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Love’s eternal reign at Austin Motel

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How a landmark business remodeled with homage and history in mind

Courtesy of Bunkhouse (all photos)

Anyone who has until this point been unfamiliar with the (okay, fine, iconic) sign outside the Austin Motel on South Congress, please be advised: We know what its shape evokes. No need to fill us in.

It could be argued that the shape of the sign is a large part of what has made the hotel also okay-fine-iconic; there are no doubt thousands and thousands of tourist photos of it in forms ranging from Kodak Instamatic snapshots (if not ones using even older technology) to heavily filtered and tagged Instagram selfies.

Open continuously since 1938, the motel was owned and operated by the Dean family from 1993 until its recent sale. That means it managed to stick around when the now unmentionably popular South Congress strip was a magnet and a way station primarily for drug dealers and users, prostitutes and customers (as well as some eternal music joints, such as the Continental Club), and those who were generally adventurous, down on their luck, or both.

Austin Motel Tourist Court c. 1930s
Austin Motel, 2017

While it might have been designed as a bold, futurist statement, it was during those years that the sign was probably the most on-the-nose in the sense that it connected with what was happening on the street.

Through ups and downs, Austin Motel remained popular enough to stay in business and to see the revival of those few South Congress blocks, kicked off by then attorney Liz Lambert’s conversion of the nearby Hotel San José, at the time a sort of Texas SRO, occupied largely by people who would otherwise have been homeless.

In the late 1990s, the daughter of the longtime owners, Dottye Dean, stepped in to rescue the place from impending decay, and in the process created a wholly unique decor that The Austin Chronicle described as a “labor of love,” including rooms “with motifs ranging from the tropics to the mountains, Italy to the Far East, and Monet to Mancini.” Those included the "Americana Room," “featuring the original wild bicentennial-era red, white, and blue wallpaper.” Note also that nightly rates ran from $49.50 to $107 per night, and that was after the renovation.

Austin Motel room, c. 1990s/2000s
Austin Motel room, 2017

As South Congress boomed around it, Austin Motel moved into a phase of being celebrated for not only its still-reasonable prices but its inimitable décor, which telegraphed an early-aughts, post-ironic knowingness and localized savoir-faire.

Austin Motel room, c. 1990s/2000s
Austin Motel room, 2017

Still, as some Beatle wrote, all things must pass. In May 2016, the longtime owners sold the property to move on to a much-deserved retirement. Luckily, the hotel was purchased by Greenfield Partners, which had previously purchased Lambert’s Hotel San José and chose her hospitality group, Bunkhouse, to manage the property, with Lambert herself overseeing the renovations.

The remodeled space, which opened officially during SXSW 2017, took the hotel’s longtime iconography and prior reputation and ran with it. While the slogan posted on the marquee had been “So Close, Yet So Far Out,” it became the even cheekier “Let Love In.”

That seems to be a theme for the new renovations. Exterior changes included opening up more social spaces by turning a formerly closed-in area between one-story rooms and suites into courtyard and creating a poolside bar.

In addition, designers worked with international firm Voutsa to create new wallpaper that would suit the updates while referencing the earlier wall decor, which, according to a Bunkhouse representative, the previous owners would touch up with paint until the surfaces became unworkable and had to be painted over completely.

Austin Motel, circa 1990s/2000s
Austin motel wallpaper, 2017

To suit various price ranges and party sizes, the motel has a row of quite large suites as well as small, economy-sized rooms. New desks, beds, daybeds, and sectionals were custom fabricated in Austin, while dining tables, chairs, and stools were made by a group in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The motel lobby has become a bright, colorful place that doubles as a gift shop with a highly local focus and rotating offerings according to seasons and events. In place of your standard hotel-lobby vending machines, it has a small selection of high-quality, also largely local food and drink options (including beer and wine, since there is not yet a bar), where you can grab a Topo and some snacks before you head out to the pool.

Next door, where the Snack Bar restaurant used to be, is the still-in-the-works Fine Foods diner and Jo’s Burger Box, where patrons and public can order from a basic but tasty burger-fry-ring menu and eat on its outdoor benches or adjacent hotel patio.

Holiday in Town [AC]