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Liz Lambert's Rise from Frustrated Austin, Texas Lawyer
 to Boutique Hotelier Is Now the Stuff of Legend
By Christopher Wynn, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

February 24, 2009 - AUSTIN -- A shapely 1970 Citroen is parked on the front lawn at Hotel Saint Cecilia.

The French sedan worthy of Steve McQueen was a gift to the hotel's owner and creative genius, Liz Lambert. All she had to do was get it here from New Jersey.

"We're restoring it," proclaims Lambert, a choppy-haired fortysomething who's reached national maverick status for such rule-changing projects as Austin's Hotel San Jose and Marfa's Thunderbird Hotel.

The Citroen eventually will be put into service as the 14-room property's official ride, but Lambert doesn't mind it sitting inside the front gate until then. Curiosities are commonplace here at the Saint Cecilia. Since the hotel's January opening, the cool crowd has been checking in, and the curious have been checking out the Saint Cecilia, cocooned among gnarled oaks in a fenced compound off Austin's hip South Congress Avenue, just a block or two from the San Jose.

Front and center is the renovated 1880s Victorian main house, a private manse turned folksy bed and breakfast before Lambert bought it two years ago. She's since given it a radical, but respectful, rock 'n' roll makeover.

Across the rolling lawn, the cluster of gray stucco bungalows, turquoise pool and an airy lounge trimmed with black-and-white striped awnings are all new, but designed to evoke midcentury additions.

"This place just seemed to want a '60s and '70s vibe," Lambert says. "It was a period when rock 'n' roll had a certain elegance, from the Stones and The Who, to Bowie at the time, even Janis Joplin. The house wanted that kind of glamour. Glamour that was kind of gritty around the edges."

That same descriptive works for Lambert, who says she never knows what to put down under job title: Designer? Hotelier? She prefers "Creative."

Lambert's rise from frustrated Austin lawyer to boutique hotelier is now the stuff of legend.

In the mid '90s, she bought a run-down 1936 motor court, seeing good bones and potential that few recognized in its rundown South Congress location, across from the Continental Club. She spent the next five years (and $3 million) renovating, ultimately quitting her job in the Texas attorney general's office to make repairs, snake drains and deal kindly with a steady stream of the homeless and prostitutes. The life-altering experience is chronicled in her 2005 documentary The Last Days of the San Jose.

Lambert worked with San Antonio's famed Lake/Flato architects to expand and reimagine the San Jose for a 2000 debut. The property's trailblazing desert-Zen minimalism, combined with Liz's influential circle of A-list artist and musician friends, quickly made the hotel (and its lively watering hole) a Texas hot-spot, and helped transform South Congress in the process.

Offers began pouring in for Lambert to work her mojo on other properties. She brought San Jose cool -- cowhide rugs, concrete floors, oasis landscaping -- to Marfa's Thunderbird Hotel (later selling her stake), then started on her own bohemian Marfa compound dubbed El Cosmico. The under-the-stars cluster of teepees, trailers, yurts and wood-fired hot tub is scheduled to open this summer.

Late last year, Lambert's Bunkhouse Management took on Dallas' Belmont Hotel. "We want to make it a little more modern, but still with a Moroccan edge to it," Lambert says of the upcoming refresh.

For now, though, Lambert is focused squarely on Saint Cecilia, which she christened for the patron saint of musicians and poets. Part of the name's inspiration was no doubt the hotelier's partner of four years, singer-songwriter Amy Cook.

On this particular rainy afternoon, Cook has kicked off her shoes and is painting a wall at the Cecilia, "getting in some goodwill" before immersing herself in a new record with indie rocker Ben Kweller. (One of Cook's two solo albums is on a Marfa label created by Leisha Hailey of Showtime's The L Word.)

The hotel's electric-blue lounge -- set off nicely by a white taxidermy peacock -- is Cook's handiwork also. "I tinted the plaster the right color, put up three coats, added a final coat of wax and then buffed the whole thing out," she explains, blue paint still smeared across her cheek and arm. Turns out, she's the real deal. Cook's day job back in LA (before mutual friends introduced her to "Lizzie") was Venetian plastering.

Lambert walks up and lifts a piece of Cook's paint-smattered hair. "Adorable," she says, just before her cellphone goes off and she starts explaining how "there are two different kinds of self-leveling epoxy." Her hand still wears the stamp from last night's trip to Antone's nightclub. It's a typical Monday.

Cook suddenly becomes fixated on two women in the distance, strolling across the Cecilia's grassy courtyard. In a testament to how at home the owners have come to feel here, she squints and asks, "Who are those people?"

Lambert just looks at her: "It's a hotel."

There were two design inspirations for Saint Cecilia.

The first is a photo Lambert swears she's seen of a '70s-era Mick Jagger in front of an old Victorian, "looking super rock 'n' roll" in striped velvet pants, as his chauffer washes the Bentley in the driveway.

The second? "Your gay uncle who lives on an estate and has traveled everywhere from India to Morocco and did a lot of collecting in the '60s and '70s." The resulting "hodgepodge of different things in each room, from super modern to antique" is most overt in the old Victorian.

In one courtyard-facing suite, two of the bedroom's windows are papered for privacy with pages torn from 1970s Rolling Stone. A vintage black Yamaha piano, complete with sheepskin-covered bench, is there for impromptu jam sessions, mainly because Lambert felt the room "wanted it."

In the attached psychedelic sunroom, there's a kitschy "naked lady coffee table," a reclining female form made only slightly demure by Lambert's addition of a smoked glass top. A neighboring suite features Gaetano Pesce's massive, womb-like red lounge chair, nicknamed La Mamma and "a favorite with dog owners," says Lambert.

(She and Cook have two. The border collie, Steven -- "he also responds to Steve" -- takes his name from a short story by West Coast hipster Dave Eggers.)

Virtually every piece in the hotel was hunted, scouted and placed by Lambert. That includes art: a mash-up of vintage rock posters, photographs, an old sign promoting gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson for sheriff, pencil sketches and works from Dallas' Barry Whistler Gallery.

Ask Lambert about the origin of her style and she laughs it off. "I come from a ranching family in Odessa, do you think that was it?"

Lambert's West Texas family had more than its share of creativity, however. Her only surviving sibling, Louis, lives in Fort Worth where he owns Lambert's Steaks, Seafood & Whiskey (a spinoff of his Austin eatery, Lamberts Downtown Barbeque) and also runs Dutch's Burgers and Beer.

The hotelier was especially close to Louis' twin brother, Lyndon, a designer who died of AIDS-related lymphoma nine years ago, and whom she credits for inspiring her work.

"He's the one who taught me what a Bertoia chair was and all of that. I don't know if I would have taken to design the same way without him," Lambert says. He also left her with a guiding mantra: "People should always be the color in the room."

Given Saint Cecilia's scarlet, aqua and high-gloss black scheme, they better be Technicolor.

No one's naming names, but the hotel guestbook already includes plenty that you've seen on a marquee. It's a crowd that understandably prefers hanging out to going out.

"We have a lot of small pocket-parties in the rooms," says general manager Michael Nestor. "On weekends especially, there's a great vibe here with all these little parties cross-linking and lots of impromptu jam sessions going on. It's great."

Each room has its own turntable, and there's a collection of vinyl at the front desk. Guests and friends continually donate to the collection, which shelves everything from vintage jazz to Donovan, ELO and the Byrds.

House parties also get a boost from what Lambert dubs the insane mini-bars, stocked with goodies such as caviar, duck rillette, artisan cheeses, farmhouse olives and bison jerky. Accoutrements are equally upscale: china, linen napkins, cheese knives, caviar spoons and stemless Spanish wine glasses for a toast.

An even grander indulgence: the hotel's handcrafted Swedish Hästens beds, king-size only and made up just so. ("There's not enough crispness in the sheets," we overheard her telling staff at Saint Cecilia.)

Lambert says her critical eye is a "Virgo thing, or maybe a lawyer thing," but that the minutiae count.

"I think it was Mies van der Rohe who said 'God is in the details,' but I've also heard that the devil is in the details," says Lambert.

"I don't know which came first."

E-mail cwynn@dallasnews.com

Rooms from $300

112 Academy Drive, Austin 512-852-2400

hotelsaintcecilia.com

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Dallas Morning News

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