- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Without too much of a stretch, Giorgio Borlenghi could play a suave, playful diplomat in a Federico Fellini movie.
Relaxed yet formal in the relaxed yet formal setting of his hilltop Hotel Granduca Austin, Borlenghi, 65, is the very image of Old World gentility: impeccable manners, immaculate attire, artful conversation.
Alert to the social dynamics of his adopted state, he has, since settling in Houston in the 1970s, introduced modern high design to high-rise residences, built office towers and shopping centers and opened the original Hotel Granduca, in Houston, which has among that city’s highest occupancy rates, average daily rates and revenues for available rooms.
After spending a good deal of time in Austin while his son studied at the University of Texas, Borlenghi (Boor-LENG-ee) imported his concept of an Italian-style boutique hotel to West Austin. More than a year after its opening, the Hotel Granduca’s bar, restaurant and other social spaces are becoming favored haunts of those hoping to escape the mad rush of downtown Austin.
“It should be intimate, exclusive, warm,” he says. “You could really feel that you were a guest at somebody’s home rather than in a typical hotel.”
Born in Turin, Italy, and raised in Milan, Borlenghi was the fourth of five children of Lorenzo Borlenghi, a real estate developer from Turin, and Carla Sconfienza Borlenghi, also from Turin.
“One brother initially came into the family business,” he says. “I am the one more than anyone who carries on the tradition of real estate.”
In 1964, his love affair with the United States started when he spent his eighth-grade year studying in Los Angeles while his brother attended the University of Southern California.
Good in school, Borlenghi had two great passions: soccer and music. At the Milan Conservatory after classes at his regular school, he studied to become a symphony conductor.
“In my family, you could do anything you wanted,” he says with a smile. “As long as bricks were involved. So I went into engineering. I kept up my interest in music.”
Borlenghi studied structural engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan. To fulfill his mandatory military obligation, he served as a lieutenant in the Air Force. Afterward he joined the family business.
“But always with the interest in coming back to this country,” he says. “I had become extremely attracted to the lifestyle and the people. I always wanted to make it home.”
So in 1977 he moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Cathy, a businesswoman with her own line of jewelry manufactured in Italy. They stayed on the West Coast for a year and then started looking for a city of their own.
The Houston connection
“At the time, many people were talking about Houston,” he recalls. “It was growing, booming. They said, ‘You should go check Houston out.’ We arrived in early July, and it was 105 degrees. Yet it reminded me of LA in the ’. Growing, active, building freeways. I felt welcome, accepted.”
He went back to Italy to tell his father about the move.
“‘Where’s Houston?’ they asked,” Borlenghi recalls with a laugh. “Everybody thought we were staying three months, but that was 39 years ago. We’re still here.”
The Borlenghis raised two children: Carolyn, who lives in Florida, and Alex, who earned a degree in corporate communications from UT and now works in the family business.
In Houston during the 1970s, Borlenghi built fairly large commercial projects. The first one of note was the Four Leaf Towers, a pair of 40-story residences designed by famed architect Cesar Pelli.
“High-rise condos were our forte,” he says. “We thought there was a need. Tastes were changing 35 years ago, and Texans were ready to embrace a different lifestyle. We were no doubt a bit ahead of our time.”
Among his later projects was Four Oaks Place, a complex with 1.8 million square feet of office space, also designed by Pelli, as well as two large retail projects, Vintage Park and Uptown Park, which included the Hotel Granduca Houston.
“We’d had hotels in Italy,” Borlenghi explains. “Three in different parts of the country. In Houston, years ago, there were not too many great hotels, especially not luxury boutique hotels. We combined the love and knowledge we learned in the residential business with our background in hospitality.”
As he considered the project, friends kept telling him about the beautiful hotels where they had stayed.
“I’ll build you one right here,” he responded. “It will not look and feel like a regular hotel. And we could play with our Italian background and build the palace of a grand duke.”
Borlenghi elaborated on the theme: The Granduca’s restaurant, Visconti, is named after the ducal family of Milan, not the Italian movie director. Antiques, framed prints and a subdued color palette contribute to the soothing feel of the place.
“We want guests to feel a certain calm, a certain pleasure,” says Borlenghi, who wears sharply tailored clothes purchased in Milan, especially from the Zegna line. “You have the great danger, however, of falling into Mickey Mouse architecture, into an Epcot reproduction. I’m proud to say that we were never accused of that. We want to transport you to a little corner of Italy. The details create the authenticity.”
Not everything has worked out since Granduca Austin opened in 2015. Borlenghi, for instance, replaced much of his original culinary team.
“Knowing how much Austin cares about food, we went overboard,” he admits. “The team was very sophisticated and knowledgeable, but unwilling to adapt to the reality of the market.”
For instance, they resisted the idea of a traditional hotel Sunday brunch. That cultural and business lapse has been corrected.
“It’s going fantastically,” Borlenghi reports. “It’s a semi-buffet, with antipasti spread out, then a menu for brunch items. Texans usually don’t like to go to a hotel restaurant, because there are so many other choices. But if there’s one thing they like, it’s a hotel brunch.”
Originally, Borlenghi looked downtown for a spot for his Austin hotel.
“I like, however, a big property around me,” he says. “And downtown prices were pretty steep. You have to build a JW Marriott to make it work.”
He heard that some investment bankers were planning an office building off of Loop 360 (Capital of Texas Highway) near Bee Cave Road, and he explored the nearby hilltop as a place for his Italian dream hotel.
“We are pioneering a little bit with this location,” he says. “That’s my modus operandi. Top of a hill, secluded, out-of-the-way area — it’s very appealing to me. We are creating an alternative for the hotel industry in Austin. But it’s only 20 minutes from downtown and UT. During football season or festival season, not everyone likes or needs to be downtown. Come instead to a peaceful, serene location with all these amazing trees.”
For the past several decades, the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa had this geographic piece of the market to itself. But with 12 million square feet of office space nearby — along with affluent West Lake Hills — Borlenghi has positioned the Granduca as a business hotel on weekdays and a leisure hotel near Lake Austin on the weekends. With a medium-size banquet room and a large adjacent courtyard, the property is poised to serve weddings and charity events too.
“My goal is for the hotel to become an integral part of the city,” he says. “You know, Austin likes to think of itself as weird. What’s more weird than having an Italian guy come and build a palace on a hill?”