Austin, Texan Charm

In the 1940s, it was the main artery into the Texan capital’s CBD - a bustling, swanky boulevard that drew locals and tourists into its thriving shops, restaurants and bars.

But when the Mopac Expressway and Interstate 35 opened, and the city’s gas-guzzling inhabitants opted for the luxury of cruising along a six-lane highway, South Congress became something of a ghost town. Once prosperous businesses boarded their windows, and by the early 1990s, the street had descended into a cesspit of depravity.

Today, it’s back. And, like anything Texan, it’s back in a big way. This long edgy stretch has not only recaptured the hearts and minds of Austinites and travellers alike, it’s a microcosm for a much vaunted and wonderfully contemporary design scene that surely dispels the commonly held misconception that Austin is just a city of tobacco-chewing, horseriding cowboys.

New Beginnings

Now affectionately referred to as SoCo - a sure sign the strip has cemented itself as a must-visit destination - the state highway’s reascension is due in no small part to Texan hotelier and design guru Liz Lambert. In 1995, Lambert rolled the dice and bought the San José Motel with plans to tear it down and build a boutique hotel. Instead she gutted the existing shell and transformed the one-time brothel and bolthole for Austin’s down-and-outs into one of the city’s hippest retreats, the Hotel San José, which launched in 2000. Step beyond the ivy-covered, stuccoed façade and be transported to a Mexico-meets-Japan oasis. Simplicity is the name of the game here and if there’s one thing Lambert hasn’t lost from her days as a New York prosecutor, it’s attention to detail. Most of the furniture here is  handcrafted from recycled East Texas pine. Even the toilet-roll holders and bathroom hooks are custom-made. There are equal amounts of outdoor and indoor space, and on a balmy Austin evening you’ll find yourself reclining in a vintage chair by the pool sipping one of the many locally brewed beers. 

“Some of the best hotels I’ve been in take you to another place; give you a vacation from your everyday life,” Lambert says. “And so when you step inside the San José, I want you to see all the beautiful details and leave here a lot calmer than when you arrived. There’s not a lot of clutter here. Visually the hotel is very soothing.”

Opinions are divided over whether it was the rejuvenated hotel or Jo’s coffee shop next door, which opened four years later, that provided the spark for SoCo’s renaissance, but either way it was a classic case of ‘build it and they will come’.

It’s easy to see the strong sense of the area’s community from the less-than-pretentious cafe’s alfresco porch. A floor-to-ceiling noticeboard advertises everything from music gigs to the latest in animal news while a snaking queue of customers waits to order anything from potato, egg and cheese breakfast tacos to jalapeño cornbread and, of course, any caffeine combination you could wish for.

One man who has witnessed the metamorphosis up close is Bobby Johns, San José’s general manager and co-owner of Stag, a general store just up the hill selling wares for the modern gentleman including suits, belts, bottle openers, furniture, stationery and even taxidermy.

“[Liz] created a hotel that was  beautiful but then had to get people to trust that they could park their cars in the neighbourhood without being mugged,” Johns says. “It was really challenging in the first years when there was nothing here, but eventually businesses started to move back in. The amazing thing about South Congress is that it continues to grow and people still have really strong opinions about what should and shouldn’t be here, but it all just seems to fit together really nicely.”

And so it does. It’s as if the retail and hospitality gods have reached into their kit bags and scattered shops with the same gay abandon that artist Pro Hart would fling paint across a canvas. And that’s all part of its charm. The old, the new, the funky and the old-fashioned all cosily sharing the one stretch of bitumen.

Rocking and Rolling

Visitors will be spoilt for choice and want for little. Collectors of antiques, oddities and curious goods should stop by Uncommon Objects and Blackmail Boutique and Atelier. And if you don’t leave Allens Boots looking like a rolled-gold cowboy then you’re just not trying hard enough. All this shopping will surely make you hungry, so pull up a seat at Güero’s Taco Bar and tuck into some of the best Tex-Mex fare in town or sip on a margarita in the open-air bar.

If the San José is full then just around the corner is another Liz Lambert masterpiece, the Hotel Saint Cecilia, set on sprawling landscaped land and surrounded by 200-year-old oak trees. The inspiration for the hotel (named in honour of the patron saint of music and poetry) was a picture of Mick Jagger leaning against a Bentley, and you’ll find that rock ‘n’ roll touch in every corner of this design-lover’s paradise. There’s more vinyl than you can poke a turntable at in reception’s record-lending library while new-agers can plug their iPod into the Geneva sound systems in every room.

Once you’re done raiding the chocolate-peppermint-cream cookies in your room’s minibar, kick back and watch a fireplace video installation by Austin artist Adam Bork in Suite Three or tinkle the keys of the upright piano in Suite Five. No two suites are the same, right down to the handwritten welcome notes. Leave your smartphones at home to experience the pace of a different time inside the walls of this hotel. Bang out the next award-winning novel on a Remington typewriter or rent a polaroid camera and remember what it felt like to actually hold a photograph in your hand.

Grand Designs

Of course, if you have a creative scratch that needs a bit of retail itching, you won’t have to look too far. With a design store on almost every downtown corner, it’s no surprise that behind many of Austin’s doors lie jaw-dropping interiors. From the outside there’s nothing at all special about the Palazzo Lavaca residence on 1614 Lavaca Street. A plain, red-brick building originally built as one of Austin’s first fire stations, it was later bought by the Steiner family and, under the banner of Capitol Saddlery, produced saddles and boots for Sears and Roebuck.

Step inside today and there is nothing remotely Western about it. Dripping with crystal chandeliers, luxurious fabrics and ancient hardwood floors, this two-storey home, with its five-and-a-half-metre-high coffered ceilings, more than belies its inconspicuous façade.

Owner Giselle Koy enlisted the expertise of local designer Joel Mozersky, whose roll call includes Japanese farmhouse dining and sushi restaurant Uchiko; lighting, homewares and textiles store Finch; and the fit-out of the Dixie Chicks’s tour buses. Together, Koy and Mozersky scoured shops both at home and abroad to construct a space that draws its inspiration from Palazzo Fortuny in Venice.

“The theme that we went for was glamour among the ruins,” explains Koy. “So, it has the beautiful classic elements and some really raw edges to it. It’s not too highbrow and, besides, you can’t do a new Italian palazzo; it’s got to have that lived-in feeling.”

Further north on East 43rd Street, a teepee in the backyard of the home Bobby Johns shares with partner Steve Shuck is just the tip of a design iceberg that takes formality and strips it away with stunning results. “There is no real design philosophy to our home; we just buy things that we like or love, or take things that we’ve had forever and just sort of smash them together,” Shuck says.

The couple’s shop of choice is Mercury Design Studio, a store that not only carries an interesting array of vintage furniture and accessories, but one whose owners believe that you don’t live a ‘lifestyle’, but live a life with great style. It’s a philosophy that’s as much a great fit for Austin itself as it is for its residents.

“Austin is the place you want to escape to if you’re in any way creative. It’s always attracted the artistic set: hippies, liberals and artistic people,” explains Lambert. “Other cities in Texas are better known for their fine arts whereas Austin’s just a [mixed] creative community; it’s a little rough around the edges, but a lot more fun.”

Words by Darren Lunny - Published in Voyeur August 2012
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 1.2 million
Time Zone CMT -6
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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