How Austin’s Coolest Avenue Grew Up

Texas hotelier Liz Lambert recalls how South Congress went from seedy to stylish, and reveals her favorite spots.

How Austin's Coolest Avenue Grew Up

Allens Boots

Photo by Matthew Johnson

South Congress started out as a grand avenue. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the main road between Austin and San Antonio, and the surrounding area was filled with huge live oak trees, which are still standing today. But in the ’40s, a new highway started directing traffic away from the area, and by the time I moved to Austin from West Texas in the mid-’80s it was basically abandoned.”

“In 1995, when I moved to Travis Heights, a residential area nearby, South Congress was a red-light district. There were prostitutes, junkies, a handful of insurance agencies, and maybe a sandwich shop. One place that continued to thrive, however, was the Continental Club, a legendary music venue that opened in 1957. It’s the reason I bought a sweet little motor court directly across the street and reopened it as the Hotel San Jose. I knew that if I fixed it up, visiting musicians would want to stay there.

“Things in the area had begun to look up when the San Jose opened in 2000. Exciting new businesses were coming in, such as the vintage shop Uncommon Objects, and I opened Jo’s Coffee nearby just in advance of the hotel.

“A few years later, South Congress had transformed into a coveted shopping and cultural district. We were always full at the San Jose and needed more rooms, so we took over an old Victorian building that was being run as a B&B and turned it into the St. Cecilia in 2008.

“One of the dangers of this kind of growth, of course, is that you start to price great local shops out of the neighborhood. But for whatever reason, South Congress still feels homegrown and funky, thanks to its bookshops, boutiques, record stores, coffee joints, and music venues. In fact, during South by Southwest and other major festivals, businesses on South Congress set up music shows so that locals have a chance to hear superb live music instead of being mad at the festival for taking over the city. At the San Jose we hold free concerts in our parking lot. I’ll never forget the show Alabama Shakes put on one year.

“The demand for hotel rooms in South Congress keeps growing. We recently started work on another building that we’ll transform into the Magdalena in 2017. We’ve named our other South Congress hotels after saints, and Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of fallen women, which seemed appropriate for the history of the neighborhood. With 89 rooms, it will have a restaurant and bar, a pool, and a spa, all of which will be available to guests from our other properties, too.

Outside of my projects in Austin, I’m excited to work in other parts of the country. My wife, Erin Lee Smith, and I have places in Los Angeles and Marfa, Texas. But since I moved to South Congress in ’95, no matter where I travel, this is, and will always be, home.”

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of Afar.
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