In mid-March, just as another bout of snow was bearing down on New York City, Standard Culture took off for Austin, Texas. And while the hordes were headed for the sprawling tech and music summit known as South by Southwest, Standard Culture was paying a visit to South by San Jose, the Hotel San Jose’s laid-back alternative to label showcases and corporate-sponsored stages.
SxSJ is essentially a big Texas-style block party—albeit, one where The Dodos pop in before Texas R&B legend Bobby Patterson one day, and The Zombies and Gang of Four play the next. SxSJ is also where many Austinites (and in-the-know out-of-towners) go to soak up the festival without getting swallowed whole.
Music has been key to the vision of Hotel San Jose’s founder, Liz Lambert, from the start. She bought the place in 1995 when it was little more than a flophouse across the street from the Continental Club, one of Austin’s most esteemed venues. Her idea was to convert it into a simple, no frills, “Austin-y” motel, but she ended up struggling for years to get the funding to renovate, working the front desk and making a documentary about the inhabitants along the way.
Today, Lambert's company Bunkhouse is four hotels that offer a uniquely-Texas take on what a hotel can be, from the Stones-inspired, rock-n-roll hideaway Saint Cecilia to a trailers and teepees outpost in Marfa that throws Trans-pecos, an intimate music festival in the dessert.
With the festival in full swing outside, Standard Culture sat down with Lambert in a 1978 GMC Kingsley RV (affectionately dubbed Barbara) that served as a makeshift green room for the festivities.
STANDARD CULTURE: Is it strange for you looking back now, five hotels and so many South by San Jose’s later?
LIZ LAMBERT: Something like this was a natural outgrowth from the beginning – a party in the parking lot. But I never would have imagined that I would be in the hotel business in a bigger way, or that there would be more than one, or that people would care that much. At the beginning, I was just trying to re-do an old flophouse, room by room.
SC: You were a lawyer originally. How did you end up getting into the hotel business?
LL: When I first got out of law school I went to Manhattan. I was at the DA’s office and I liked that, but I was never meant to live in New York forever. I also didn’t want to be a career DA. I just remember coming back to Austin after being in New York and I was in a pickup truck, barefoot, driving across the South Congress Bridge. It was March, snowing in Austin, and I thought, “I belong here, not there.” I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was a little naïve, or just uneducated about business in general. My first plan for the San Jose was that it was going to be $100 a night—just a little Austin-y place to stay without many amenities. So I didn’t really have a plan.
The scene as seen from behind the stage
SC: It seems like what happened with San Jose coincided with big changes in the city of Austin. Was that just a timing thing? Or was that part of what drew you back?
LL: I was in the right place at the right time. I’d been around Austin enough that I could see that things were changing and that there was an urban influence coming into downtown. Sometimes I feel like I was completely made for this town and the town was made for me. I’m a West Texan. There’s plenty of Texan in me. But there are very few places that I would live—Austin has the right mix.
SC: What was your goal for the thing you wanted to create?
LL: When I got into this business, it was at a time when boutique hotels were becoming trendy. And it seemed like they were places that really wanted to be on the front end of what was happening. And I’ve never been attracted to really trendy things. I’m way more interested in hotels that become better and better over the years. It’s layered on and it becomes more textured over time. I’m also interested in a hotel that’s reflective of the culture it’s in, that’s part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
Lambert looks on from backstage
SC: What was the experience you were setting out to create?
LL: I set out to make something that I would like, that would interest me. Hotels can be really alienating … there are so many places in the USA that you could be anywhere and the interior is going to look the same. Hotels can also really transform you - at least for the weekend or for a few days. So whether it’s Saint Cecilia that takes you out of your normal day to day, that’s sort of elevated and decadent, or a place like El Cosmico that you have to make the journey to get there, and then you’re going to stay in a tent or a teepee, hotels can change your worldview. And you can take something away from them. I find that when I travel I feel like that. My best experiences have been going somewhere that makes me look at the world in a different way. I’m more interested in that than anything.
SC: Is it surreal for you, having seen the arc of this whole thing?
LL: I’m surprised by it. I never would have planned this for myself. In hindsight, this was brilliant. It’s a great business to be in. When I was a lawyer people would come to me and they’d be unhappy usually, and they’d have a problem. And occasionally that happens in this business. But for the most part, people are traveling and generally you’re able to take care of them. And that’s a really nice thing to be able to do.