Southwestern, Roadside Americana, Contemporary


The Hotel San José is a stylish bungalow-style hotel located in the heart of the South Congress district. Originally built in 1936 as a Spanish-colonial style motor court motel, the San José was extensively remodeled in the late 1990’s. Tucked behind ivied stucco walls and set amidst a lush garden courtyard, the hotel acts a hub of both tourist and local activity. When the renovated hotel reopened at the turn of the century, it kickstarted the revitalization of South Congress Avenue and helped define a distinctly Texas Bohemian minimalist style that has been associated with contemporary Austin aesthetics ever since.


For most of Austin’s early history, South Congress Avenue was the main southern highway out of town—connecting travelers to San Antonio and beyond. As automobile ownership exploded in the early 20th century, many low-slung motor court accommodations sprang up along South Congress and created a thriving tourist hub just south of downtown Austin. One of these new motor courts was the Hotel San José, built in 1936. The Hotel San José was built here in 1936 as an elegant Spanish Colonial style complex with detached rooms centered around a hacienda-style lobby. Postcards of the time boast of “ultra-modern” features like “air-cooled rooms, private telephones and Venetian blinds.” But when Interstate 35 was constructed in the 1960’s, South Congress Avenue lost its lifeline of travelers—the district declined, fell into disrepair, and by the early 1990’s the Hotel San José was a seedy, low-rent apartment complex notorious for drugs and prostitution.

In 1994, Liz Lambert, a lawyer from West Texas, recognized a diamond in the rough and purchased the rundown property.  Lambert worked with Lake Flato Architects and landscape designer Mark Word to thoroughly renovate the hotel. During the remodel, the rooms in the older buildings were restructured and a new wing added in the former parking lot to create a central courtyard.  Many architectural vestiges of the old Spanish Colonial motor court remain – red clay tile roofs, arches, stucco walls, open porches, and a whimsical, blinking red neon sign were all incorporated into the new design to help retain a sense of the original place.  Artful landscaping unifies the new and old elements; crushed granite paths with wood arbors tie the buildings together, and the climbing fig ivy covering the stucco walls blurs the lines between architecture and landscape.

The guest rooms and lobby were redesigned in a strikingly sparse Tex-Mex-meets-Japan style. Polished concrete floors, austere white walls and clean-lined blonde wood furniture against a muted olive-green color palette contrast with vivid vintage concert posters, richly colored rugs and brightly patterned blankets.  The elements work together to create an environment that feels layered yet minimal.  When the hotel first opened, this stripped-back style felt revolutionary: it was completely at odds with prevailing hotel interior design. Today, this aesthetic is closely associated with modern Austin and endlessly imitated.

The renovated San José’s opening in 2000 earned international acclaim for its eclectic design, attracting a new kind of savvy tourist seeking authenticity and style. This heralded—and likely facilitated—a turnaround in the essential character of South Congress Avenue and the Travis Heights neighborhood. All traces of seediness have long since vanished and the district is now known for its high-end boutique shopping, dining, nightlife, and live music.

Today, the San José is a thriving tourist destination and an important part of Austin’s cultural identity. The courtyard bar is nearly always packed with visitors soaking up the ambiance, but it’s the interaction with the local community that really sets the San José apart. On any given week, the hotel hosts live music, pop-up art markets, comedy shows, yoga classes, benefit events, and an array of other activities that engage creative Austinites and give travelers a taste of the local culture.

With regular courtyard concerts and a popular South by Southwest event hosted annually in the parking lot, Hotel San José has become synonymous with Austin’s music scene.  It has become an Austin institution and a prototype for a modern, Texas Bohemian hotel. – Sadi Brewton, AIA

Photo Credits:

Casey Dunn