Walking the Line
A look behind the palette and paradoxes of downtown’s Line hotel
by Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Chase Daniel
Walk into the Line hotel on a given Friday afternoon and just beyond the concrete columns, beneath the rough, textured ceilings and hanging planters, excited travelers and their friends gather, those who know something of Austin or who want to visit the Austin they’ve heard about. Rolling suitcases prowl the extended lobby, navigating the various seating areas that offer an eclectic mix of patterns, an intentional nod to Austin’s eclectic history. If there’s a feeling of coolness to being in this prime downtown spot, with its pale-pink walls, dark floors, and tranquil lake views, it’s by design.
When the building first opened, on the corner of Congress Avenue and what was then First Street, now Cesar Chavez, its grand opening on January 23, 1966, was announced with 12 pages in the Austin American-Statesman. Opened as Wilbur Clark’s Crest Hotel, the structure was an efficient example of the modernist architecture of the time, with a few signature features. Texas architect A. Carroll Brodnax, designed a 12-story, 310-room structure, which included three indoor pool suites (“the Crest Hotel chain’s trademark”) and the building’s exterior window arches, meant to block the sun and provide shade.
This is not what I’d call a one-note hotel.
Inside, the hotel boasted an Old World Spanish influence, with terrazzo floors, dark wood, Spanish oil paintings, and a gold-leaf ceiling. Burnt-orange and gold colors accented the hotel’s corridors. Heavy paneled double doors opened into the Seville dining room, seating 90, and an auditorium that could accommodate 500. But the real highlight was the hotel’s location on the edge of Town Lake, with Congress Avenue and the Capitol in clear view.
Fast-forward half a century. Purchased from Radisson in 2016, the hotel recently reopened as a Sydell Group property, in an extension of the Line brand, whose other outposts include spots in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., after undergoing a thorough renovation, which, in a way, helped return the building to its roots. “Its location here in Austin was really under-appreciated,” architect Michael Hsu explains. “It was a huge deal, and then it sort of fell out of favor, became a building people sort of looked past or, even worse, didn’t really like at all.”
Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (MHOA), along with L.A.-based Knibb Design, made plans to maximize the hotel’s location and its foundational structure. “The current building codes wouldn’t allow you to actually modify the building a lot,” Hsu says. “So a lot of it was about stripping away layers of additions and remodels that the building had seen.”
The design team went back to basics and focused on natural elements. “We talked a lot about being on the city edge, the lake, and drawing a lot from some of the natural forms and textures and colors,” says Maija Kreishman, a partner at MHOA. They looked to features of Austin for their color palette, finding inspiration in the greenery of Hamilton Pool, the blues of Barton Springs, geological pinks, the black darkness of caves, Hill Country oak trees, and, being on Congress Avenue, the bats. And they worked to visually reconnect the hotel to the lake. “In the old hotel, [when] you walked in, you didn’t even see the lake at all. There was no connection whatsoever,” Hsu says.
They cleared the sightlines and opened up the hotel’s pool more to the lake as well, outlining the poolside space with rough slatted wood and adding a pop of color with orange plaid umbrellas. Inside, with the textured natural-colored curtains pulled back, diners in the Arlo Grey restaurant have views of both spaces. While sitting at gray marble tabletops or lounging on tufted couches in Top Chef winner Kristen Kish’s restaurant, patrons can look out at paddle-boarders or turn their attention to their drinks, mixed behind a large black wood bar. The sleek central bar was built by Wimberley-based furniture maker Michael Wilson.
“Even though it’s a large place, I think it still has the vibe you might get when you go to someone’s house,” Hsu says. “It feels very personal. You can connect with people. That’s why you see a lot of the layering of furniture, layering of styles, colors. This is not what I’d call a one-note hotel.”
There was also a desire to use the lobby areas to communicate a sense of history. Just past the main entrance, a large circular ottoman and various patterned chairs give a nod to the 1960s. “[It’s] sort of playing off lobby history, formality, Lady Bird — the very stately icon — and then the building itself, which is born of that particular time,” designer Sean Knibb says.
Closer to the check-in desk, a concrete, stair-stepped fireplace takes its cues from Italian contemporary brutalist architect Carlo Scarpa. Notes of brutalism play out throughout the hotel in found concrete moments, echoing those of the Line’s L.A. hotel. “We didn’t bring it in [to the Austin hotel], to be honest. It was already there. We just didn’t cover it up,” Knibb says.
The overall effect of the design elements is a subtle complexity — the dark and the light, the rugged textures offset by an abundance of hanging brass and copper planters and strategically placed fiddle-leaf fig trees. “Part of the paradox of Austin that we love, having lived here, is that there are contradictory things — we love refinement, but we also love roughness. We love grit and we love sophistication. We love beauty, but we’re also quite happy looking at landscapes that are in a way brutal and maybe a little hard,” Hsu says. “Contradictory things, paradoxical things — that’s what makes the city thrive and interesting.”
That ethos extends to the hotel’s 428 guest rooms as well. Graded blue hallway carpet and dark-blue walls carry the natural feeling of flowing water to the rooms’ entrances. Sandblasted plywood headboards support soft, low beds. Large windows to the south give open views of kayakers traversing the lake and, to the north, pedestrians — tourists and businesspeople — navigating toward Congress Avenue.
“One of the things I love about Austin and people who want to visit here is they come and feel like they really want an authentic experience of what Austin is,” Hsu says. “I think it’s our job to really figure out what the future of the city looks like through these types of projects, taking old things and really reinterpreting and reintroducing them to a completely different audience.”