The server at Goodall’s Kitchen and Bar, inside the new Hotel Ella, sets down my cocktail: ginger beer and local Deep Eddy vodka, muddled with fresh mint and ginger, served in a trendy copper cup. Then she addresses my dining companion — my ’tween son.
“I know you just ordered water, but I thought you needed something a little more special tonight,” she tells him, presenting him with his own mocktail, which she describes as Coke spiked with pomegranate juice and rosewater, garnished with a fresh blackberry. He looks dubious but takes a sip. Smiles. It’s delicious.
Anticipating what guests want, even before they know it themselves, is often said to be the mark of a great hotel. And it’s obviously part of the training at the luxurious Hotel Ella, which opened this fall in a renovated mansion that also has been a residence hall (for the nearby University of Texas), a drug treatment center, and most recently, a hotel. (It operated as the Mansion at Judges’ Hill from 2003 until early 2013.)
But with a guest-to-staff ratio of roughly 2-to-1 in its 48 rooms, Ella treats its guests to personalized service that, rather than being formal and fussy, is Austin-style friendly: The parking valet welcomes us by offering a hotel Caddy to chauffeur us to nearby sights if we don’t feel like warming up our car again on a cold November night. A housekeeper drops by the room before dinner with ice, bottled water, extra towels, and tiny, freshly baked cranberry cookies, perfectly timed to take the edge off late-afternoon hunger.
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“We want you to feel as if you are a guest in a wonderful home, not just visiting a hotel,” says director of rooms Patricia Lehberger. “This (property) has such a wonderful history of hospitality, and we wanted to honor that.”
Steeped in history
The Hotel Ella is named for Ella Wooten, one of the original owners of the imposing 19th-century Greek Revival mansion, which today houses the hotel’s lobby, restaurant, bar and nine guest rooms. She and her new husband, Dr. Goodall Wooten, moved in about 1900, shortly after their wedding. (Those are their portraits behind the reception desk.)
The Wootens, particularly Ella, had a reputation for doing it up, as hosts and decorators. Ten years after moving in, she renovated the original house, choosing to add elaborate columns to the façade rather than indulge in a trip around the world. (She used the same stone carver who worked on the Biltmore Mansion, after getting a personal recommendation from the Vanderbilts.) In 1925, she redid the house top-to-bottom, hiring Neiman Marcus decorators and spending the then-outrageous sum of $10,000.
After the widowed Ella sold the house in 1944, it was converted into student housing, and remained a dorm for more than 30 years. In 1979, it was converted again, into a drug and alcohol treatment center; during this period, the annex, which houses most of the guest rooms, was added to the property. After the treatment center relocated to a larger facility, it was converted a third time, into a hotel and wedding venue.
In reinventing the hotel yet again, the owners wanted to recreate the glamour of the mansion’s heyday, while adding an overlay of contemporary style. They kept many historical details, such as the massive columns, the crown molding, original fireplaces and the broad porches. Large historical photos, such as one of the first UT football team, and sculptures that channel Dr. Wooten’s fondness for the art form, bring a sense of place. The reception desk, formerly located in the annex at the back of the property, was moved front and center to the mansion’s main entrance. “We wanted to create a sense of arrival,” Lehberger notes as she shows me around.
But they did make some bigger changes. A dramatic, narrow pool was added to the rear courtyard, ringed by cabanas. A sleek bar replaced the old library. Heavy drapes and “hotel” style carpeting were removed; a more minimalist design aesthetic, in cool shades of blue and gray, was put in place.
Nineteen of the guestrooms were completely renovated, with white marble bathrooms and all-new contemporary furnishings. The remaining 29 received some upgrades, including new linens and beds. All rooms have the touches expected of a higher-end hotel: High thread-count sheets; microfiber bathrobes; Keurig coffeemakers; L’Occitane bath products; flat-screen TVs and iPod docks.
The finished product is lovely and comfortable but not stuffy or pretentious, an ambiance the hotel tries to replicate in the entire guest experience. At Goodall’s, though executive chef Scott Mechura serves sophisticated fare like Texas gulf black drum dressed with yuzu butter and apple cake with blue cheese ice cream, service is relaxed. And the hotel is pet-friendly; dogs are welcomed with their own bed, bowl, and room-service menu.
Efforts to reimagine the space yet again seem to be paying off: The hotel was given a four-diamond award from the AAA for 2013. And, shortly before opening in September, the Ella announced it had been selected to join the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection of independent high-end hotels — the only Texas hotel to be included.
Details: Hotel Ella, 1900 Rio Grande, Austin. 512-495-1800; http://hotelella.com. Rooms from $249, with seasonal specials from $199 through March 1.
Notable new and newly renovated Texas hotels
The hotel landscape in Texas is constantly changing. Just in the first nine months of 2013, 96 new properties opened, bringing the total of hotel rooms in the state to a whopping 408,100, according to Source Strategies Inc., a hotel consulting firm in San Antonio. With so many new choices when it comes to hanging your hat, we’ve picked a few of the most interesting new, and newly renovated, properties across the state:
Lone Star Court at The Domain, Austin
The property: Old-school motor court meets hip boutique hotel, in a 123-room upscale lodging in north Austin.
Opening date: Opened on Christmas Eve.
The story: Lone Star Court was created by Valencia Group, a Houston-based company that also operates the luxury Hotel Valencia in San Antonio and the Hotel Sorella in Houston. Here, they’re channeling Austin-hip to create a stylish update of the motor courts of the ’50s and ’60s. Arranged around a central courtyard, with fire pits, a pool, and live-music performance space, the rooms have a definite retro vibe, with metal headboards, braided rugs and old-timey Smeg fridges serving as the honor bar. But, of course, the modern amenities are here, too, including Egyptian cotton linens, complimentary wireless Internet, flat-screen TVs, and toiletries by Lather.
Don’t miss: The food-truck court. Yes, there’s a traditional restaurant, The Water Trough, specializing in Texas-style cuisine including smoked-brisket tacos. But executive chef Paul Nelson will also oversee The Feed Store, a food truck anchoring the open-air food court. It will be open all day, putting a signature spin on food-truck staples like breakfast tacos, chicken-and-waffles, Frito pie and bread pudding.
Details: 10901 Domain Drive, Austin, 512-836-3030; www.lonestarcourt.com. Rooms from $129.
Heywood Hotel, Austin
The property: A rehabbed 1925 Craftsman bungalow, turned into a cozy seven-room inn thanks to a smartly designed rear addition and rooftop deck.
Opening date: Dec. 22, 2011.
Claim to fame: Only Texas hotel named to Condé Nast Traveler’s best new hotels list in 2013.
The story: Husband-wife team Kathy Setzer and George Reynolds, longtime residents of east Austin, wanted to give new life to the modest bungalow, in a part of the neighborhood that’s been gentrifying over the past several years. With Reynolds using reclaimed wood to build some of the walnut furniture himself, the couple and their architects designed a space that combined Craftsman warmth, modern minimalism, and Austin cool. (Much of the art is by local artists, and yes, it’s for sale.)
“We wanted to create a very authentic Austin experience, so that you feel like you’re staying with locals,” Setzer says. Of course, they also offer modern amenities, like free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, luxury bedding, iPod docks, baths with skylights, and instant hot-water dispensers for the French press coffeepots.
Don’t miss: The bike scavenger hunt. Peddle one of the hotel’s complimentary bikes around the neighborhood, scouting out photographic clues of local icons, and take your own photos. If you tweet about or post on Instagram every photo on the tour, tagging the hotel, you’ll get a free Heywood T-shirt.
Details: 1609 E. Cesar Chavez St., Austin, 512-271-5522; http://Heywoodhotel.com. Rooms from $179.
The Sam Houston Hotel, Houston
The property: Originally built as a hotel in 1924, this 100-room property got a top-to-bottom renovation in 2013, and returned to its original name after being known for about 10 years as the Alden Hotel.
Renovation date: The name reverted to the Sam Houston on March 2, the birthday of the hotel’s namesake; renovations were finished in the spring.
The history: It began life as a budget hotel, with 200 rooms in 10 stories catering to railway travelers and businessmen. At opening, a room cost $2, or $2.50 if you splashed out on a private bath. Over the years, a number of businesses, including a barbershop, clothing shop and a bar, operated on the ground floor. In 1973, the hotel fell victim to changing tastes and a faltering economy, and closed. It sat vacant for decades before re-opening in 2002, changing its name to the Alden shortly after. In 2004, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The renovations: After being purchased by Houston hotel firm American Liberty Hospitality in 2012, all guest rooms were updated, with new furnishings, built-in, high-def TVs, Keurig coffee makers, free Wi-Fi, Herman Miller ergonomic chairs and upgraded marble baths. (And, yes, they’re now all en-suite.) The lobby, *17 restaurant and other public spaces also got a lighter, brighter facelift, with careful attention paid to retaining historic details like crown molding and an original stairway.
Details: 1117 Prairie St., Houston, 832-200-8800; www.thesamhoustonhotel.com. Rooms from $139, weekends.
Moody Gardens Hotel, Galveston
The property: A $22 million face-lift is underway for this 428-room resort and convention hotel, adjacent to the Moody Gardens nature-and-science center.
The history: The hotel opened in 1999 — the same year the aquarium pyramid opened as the third exhibition pyramid at Moody Gardens. A 2004 addition added more than 100 guest rooms, and in 2008 — just before Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on coastal Galveston — the complex opened a par-72 public golf course. (The hotel and the course ultimately suffered only minor damage from the storm.)
What’s new: Public spaces and guest rooms alike are getting a lighter, brighter design and upscale new finishes, with a botanical theme inspired by the lush Moody Gardens. Rooms in the main tower have already been renovated with lighter tones, granite baths, contemporary furnishings such as plush light-blue loveseats, new linens including white duvets, and amenities like 32-inch flat-screen TVs and individual Keurig coffee makers. The resulting look is more boutique hotel, less convention property.
Renovation date: Work began in 2012 and virtually all work is scheduled to be complete by Memorial Day. The Terrace Restaurant, which is the main dining room, just closed for renovation until March; about 60 guest rooms in the north tower are being upgraded in stages and should be finished in May. Other spaces, including a lounge and Shearn’s restaurant, the ninth-floor fine-dining steakhouse, are already complete, with new carpet, furniture and other updates.
Details: Seven Hope Boulevard, Galveston, 888-388-8484; moodygardenshotel.com. Rooms from $159.
Sage Hill Inn Above Onion Creek, Kyle
The property: The former Inn Above Onion Creek has gotten a new name and a $1 million reboot, courtesy of its new owners, a couple of Austin dot-com executives.
The story: The 14-suite inn has had a loyal clientele, drawn to its secluded location between Wimberley and Austin; the expansive Hill Country views from the farmhouse-style rooms; and the gourmet meals. (Breakfast, with treats like rosemary biscuits or sweet potato waffles, and a three-course dinner are included with each stay.) But after nearly 20 years in business, it needed some freshening up, says innkeeper Amy Dolan, who stayed on after the sale. Enter new owners Eric Goldreyer, founder of bedandbreakfast.com, and John Banczak, president of the company, who bought the inn in late 2012 and set about upgrading furnishings and design and adding an emphasis on the environment.
What’s new: All guest rooms are gradually being updated with new flat-screen TVs, more contemporary furnishings and new linens. A ranch house formerly used by the proprietors is now a luxury cottage sleeping up to six, with stainless-steel appliances in the kitchen and luxury baths with river stone in the showers. The grounds have also been upgraded, with new seating and outdoor dining areas, a fire pit, a 14-person hot tub, and a 3,000-square-foot wood deck around the pool. Guests won’t see other changes, however: A new rainwater catchment system is expected to supply all irrigation needs; a greenhouse and composting area will supplement the organic garden, which provides produce for the restaurant; and lighting has been converted to LED bulbs to lower energy usage.
Don’t miss: A new spa, with four treatment rooms, will debut in late January. Right next to the main guesthouse, the Garden Spa will include three double massage rooms, one single treatment room, and an outdoor deck, along with signature treatments like hot stone massage and a “raindrop” massage using nine essential oils.
Renovation date: Name change goes into effect at the end of January; all renovations are scheduled to be completed by early summer.
Details: 4444 W. Farm Road 150, Kyle, 512-268-1671; innaboveonioncreek.com. Rooms from $199 in low season, including breakfast and dinner.