Dark and Stormy
The creative team behind Native explains how they turned a Cothron’s Safe and Lock into a popular upscale hostel
by Tobin Levy
Photographs by Chase Daniel
When talking about urban development, Dutch architect, theorist and provocateur Rem Koolhaas noted that, “Change tends to fill people with this incredible fear. We are surrounded by crisis mongers who see the city in terms of decline.” But Koolhaas was speaking as an artist up for a challenge. “I try to find ways in which change can be mobilized to strengthen the original identity,” he explained. “It’s a weird combination of having faith and having no faith.”
The team behind Native Experiential Hostel Bar & Kitchen exhibits a similar creative duality. In this “upscale hostel” the interiors are simultaneously, successfully polished and roughhewn, intimate and cavernous, broody and upbeat. “‘Dark and stormy’ was our design mantra,” says Michael Dickson, co-owner of Native along with Antonio Madrid and Will Steakley. Yet their general mien is anything but dark and stormy. Dickson and Madrid are managing partners of Icon Design + Build and worked on Native with interior designer Joel Mozersky, Jared Haas at collaborative design firm un.box studio, and Christian Helms from Helms Workshop.
From the beginning, it was agreed upon that the approach to building “would be more about deconstruction rather than actual construction,” says Haas, who was initially presented with the existing brick and mortar (most recently Cothron’s Safe and Lock), the dark and stormy theme, and a vague idea for an eclectic community-oriented destination, possibly a boutique hotel. “Antonio and Michael are from Austin, hence the name, and they wanted Native to have a social component, to be for locals as well as travelers,” Haas says. They also wanted it to preserve Austin’s inclusive culture.
Native consists of a two-story, 19th century limestone edifice and connecting mid-century brick warehouse, which have been transformed into a 12-suite hostel with a communal space and adjacent bar and kitchen. An additional 35,000 square feet is being developed as an event venue.
Further research into the building’s history proved serendipitous. The older portion originally housed travelers who’d come to Austin to work on the railroad. They’d work all day then sleep upstairs on makeshi cots. Upstairs is now home to a “romper room” with plush sofas, ten beds and three bathrooms. The first floor of the space, which originally functioned as both a saloon and mercantile, now features the bar, restaurant, and a pop-up market where local artisans sell jewelry, clothes, and art.
The history is integral to the design. Original plaster and ceilings remain exposed and confident. Haas celebrates this kind of authenticity and age-dependent beauty while incorporating modern elements. Mozersky, too, was careful to highlight the gems they unearthed in the renovation process. It’s what he refers to as his “do no harm” approach.
Mozersky paid homage to the building’s history with Tramp Art detailing on the woodwork. Tramp Art is a movement from the late 19th to the mid 20th century where shapes were whittled out of wood from discarded cigar boxes or palettes. In another ode to the vagabond, artist Adele Hauser created a map of Austin, dotting landmarks with Hobo Codes – simple graphics, drawn on houses or posts, once used by migrant train riders to communicate with the itinerants in their wake. For example, the outline of a cat means a compassion lady lives here. The name “Joe” with an arrow below it means someone named Joe went whichever way the arrow is pointing.
Each thoughtful nod to what was is strengthened by something new and unexpected—be it a piece of art, an introduction, or a drove of B-boys doing their thing on a makeshift dance floor. “Antonio put it best when he said this isn’t a club or bar or restaurant,” Dickson says. “It feels like you’re lounging in your buddy’s house all day and then after a few cocktails the music gets a little louder and eventually you start partying and the next morning you wake up and you’re still there.” It’s not that they want people to stay indefinitely, Dickson asserts. Though breakfast tacos are an option…