History

Iconic Downtown Austin Hotel

InterContinental Stephen F. Austin

1924

The first high-rise hotel on Austin's Congress Avenue, this brainchild of city business leaders has a wraparound terrace and beautiful views of the Texas Capitol in the thick of downtown.

By Liz Carmack - Published in Historic Texas Hotels



Austin business leaders in 1920 began to envision a new hotel in the Texas capital to host conventions and accommodate the icreasing number of travelers visiting the growing city for business and pleasure. Their dream was realized in May 1924, when the 10-story Stephen F. Austin opened as the city's first high-rise hotel on Congress Avenue. It had taken four years of perserverance, a public subscripion of $600,000 in mortgage bons, and a deal struck by the city's Chamber of Commerce with Fort Worth's Baker Hotel Company, but the Stephen F. Austin was now a reality. Grand opening festivities included a lavish dinner and dance for more than 600 guests in the Longhorn Garden atop the hotel. The Austin Statesman said the Beaux Arts style hotel was a "keystone to Austin's future development" and called the Stephen F. Austin a "palatial hostelry."

The Fort Worth architectural firm of Sanguinet, Staats, and Hedrick designed the 10-story brick building with a granite base, a second story of ornamental white stone, amd a wraparound terrace. The hotel was to be called The Texas, but the Business and Professional Women's Club of Austin and other local groups successfully petitioned the Baker Hotel Company to change its name to Stephen F. Austin, in honor of the "father of Texas." The hotel is said to be the first building named for the state's leading colonist and statesman.

The hotel building made historic changes to downtown Austin’s skyline. The structure was the first with a lighted roofline, a practice now employed by a number of the city’s other high-rise buildings. Its rooftop Longhorn Garden was ringed with 125 multi-paned windows and transoms. This popular space, which was removed when the hotel added five floors in 1938, had a polished wood floor and offered sweeping views of the Texas Capitol and the city’s growing downtown. In a photo from the hotel’s early years, hundreds of ladies in hats and men in linen suits and ties dine at long tables in the sunny, breezy room. Rustic log beams draped with greenery stretch above tables dotted with fresh flowers.

Numerous, sometimes dramatic remodeling projects transformed the hotel over the years. In the 1950s, the interior was updated to reflect contemporary tastes and its mezzanine reconfigured, perhaps to accommodate the 15 Austin service organizations that regularly met there. As a result, the hotel removed the two main elements that gave the lobby its grandeur - a large, marble staircase and the room’s two-story opening to a mezzanine.

By the early 1980s new owners from Minneapolis/St. Paul undertook another round of changes that rubbed Austinites the wrong way. For a start, the hotel was renamed the Bradford. Owners intended salmon pink paint for the exterior and wanted to replace the building’s original wood-framed, six-pane-over-size-pane windows with single panes of glass. Instead, in a compromise reached with the Austin Historical Landmark Commission, they nixed the paint color and installed two-pane windows instead, the windows it has to this day.

The Bradford closed in 1987 at a time when Austin had a glut of hotel rooms. The city considered turning the hotel into an upscale apartment community but the idea never came to fruition. Its fixtures and furnishings were sold, and the building sat empty, except for a few vagrants camped out in its rooms. In the late 1990s, Intercontinental Hotels purchased the hotel and using research collected from photographs and text descriptions, spent two years and millions of dollars returning building to its original beauty. The “Stephen F,” as it is known to locals, reopened in 2000.

Today, the lobby once again has its marble double staircase whose landing is an ideal setting for bridal portraits. The lobby is open to the mezzanine and the balcony is rimmed with ornamental plaster and a railing of geometric designs that match the original details. The decorative plaster capitals atop the room’s four pillars feature five-pointed Texas stars. The columns’ capitals are recreations based on a single piece salvaged from the hotel.

A painting of Stephen F. Austin, a copy of the portrait in the state Capitol, hangs over one of the lobby’s sitting areas. The modern furnishings in plush gold, cream, and black fabrics are grouped near the entrance to the Roaring Fork Restaurant and Saloon. This establishment serves gourmet western cuisine and leases space from the hotel that was initially occupied by the Austin Pharmacy upon the hotel’s 1924 opening. Austinites who club-hopped in the 1980s remember this same spot as the Hippopotamus lounge and piano bar.

The hotel’s 189 comfortable guest rooms and suites have a classic look with the modern furniture and a cream, gold, and black color scheme. Fluffy duvets cover the beds, which are stacked with down pillows. Colorful prints of Texas wildflowers in gold frames adorn the walls. The private bathrooms throughout feature gold-tone fixtures, tan marble, pedestal sinks, and gold-framed mirrors. Some have a separate marble vanity.

During its first week of business in 1924, the hotel hosted the Texas Bankers Association’s annual meeting. The bankers still patronize the hotel, whose mostly corporate clients also include law firms and high tech companies. In addition, the state Capitol crowd has always favored the Stephen F. Austin. The building is only four blocks from the Capitol, and a few state senators and representatives used to live at the hotel while the legislature was in session. In 1937, Lyndon Johnson set up his Congressional campaign headquarters here. Although during today’s legislative sessions no legislators call the hotel home, politicos frequent the Stephen F. Austin’s meeting rooms, restaurants, and bar.

The hotel’s bar, with its overstuffed chairs, mounted longhorn, and modern décor with a light Texas touch, is popular with locals and offers outdoor seating on the wraparound terrace. This is the only publicly accessible terrace on Congress Avenue where patrons find an impressive view up the avenue and to its crown, the state Capitol building. In typical Austin fashion, it’s not unusual for the bar to be filled with a mix of local political and business types, Texas Longhorn fans, and visiting musicians and film makers.

The terrace is also the perfect spot for parade viewing. The hotel occasionally will book part of the terrace to groups during events, but a portion is always kept open for public access. Both the historic Paramount Theater and the State Theater are next door. The Arthouse at the Jones Center is across the street and the Austin Museum of Art is a short walk away.