Monday, August 3, 2009

So Close Yet So Far Out

Austin Motel, 2009

During a recent trip to Texas, I had the chance to stay at the Austin Motel. It’s not the kind of place where many business people would probably want to stay. It’s a tired old property, the antithesis of trendy boutique hotels and a determined statement against the mainstream ubiquity of Marriotts and Holiday Inns.

The 71 year-old Austin Motel is perched on the side of a hill along South Congress Avenue, across the bridge from downtown, but smack in the middle of Austin’s wonderfully funky SoCo neighborhood. As you climb the hill there are several ranges of one- and two-story buildings with guest rooms that open directly onto the parking lot. The rooms are clean and comfortable, though aside from the beds the furniture’s a little tired. A phone book or matchbook cover might be needed to steady a chair or desk. There’s good water pressure, even though the water runs hot, sometimes even from the cold spigot. There’s a verdant oasis of a pool down by the street and original paintings and sculpture throughout the property. The doors lock, sort of. The wi-fi’s spotty. Room service? No way.

In short, I imagine it’s Austin’s version of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. Anything might happen here. But where the Chelsea staff is decidedly non-traditional and indifferent to travelers who expect staff in uniforms and 400 thread count sheets, the staff of The Austin Motel is decidedly non-traditional, but wonderfully friendly and welcoming, the kind of young people who look like they're just biding time waiting for their arts grant to get approved. The front desk systems are a little antiquated; I got the impression they might still map out reservations on a paper desk calendar. But the staff will cheerfully work to smooth out any problems. There’s a big cat that sleeps on the lobby counter. I assume it’s alive, though in two days I never saw it move.

The lobby’s decorated in deep primary colors and furnished in a style that dates from, well, at least the glam rock era. Think shag rugs and purple velvet.

The Austin Motel’s rooms have numbers. But they’re better known by their names. No two are decorated alike. The first one I stayed in was painted in a cloud motif. The next night I had a room furnished with an old bureau, sofa and hassock that look like they came out of your grandmother’s place. (And when, in modern times, have you even been in a motel that had a hassock?)

The nice thing about The Austin Motel is its location. Good restaurants, bars, music and such are just up the street. Jo’s is right across the street. You can get coffee there at 6:00 a.m., or sit outside in brightly colored mismatched lawn chairs with a beer later on.

The Austin Motel. If you go there, see if the cat’s moved.

If you must have luxury, try the Hotel San Jose. It’s across the street and used to be where hookers and pushers hung out. Now it’s a boutique hotel and tragically hip. I’d probably look funny there.


  1. The kind of motel I seek out when I travel on my own dime and with my own preferences. Sort of like the wonder Port Angeles Inn in WA, or the Hotel 17 in nyc. These places feel real.

  2. That was a great description, Chris. Next time I'm in Austin, I will definitely look for this place. I admit, I haven't seen a hassock in any of the places where I've stayed. Only red flag here is that the "door locks--sort of."

  3. Thanks for this one ,,, now I want to go there especially for the cat!

  4. HAve to go and look for the at this weekend. I live here and never noticed the Inn before.
    Great article..thanks