Liz Lambert, SoCo’s hotel queen, takes over iconic Austin Motel

4:43 p.m Monday, May 16, 2016 Business

Austin hotelier Liz Lambert, whose touch turns older properties into boutique gold, is about to leave her mark on another Austin business that has been part of the city’s history for decades.

Lambert has taken over management of the funky Austin Motel at 1220 S. Congress Ave. through her Austin-based hospitality company, Bunkhouse. The motel, a South Austin fixture since the 1930s, was purchased Monday by Greenfield Partners LLC, a Conn.-based investment management firm that also bought several adjacent businesses as part of the deal. Future plans for the other properties — which include The Turquoise Door and Blackmail Boutique — have yet to be determined.

The purchase price was not disclosed, and Greenfield executives did not respond to requests for comment. Travis County has appraised the motel property at $5.6 million.

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In a written statement sent exclusively to the American-Statesman, Lambert said she plans to keep the Austin Motel’s “iconic identity, character and spirit intact.”

“I have loved the Austin Motel for many years and couldn’t be more thrilled for Bunkhouse to take over operations,” Lambert, founder and chief creative officer at Bunkhouse, said.

The hotel’s signature neon sign is staying, and the name will remain the same, Lambert said. The motel has 41 rooms, a restaurant, bar and a 1950s-style outdoor pool that was renovated in 1998.

The Austin Motel opened in 1938, two years after the San José, a hotel that sits a block south. In the past decade, Lambert transformed the San José motor court hotel into a trendy property frequented by locals and tourists.

“We’re excited to think about how we can contribute to the motel’s legacy,” she said, noting that the Austin Motel is “part of the cultural landscape of South Congress.”

Under Bunkhouse, the Austin Motel will continue to function as its own separate entity. It will operate much in the same way it had been run by the former owners, the Dean family, but it will have operational support from Hotel San José.

Through an entity called Hotel SJ Owner LP, Greenfield Partners also owns the 40-room Hotel San José, which the Travis Central Appraisal District values at $13.7 million.

Lambert views her new role with the Austin Motel “as a beneficial union between two like-minded, authentic Austin entities.”

After an initial assessment, Bunkhouse will begin to identify opportunities to enhance the guest experience and refresh the property, Lambert said. Bunkhouse plans to make only minor improvements to the rooms, pool and pool deck, Lambert said.

The Austin Motel will be one of five operating hotels in Bunkhouse’s U.S. portfolio, including properties in Marfa and San Antonio.

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The Austin Motel will offer the lowest room rates among the company’s three Austin hotels, which also include the nearby Hotel St. Cecilia, a luxury boutique hotel on Academy Drive off South Congress where the average daily room rate is $580. At the Hotel San José, the average daily room rate is $300.

Next to Hotel St. Cecilia, Lambert plans another hotel project at Academy Drive and Music Lane, behind Doc’s Bar & Grill. That project, called The Magdalena, is in the development phase and is scheduled to open in early 2018 with 89 rooms, as well as a restaurant, bar and event space.

Lambert owns the popular Jo’s Coffee across from the Austin Motel, as well as Jo’s locations in downtown Austin and on the St. Edward’s University campus.

Back in 1993, Dottye Dean took over operations a the Austin Motel after her mother, Katherine Thompson, passed away. Thompson and her husband, John O. Thompson, were educators from East Texas who moved to Austin and purchased the motel from the original owners in 1961.

Dottye Dean died in 2011 at age 72, and her son, Mark Dean, has been running the hotel ever since. Dottye Dean, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1970, was an accomplished secondary school music specialist and a professional opera singer in San Francisco, her obituary noted.

“The Austin Motel is such of a huge part of not just Austin’s history, but of my family history as well,” Mark Dean said in a written statement. “Everyone who knew my mother, and/or the current Austin Motel’s spirit knows that Austin history met Dottye Dean and the longtime tenants and staff she nurtured, and between them all some indie alternative magic was born on South Congress Avenue that has lasted these past few decades, and then some.”

Dean said he is selling the family business because it is time to return to his own family’s roots in Massachusetts, from which he has been commuting back and forth. In Lambert, Dean said he found the “perfect match to carry on the Austin Motel’s proud heritage into the 21st century.”