Relax under a red-and-white umbrella next to the deep blue pool and imagine yourself in a 1950s picture postcard.
The Austin Motel — which is celebrating its 75th year — is one of the city’s most iconic places to escape to (or to simply pose for pictures in front of its, well, infamous, marquee, which reads, “So close yet so far out”). Its past, however, was a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows ridden out by a loyal community that refused to see it fail.
“This area turned rather run down for many years, and we managed to survive through that,” said Austin Motel manager Michelle Greig. “We were thankful there were enough people staying here, even if they could be a little sketchy, for us to continue into the future.”
The Stewart family opened the Austin Motel on the site of a former livery/dry goods store in 1938, a time when Congress Avenue was best known as a way to get to San Antonio.
“This had been a place where people stopped to rest,” said Greig, who has worked at the motel for 18 years and met her now-husband, who is from Australia, when he stayed as a guest during the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2009. “It’s cool that it still is.”
In the early 1950s, the Stewarts installed the large, kidney-shaped pool as a way to compete against other local motels.
“The motel benefited from the addition of its pool; it allowed us to surge forward for a little while,” Greig said. “It was a simple place to stay in a lot of ways, but it had a pool, it had a snack shop and it had a gas station. It was a win-win for everybody.”
In 1961, the Stewarts sold the motel to John O. and Kate Thompson. When Kate died in 1993, the condition of South Congress Avenue had deteriorated; it was known more for its crime than for its businesses. Still, Kate’s daughter, Dottye Dean, accepted the challenge of taking over the motel.
“Dottye gave us the right to say no to everybody,” Greig said. “There were times that we literally didn’t have anyone staying here. We’d put a light fixture in, and it would get taken out.”
Bethany Andree, a former Austin Motel employee who now owns the adjacent Snack Bar Austin restaurant, said Dean was an important figure on South Congress during this time.
“She inherited the motel and really turned the motel around,” Andree said. “She played an integral part of changing the face of South Congress.”
In 2008, next-door neighbor El Sol y La Luna — which rented its space from the motel — decided to relocate to Sixth Street. Andree, who was working at the motel but had no restaurant experience, suggested they return that space — which had functioned as the motel diner until the 1970s — to a motel restaurant of sorts.
“I wanted to bring the restaurant back to the motel,” Andree said. “I know what a family establishment the Austin Motel is, and I was part of that family. Dottye recognized that and really wanted to see it be part of the motel again.”
Although it is technically a separate business, Snack Bar — a stylish restaurant with an emphasis on organic, “raised right” and natural ingredients — is full of touches that play into the motel restaurant concept. Visitors can buy toiletries such as deodorant at the restaurant, which also offers in-room delivery and computer access to motel guests.
“The concept behind Snack Bar is that it’s a meet-up place,” Andree said. “Kind of like any hotel diner bar is. You say, ‘Let’s meet downstairs at the restaurant.’ That’s the idea behind it.”
Dean died in 2011, and her son, Mark, took over the motel, which sits among dozens of local businesses in one of Austin’s best-known tourist districts. But despite the increase of condos and hotel chains, international visitors and locals alike continue to choose the motel.
“The locals love us,” Greig said. “If they move away from Austin, they come back and stay with us. If they live here, they have their families stay with us. That’s a badge of honor. It’s not just tourists or people who read about us in a guidebook; it’s the locals. The people of Austin have definitely kept the motel alive and thriving.”
Amber Adams, a former Austin resident who now lives in Houston, said the motel is her first choice when she visits.
“It’s nostalgic and funky,” Adams said. “It’s reminiscent of the places we stayed on those road trips with my family in the ’70s and ’80s. I do not think you can go in with grand expectations, because it is, in fact, a motel. But for the location, price and uniqueness, you cannot beat it.”
Rates for the 41 rooms start at less than $100. Rooms for SXSW go on sale three months in advance and typically sell out within 30 minutes. This year, Adams, her husband, Joe Kennon, and their two young sons scored a room.
“Staying there for SXSW is a no-brainer,” Adams said. “The location is fantastic. We can take the boys with us during the day, and you never know who you will see playing on the sidewalk. I love exposing them to the music I so dearly love. At night, it’s a cheap cab ride for Joe to get to whichever show he wants to see, and I can open the door and pull a chair outside and listen (to music) while the boys sleep.”
Adams said there’s nowhere she’d rather escape to than the Austin Motel.
“It reminds us what Austin once was before all the condos and skyscrapers,” Adams said. “Simple, fun and funky. You do not have to be a five-star joint to fit in. It was that attitude that drew me to Austin in the first place.”
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