney general in Austin in the mid-’90s.
Lambert says she knew she wanted to do something different, but she wasn’t quite sure what that was.
In a moment that she calls “serendipitous,”she was hanging out at the famed Austin music hall, the Continental Club, on South Congress Street one night when she noticed the rundown San Jose Motel across the street.
“I don’t know why I knocked on the door, really, except it was intriguing to me,” Lambert says. “I love South Congress and I love the whole area, and I thought it would be part of Austin, it was inexpensive, and it would be easy to go in and re-do room by room.”
She may have purchased the property thinking it would be a “fun project,” but things didn’t go quite as planned.
For starters, her vision of creating a boutique hotel on South Congress, a “really dicey” area at the time, was hard to imagine, particularly for the banks. Lambert quickly discovered that the suits holding the purse strings weren’t eager to lend money to someone with zero business experience.
So, instead, she found herself running the $30-per-night ($38 for a double) rundown motel just as she bought it, complete with the regular clientele of junkies, hookers, and people down on their luck.
“It was really full, at the time, but you didn’t know it because nobody had luggage or cars or really came out during the day or anything,” Lambert laughs.
After about a year of this, she realized that running a hotel was a lot more work than she had originally thought, and she quit her day job to dedicate herself to the hospitality business full time.
For the next two to three years, Lambert rented out rooms to the down and out, cleaned up syringes and crack pipes from busted up rooms, dealt with a failing AC unit during Texas’s over 100-degree summer days, and handled the residue that comes with debauched nights and hard living—cops, drug paraphernalia, and all.
After encouragement from a few friends, she decided to record the experience. The result is a heartfelt documentary called The Last Days of the San Jose.
Despite second-guessing her new career path “so many times,” Lambert seemed to embrace the experience of running the motel and became like family with many of the regular tenants.
There was Gerry Van King, a street musician who wore a large gold crown à la Flava Flav’s oversized clock and styled himself the King of Sixth Street. There was Diana Barnes and her 16-year-old son, Gary, who were always trying to find a way out of the motel. (When Barnes finally got an apartment, Lambert helped her move in to her new place.)
There were the punk kids in the middle of a rough break-up; the motel’s handyman who was in and out of jail due to addiction; the 18-year-old who lived with his neglectful father and worked as the motel’s housekeeper to help squirrel money away for college; the mysterious tenant who was the motel’s longest running guest, but who answered to at least two different names; and various other characters down on their luck or engaged in more nefarious activities.
“It’s like a little mini rundown Melrose Place…Everybody that does bad thing’s goes here. It’s not one of the most elite hotels in Austin,” a young woman with short blond hair says to the camera, laughing a little.
When Lambert finally gets the call that she’s been granted a loan, she’s overjoyed. As are the tenants, who seem genuinely excited for her, even though this means they have to move out so the renovations can start.
“There were people that came and went, but there were people that lived there, and they became a community,” Lambert remembers. “And so it was not easy to kick everybody out. But, at the same time, what was funny was, they were all for me making the place a better place.”
When the property reopened in 1998, it was transformed.
The Hotel San Jose is a little retreat off of the now bustling South Congress Street. Redecorated with a Texas-meets-Tokyo aesthetic, the motel was transformed into a space with chicly minimalist rooms and oasis-like outdoor spaces (think lots of green ivy, cacti, and more than a few sitting nooks).
The rooms feature concrete floors, low slung beds with patterned “hippie blankets,” Mexican and cow hide rugs, and colorful kimono robes.
While the trendy hotel has come a long way from its dodgy past, Lambert has included nods to its roots. The walls are dotted with music posters for artists like B.B. King, Bobby Womack, and even one for former tenant Gerry Van King’s The Cause of It All album.
And Lambert maintains three lower-priced rooms (that share a separate bathroom) for people passing through, like musicians, who can’t necessarily afford the current, pricey cost of a stay at the hotel. (For a random weekend in January 2016, rooms range from $279 per night for a standard to just over $400 for a courtyard suite; the “shared baths” rooms are kept at around $140.)
The new and improved Hotel San Jose was a big success. But how did Lambert go from running one boutique hotel to forming a multi-propertied hotel group?
“I realized that I really liked to design. I liked the programming. I liked the actual process of creating a hotel, and I didn’t necessarily want to be the person at the front desk,” Lambert says.
In 2006, she partnered with Greg Marchbanks and Bill Gernstein to form the Bunkhouse Group. They became CEO and CFO respectively, and freed her up to focus on the creative side of the business.
Lambert drives the design process of all of the Bunkhouse Group properties, and her philosophy is closely tied to place, like one of her favorite architecture writers, Christopher Alexander.
You can see this in the traces of the old South Congress street at the Hotel San Jose. It can be seen in the artistic, desert-chic digs of El Cosmico in Marfa and, soon, in a new hotel being built in Austin, the Magdalena, which takes its design inspiration from the old Austin lake-house vibe.
When Lambert embarks on a new hotel project, she comes up with the story of the place, and then goes about pulling together aspects of the design that encompass all of the senses. She works with a music designer to create a soundtrack for each hotel and chooses a scent and a color that embody the property’s personality.
Take the Hotel Saint Cecilia. The hotel’s playlist (which, don’t fear, is not the only thing streamed on the premise—just the inspiration) includes a selection of new and old music that recalls the rock ’n’ roll, psychedelic, and folk tunes of 1965 through 1981.
Think Syd Barrett, Brigitte Bardot, Courtney Barnett, and Yo La Tengo.
Music is so important to Lambert (she considers it “a defining part of our lives and it influences us in every twist and turn”) and the communities that surround her hotels that she even hosts music festivals at two of the properties—South by San Jose at the Hotel San Jose (a free five-day extravaganza that occurs at the same time as Austin’s annual SxSW festival) and the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music+Love at El Cosmico.
This special Bunkhouse sauce of distinct and innovative design combined with hotel “happenings” (others include pop-up cocktail events for guests and community-focused events like chili cook-offs, and dog parades, many of which benefit local charities) will only be bolstered as the Bunkhouse Group jumps into bed—pun intended—with the Standard Hotels.
With the support and expertise of a larger hotel group, especially in things like new technology, Lambert says they will have “new opportunities to expand in a couple of ways that we’re just now exploring.”
Lambert says they will continue to work within the framework of what they do best: “projects, hotels that are in interesting places that have a lot of culture that makes sense for us to kind of nestle into, whether it’s New Orleans or Nashville or Memphis or Portland.”
“The hotels that I feel are most kind of whole and natural and beautiful have a sense of self and a sense of place. It doesn’t get re-done every seven years or re-fit. They are just part of a neighborhood and a community and they have a self-assuredness and just get better over time,” Lambert says.
“It seemed like, instead of trying to really design something, if you listen to the place and make something as part of a place, it becomes easier…at least it does for me.”