To say that Liz Lambert designs hotels is a bit like saying that Michelangelo painted ceilings. It totally undersells the point.
Liz is a bit of a living legend in the field of hospitality. Her four Texas hotels are not only beautifully appointed, but are designed with both preservation and conservation in mind – eco-chic of the highest measure. Others in her field approach innovation from the ground-up, but Liz chooses to enter a project from the front door in. She understands that renovating an existing site in a way that modernizes it while keeping its character in tact and honoring its history is actually much more original. We’d venture to say that back in 1995, when she opened her first property, it was downright revolutionary.
We’re big fans of Liz’s work, and, ever since the day two years ago she and her girlfriend Amy Cook walked into our store, we’ve been big fans of the woman behind it as well. (Carrie wrote a wonderful account of that fated first meeting on our blog; you can read it here.)
Much like we are here at Imogene + Willie, Liz is deeply influenced and inspired by music. To wit, her first property, the Hotel San Jose, counts Austin’s legendary Continental Club as its neighbor. Her El Cosmico trailer park, filled with retrofitted vintage Winnebagos and Air Steams, hosts an outdoor music festival each September, where friends of Liz like Patty Griffin and Tift Merritt perform. And finally, the design of her newest Austin endeavor, the Hotel Saint Cecilia, was totally inspired by the early 70′s decadence of the Rolling Stones.
Kind of makes you wonder where this passion for music came from, doesn’t it? Us, too. So a few days ago – about a week after our friend Kristin Barlowe photographed her at the Saint Cecilia – we asked Liz to share some stories about her formative musical exposure. Here’s what she said.
When you’re a kid from a small town in West Texas, music is one of the easiest ways out – even if you’re just sitting in your room, a record can take you someplace else. When I was a teenager in the ‘70s, there were LPs with big pictures on them and all these photo pullouts inside; you could really immerse yourself in the experience of the album. I had pictures of Cat Stevens on my wall when I was in high school.
I grew up in Odessa, which is an oil field town. Outside influences came there pretty slowly: we were a good number of years behind any kind of cultural curve. In terms of music, Odessa was a hard rock and roll place to grow up. Bands like Nazareth and Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent and those guys would come through on tour. There’s nothing really wrong with that music; I just didn’t find it very interesting.
Same with country music, which was also around me when I was growing up. Today, I love it; it’s very important to me, but I ran away from it for a time when I first moved from West Texas. I had to get far away from home to really appreciate the music that I grew up with. I guess I always knew that I was a little different than the culture around me. Through listening to different kinds of music, I discovered that there were other people who felt the same way that I felt. They were just expressing it in a different, more complex way, but it was the same message.
I don’t know if anyone I knew in Odessa listened to the Beatles or Stones back then. If someone was into that kind of music – meaning, not hard rock – they were considered to be pretty adventurous. I was lucky because I had a big brother who played guitar, and who liked Neil Young – thanks to his influence, the first record I bought was Neil’s Decade – and who introduced me to Dylan and other music I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. My friends weren’t into that kind of sound. I remember when I first started to get into Joni Mitchell, I was listening to her in the car and everyone was appalled. One of my friends grabbed the eight-track out of the deck and threw it out the window.
Music was hard to come by in Odessa back then, so that made it even more special when you finally did get your hands on something new and different that made you think or feel in a different way. There was one record store in town – a place called Endless Horizons, which was a combination head shop and record store. It’s still there, which is fantastic. It’s right next to the junior college campus. Probably because of its location, it’s been continuously in business for 30 or 40 years.
My girlfriend Amy is always coming up with million-dollar ideas. (She says she’s the ideas man; she’s not going to execute the plan, she’s just going to come up with it.) Amy wants to put an Endless Horizon next to every junior college in the country, because as long as kids are smoking pot and listening to music, those stores will never go out of business. Do that and you’re set.
Unlike other record stores, I don’t think Endless Horizons ever stopped selling vinyl. It’s probably because no one ever got rid of their turntable in Odessa. I’m sure the thinking is, ‘Well, it still works, so why get rid of it?’ That’s what I mean about Odessa being so far behind the curve that it never went out of style. If you just wait long enough, everything comes back around.
I’ve lost boxes of records in ill-conceived moves over the years, forgetting and leaving them behind in random basements. I do have some of my original albums, though, and I’m always collecting more. MP3s are fine, but I like the ritual of playing vinyl: flipping the record, hearing the rotation at the end when the side is done, that whole thing. We have a turntable at home and one here on the ranch in Marfa, where we keep lots of records. There are record players in every guest room at the Hotel Saint Cecilia, which is appropriate since its design is rooted in the history of rock and roll.
The Saint Cecilia is inside a Victorian from the 1880s that sits back from Congress Avenue on an acre and a half of land, surrounded by beautiful old oak trees. When I first started thinking about what to do with the house, a picture I’d seen of Mick Jagger kept coming to mind. I still haven’t rediscovered the exact picture I’m talking about – maybe it’s just one of those things that I’ve created in my head.
At any rate, the image I recall is from the early 1970s and is of Mick standing beside a Bentley parked in a driveway in front of an old Victorian mansion; a chauffeur is wiping down the car. It’s totally rock and roll, and we designed the entire hotel around that image. It’s kind of decadent. Everything has a little bit of a patina on it.
Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music and poetry, so we’ve tried to curate a good collection of vinyl for guests to enjoy, particularly from the late ’60s through the ’70s up to the early ’80s, as well as books of poetry from the same period. Because of zoning laws, the bar on site is private; it’s not open to the public. It’s kind of a drag as far as business goes, but on the flip side, because of this, people think of Saint Cecilia as a very private place to stay. Artists feel comfortable staying and working there.
I am amazed at some of the musicians I’ve met through my work – the kind of people who you just worship from afar and don’t imagine you’d ever get to meet. Then there they are.
Right after we opened the San Jose, Patti Smith came walking through the door with her guitar on her back. I couldn’t believe it. Same thing with Lucinda Williams: I met her at the hotel. You never know who’s going to check in.
I met Tift Merritt because Steve, the guy who owns the Continental Club – Austin’s legendary live music club, which happens to be across the street from the San Jose – convinced me to book her to play at the hotel during South By Southwest, when we have big shows every day in our parking lot. Tift and I have been really close ever since.
In May, we hosted a show in the same parking lot to raise money for the West Texas Wildfire Relief Benefit. The fires were widespread out here this year: one came through where I’m standing right now. The pasture was burned; a little green is just now starting to finally come back. Other people weren’t nearly as lucky. They lost everything.
It was easy to get people to play: Patty loves it out here in West Texas, so she was happy to help. Amy, Shawn Colvin and Erika Wennerstrom signed on, too. We raised about $35,000 in just a few hours, which was great.
That show was memorable to me for other reasons, too. Before Patty went up on stage, she told me that when she sang her song “Mary” she wanted me to come up on stage and sing backup. As Patty knows, and as most of my friends know, I’m a horrible, horrible singer. When I was little, my brothers would make me mouth the words to the hymns at church so I wouldn’t throw everyone around me off key. I’m that bad.
But “Mary” is one of my favorite Patty songs and she said she wouldn’t sing it unless I came on stage. When the time came, she called up Amy, Shawn, Erika and me up to join her. I was the only one out of the group who wasn’t a musician. I felt completely ridiculous, so I grabbed the microphone and tried to explain why I was up there.
Amy still thinks this is so funny. She’s like, “I don’t think that Patty has ever had anyone grab the microphone away from her like that.” Patty just stood there and started tuning her guitar while I went on and on. There’s a link to it on YouTube somewhere.
I ended up staying on stage, but I didn’t sing. I just stood in the background and swayed and mouthed the words, just like I did in church when I was a kid.
You never forget your first:
About our photographer: Kristin Barlowe is a respected Nashville-based photographer and director with hundreds of magazine and music video credits under her designer belt. Until she gets her website up and running, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.