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.
“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.
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
Heywood Hotel, Austin
“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.
The Sam Houston Hotel, Houston
Moody Gardens Hotel, Galveston
Sage Hill Inn Above Onion Creek, Kyle