|The history of the Austin Motel and the land on which it stands is not a story of corporate success with multi-million dollar profits, high end stocks, explosive growth into franchises, and financial wizards at the helm. It is nevertheless a success story. It is a success story of ordinary human beingsaverage everyday folk with normal ups and downs, hardships and joys, and persistence to endure. It is a very human old fashioned grass roots story of familiesof love for the land and for the community. It is a story of a small unique little home grown business that has survived well through several generations and over 65 years of continuous operation while experiencing both hard times and joyful good times. It is a story of connection with other people and satisfaction for what has been accomplished from personal hard work, "hands on" attention, and love. Everyone who has owned this property has been personally involved with the work and vision of building and maintaining it. Families have been integral to its operation. It has always involved a direct inter-relationship with the local community.
Though Mr. and Mrs. Eck were very enterprising with business property in several locations, for our purposes, this story begins in May of 1888 when Leonard and Frances Eck, immigrants from Germany, bought the land that now comprises the Austin Motel and its associated businesses. The following year, he built the first Business South of the River in Austin at 1200 S. Congress. He also installed the first Telephone South of the River. This was initially a general merchandise store that had a pawn shop, sold jewelry, produce, and home goods, and had a livery stable and blacksmith shop next to it. This building still stands today and is now BLACKMAIL... a clothing and gift store. In its early years, I am told this building was lively and from time to time filled with at least a few fairly dubious characters.
Stories varied, but descendents of Mr. Eck tell of the friendship between Ben Thompson, an English immigrant and famous Texas outlaw, and Mr. Eck. Ben Thompson made frequent use of the pawn shop to pawn goods for gambling expeditions and then reclaimed them with his large winnings. Gambling was big around this area at that time and Ben Thompson found it a more interesting life than working at a job. He was feisty, an expert gunman, and his gambling habit frequently involved him in gun battles, duels, and brawls. He was an outlaw who later became one of the best "Marshall's" Austin ever had and it is a mystery why he has not become more famous in the stories of the old west. According to Mr. Eck's descendents, Ben Thompson had pawned a large diamond ring with him before going over to San Antonio to the Vaudeville Theatre and Gambling Hall with fellow gunslinger J. King Fisher. At the end of the evening, they were both dead. The famous ring was never reclaimed and still resides with the descendents of Mr. Eck. More information about Ben Thompson can be found on the internet.
Mr. Eck passed away in 1925. An excerpt from his Funeral service, gives an interesting perspective on the vision of this creative man who began these businesses. "He was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church. He reared his children in the church, although not in the creed of his own choice. After all, did you know that all the creeds of Christendom can be summed up in two short words? More stillwhether Jew or Gentile, Greek or Barbarian, just two words could compass their creeds. Would you cause wars ever to cease? Spike every gun of hate? Make every orphanage only a memory of past necessity? Yes, there are just two magic words that could do all of this... FAITH AND LOVE. Faith in GOD and in my fellowman. Did Brother Eck have Faith? I saw it in almost every act of his life. Had he Love? Ask all of us who knew him face to face."
Upon the death of Mr. Eck, Jennie Eck Stewart inherited the ownership of the Eastern Half of the 1200 S. Congress Block. Similar in entrepreneurial spirit to her father, she along with her husband Earnest Stewart expanded the stores along the block. In the 30s when the country was experiencing the "boom" of the automobile and Americans wanted to travel with their cars, little "Motels"... or "Motor Inns"... a new concept in the Lodging Industry sprung up all around the country. Builders and Owners of these new little establishments were exuberant with creativity and very imaginative signs and Motels were the result. Most famous of these roadways sprinkled with Motels was "Route 66." "The Old San Antonio Highway" in Texas was another famous roadway. Take a look at www.sem20.com/neonmotel, a site by Douglas Towne whose passion for this unique form of American art has led him back and forth across this country on many journeys of discovery. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were quick to see the value in this new concept and built The Austin Motel which opened its doors in 1938 and has never closed them since. It was the Stewarts who built the Austin Motel Landmark Neon Sign way back in 1938 and it has remained here from the beginning.
Around 1950 a new Motel, The Terrace, was built across the street complete with large swimming pool. Naturally, a "swimming pool" was a big draw for hot Texas summers. Not to be outdone, the Stewarts got busy and built our luxurious large kidney shaped pool and the charming rooms above it. A friendly competition ensued that in the end caused both Motels to keep getting better.
Unfortunately, the charming Terrace Motel no longer exists. What finally happened to this lovely place to make it close its doors is not known, but the large old Oak Trees have, for the most part, gone by the wayside and the charming little cottages along with so many other of these small unique little motels have become only a memory of the past. The land was owned for a brief time by the great singer, Willie Nelson. Its present owners have built a large corporate apartment complex on the site.
The Stewarts were not only good business peoplethey were also a colorful energetic family. There were American pioneers on both sides of the family and 5th generation Austinites on Mr. Stewarts' side. Of the three children, David, a distinguished Naval Officer, was killed in World War II. Weldon, helped run the businessesmost particularly the Austin Motel. Ernest, became the family character. He had many interests including owning midget and stock race cars, enjoyed being part of the pit crew of the Indy 500 in 1986-87, member of the Capitol Bass Club as an avid fisherman, worked from 1960 to 1980 as manager of Travis County Water District 17, and upon retirement was for 20 years a member of the Hudson Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Also during "retirement," he and his beloved wife of 45 years, Joy Alice Craige Stewart, traveled extensively in the U.S. and took cruises to Mexico, Spain and the Mediterranean. "He was known for his character, sense of humor and enthusiasm for life."
In 1961, Mrs. Stewart received a letter of inquiry from a High School teacher and her husband, a Superintendent of schools in North East Texas. Would the Stewarts be ready to sell their little Motel? Mrs. Stewart was getting up in years by this time and responded with some eagerness to this offer. Thus John O. and Katherine Thompson, bearing the same last name as the historic and infamous Austin Marshall, became the 2nd owners of The Austin Motel.
Burning with enthusiasm for their new venture, the Thompsons put all of their savings into the down payment and began working around the clock to pay off the mortgage and build their business. They decorated rooms, worked the desk for both day and night shifts, helped the housekeepers clean the rooms, repaired plumbing when necessary, and even tried to run the Restaurant by themselves for a short while. They had loved being a part of the educational system in Texas for over 20 years before this, but nothing in their lives compared with the joy and pride of owning this little business. They worked so hard that they did pay off the mortgage in a fairly short time and in 1968 added on the two story building in the back of the
Fabulous Bowler Boys
Left to right: Steve, Sean, Alan, Ryan, Jason, Pat, Bryan and Eric
Motel grounds. They also purchased the remaining businesses and apartments on the S. Congress block from Mrs. Stewart. For over 20 years, Kate and John O. ran these businesses and for the most part these were very happy years. There is something quite special about owning and personally running a small unique business. This was the highlight of both their lives. They worked hard and put their heart and soul into their work with the same harmony as farmers do in tilling the earth and producing good crops, and like them, they felt good about their labors and the product that ensued. They took the Austin Motel to a new level of excellence.
The 80s, however, appear to have brought bad times. The neighborhood changed, and drugs, prostitution, crime moved into the S. Congress area and made a home there. This was more than the Thompsons could understand or cope with. Born in the early part of this Century into small town and farm environments, with their high code of conduct and emphasis on good character, the Thompsons were bewildered by this influx. One morning they arrived at their business to find 17 rooms had been broken into. Rooms would be vandalized and trashed by this new brand of customers faster than the Thompsons could make repairs. This was heartbreaking. By this time, they were in their late 70's/early 80's and they could not keep up with the demands put upon them by this destruction. Katherine Thompson's health began to decline and she passed away in Jan. of 1993.
At the time of Mrs. Thompson's passing, a portion of the property along with the care of Mr. Thompson, then 82, moved into the hands of Katherine Thompson's only daughter, Dottye Dean. When Dottye came to help her Mother in her final illness and passing, she was astonished to see the deterioration of the Austin Motel and the surrounding community. The thought of re-locating in Austin to take over this business and help her step-father was bewildering to say the least. Nice customers were far and few between and for the most part, were replaced by characters who would have been more at home with Ben Thompson during his outlaw days. The once quaint and charming S. Congress Ave. had also gone down hill and crime and drugs kept most Austin citizens out of the area. Relocating to Austin not only meant taking on the task of reclaiming the Austin Motel and helping her step-father, it also meant leaving her dearly loved San Francisco where she had lived for almost 40 years, raising a family, teaching in the San Francisco Unified School District and for the previous 13 years, singing as a professional full-time Chorister with the San Francisco Opera.
There is something about an unusual challenge that takes over our normal good sense and draws us nearer with an almost magical force. This "force" worked its magic on Dottye and she landed squarely into its center. Looking back, she fondly remembered being much younger and perhaps even a little foolish to enter into such an endeavorbut like her parents before her, she painted, repaired toilets, hired contractors, worked the desk, cleaned the pool, hired staff, rented rooms, kicked out criminals, drug pushers, and derelicts... and in general... learned the trade the hard way. The very first action that was taken was to get the help and enthusiasm of her Mother's sister, our family's beloved Aunt Mildred Love, and a couple of employees and spend the entire night painting the Lobby. They felt like they had hung the moon when they limped home at daylight with everything back in place. It was an auspicious beginning.
After that "first" step, plans were laid to paint all the rooms, texture the walls, put up wall paper murals, make repairs, replace carpets, etc. The remarkable thing is that desk clerks, housekeepers, secretaries, maintenance people and Dottye herself, all had a part in doing this work. Because the staff has been so closely involved with the renovation, they take personal pride and even a sense of ownership in the Motel. Most of them have been with the Motel for 7+ years, giving them a significant role in the whole journey and they have definitely helped to bring the Motel to its present level. In addition to "in house" work, we also had to do some more complex renovation on the worst sections with "real" contractors and City Permits. New roofs were needed everywhere, some electrical and plumbing, walls, and floors needed work. This more complicated work plus our decorative work helped to bring the Motel into this Century as a viable structure for modern life.
And, as we have developed, the design and development has become more specialized. For several years now we have been most fortunate to have "an Artist in Residence" as it were. Our Day Manager, Michelle McCormick, has been our chief designer, developer, and landscape artist. Because she is so multi-talented, she is involved in every aspect of the Motel's operation. Because we are an "old" establishment, repairs and upkeep are an ongoing process. We also keep making improvements and positive changes. Look for her below with a couple of friends. She likes to hide in the background. These are just a few examples of her handiwork.
Porfirio Cabello, our chief of maintenance and highly skilled carpenter works with Michelle to bring these ideas into reality. Porfirio came in 1995 with the "big" construction crew and to our great pleasure and gratitude never left. He has created all of our arches and Tejas decorative overhangsfountains, courtyards, swingand so much more. Like Michelle, he has had his hand in every part of the changing face of the Austin Motel.
Wayne Love, our night manager, not only keeps a watchful eye on the property, dealing with all of the demands of the Motel at night, he also has perfected the Science of PH balance to keep our "coolpool" functioning clean and clear for guest pleasure. It is a very large deep pool, regularly and abundantly used, and surrounded by treestrees that drop their leaves and other goodies into it many times in the year. When I came in 1993, it regularly went "green"not a good color for poolsand we had to close it, sometimes for a week at a time, to try to bring it back. When Wayne came in early 1996, he went to work to change that. The result is our very clean, well balanced poolunder all conditions. In 1998 we renovated the pool, and Wayne, Michelle, Porfirio, and myself were the design team that created the present tiles, in-water seats, semi-circular stairs into the shallow end, underwater lights, limestone walking surface, and state-of- the-art filtering system.
All of the staff make significant contributions. The rooms back in 1993 were heart breaking to all of us who loved this little place. It has taken many years and a great deal of dedication and true hard work to get them to their present level of cleanliness. We are indeed grateful to all our staff for this consistent dedication.
We have become structurally a little more modern, but our spirit has remained old fashioned, quaint in the tradition of the "Motels of the Southwest," friendly, and very "South Austin."
John O. Thompson was able to live to see the changes take place and was proud and happy to see his little Motel restored. He was very pleased to personally be able to accept our 1st "BEST MOTEL AWARD" from the Austin Chronicle with cheers from the audience as he walked forth to receive the certificate. Mr. Thompson passed away in March of 1999 at the age of 88 years.
Parallel to the work on the Motel was a deep involvement with the other Merchants along the Avenue and together with the help and support of the City of Austin Police Department, we began to reclaim the whole neighborhood. The Merchants along the Avenue are unusual people, each of whom has developed his/her special business with creativity, individuality, and enthusiasm. New businesses have joined us and the area is again a safe thriving district with popular restaurants and eclectic shops. We and our Neighborhood have had a true rebirth and there is a uniqueness about the area which is paradoxically due at least in part to its having been overlooked for a while and thus allowed to remain a living monument to Austin's interesting history. In 2008, the Austin Motel celebrated its 70th Anniversary (and look forward to our 75th anniversary in 2013!), with abundant history and love surrounding us.
There is a next generation of family who have been a part of the life of the Austin Motel since they were little. generations have happy memories of swimming in the "Motel pool" and enjoying great summer time visits to their grandparents. And our grandchildren are doing the same thing. They have watched the many transitions while growing up and creating their own lives. Dottye's daughter, Kathryn, worked in the Music Production in New York City for 17 years, recently she has made a career shift and is now a massage therapist and is close to finishing her first novel.
Dottye's son Mark Dean served as the longtime General Manager of the Theatre Department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is also an Actor and performs regularly both at the University and in various Shakespeare Festivals. His wife is a Nurse/Midwife helping young mothers through pregnancies and childbirth. They have two wonderful young boys whose growth and development are like watching "magic" transform in front of your eyes and heart...Yes...this is a Grandmother talking.
This history is dedicated to Dottye's son Michael, who lost his life far too early. We are grateful to have had him for as long as we did. His kindness, sensitivity, and big heartedness still touch our lives and fill us with sadness for his loss and blessings for having known him. We will love and miss him forever.
In 2010 Dottye fought a valiant, relatively brief, and intensely private struggle with illness, and passed away on April 22, 2011. Dottye reinvigorated the Motel and its partnership with South Congress Avenue, creating with a dedicated group of employees, tenants, colleagues, friends, and other like-minded entrepreneurs a vibrant, pulsing heart of artistic businesses that continues today to stand as a testament to the vision and creativity of all. Although her struggle with illness eventually took its toll physically, it never dimmed or diminished Dottye's spirit one iota. Dottye had tremendous gratitude for the countless blessings of her adventurous and productive life. All of her wonderful colleagues, staff, tenants, and other longtime Austin associates with whom she shared her love and passion for South Congress Avenue and the Austin Motel are the living and breathing heart of her conviction that people and their connection to each other are the only essential foundation upon which to build a business or a life. In her last weeks, Dottye passed the reigns of the Austin Motel to her son Mark, who with his wife Ellen today continue its traditions, joined in that collaboration by the 19 staff of the Austin Motel, who share 150 years of Austin Motel service between them.
All of us here at the Austin Motel are tremendously proud to continue our commitment to providing a quality and interesting home away from home for travelers to Austin well into the future, as it has in the past.