At first glance, the most interesting thing about the La Quinta Inn at the corner of East 11th and San Jacinto Streets is the fact it’s still standing, renting likely the cheapest rooms in downtown Austin only a stone’s throw from the Texas Capitol out of a building that doesn’t look much at all like downtown.
Unlike the similarly nondescript Extended Stay America recently demolished to make way for the record-setting 6 X Guadalupe tower, the La Quinta is fully protected by a Capitol View Corridor, meaning its yellow-beige stucco will probably stay with us for a few more years — but the building’s former glory is nearly erased.
The golden age of the American motel peaked around the mid-1960s, and that’s when Austin celebrated the grand opening of the Downtowner Motor Inn — a $2 million building designed by well-known local architecture firm Lundgren & Maurer, hailed at the time as the peak of modern luxury and described by the Austin American-Statesman as the latest evidence of the city’s “multi-million dollar building boom.”
The best you’ll find at La Quinta these days is a continental breakfast with Texas-shaped waffles, but at the time of its opening in 1965 the Downtowner featured a full restaurant — one “Sportsman’s Night” menu lists a bill of fare including “Fresh pineapple shrub, glazed native squab, wild rice pilaf, broiled peach half with chutney, Dutchess potatoes, broccoli hollandaise and creme de menthe sundae” — with other on-site amenities like a private club, barbershop, beauty salon, and tobacconist.
Part of a national chain of equally-equipped and whimsically-designed hotels, many of which still stand to this day in a reduced-whimsy format similar to our La Quinta, the motel’s Downtowner Club was a genuinely swinging hotspot for the city’s nightlife in its first few years, with live music nearly every night and a dance floor hurriedly installed a few months after its grand opening.
After only a year of operation, manager Jack Haggard redecorated the space as the Roaring Twenties Club, a Prohibition-style speakeasy featuring bartenders wearing pistols in shoulder holsters and cocktail waitresses dancing on tables, go-go style, in flapper costumes — “a general atmosphere of bawdy houses and bathtub gin prevailed,” explained Statesman nightlife reporter Jim Langdon.
Flying in Saturday morning — six “flapper-styled” Go Go Girls, direct from New Orleans. They’ll be met at Municipal Airport by a husky pair of plain-clothes detectives wielding tommy-guns and driving a long black limousine. All the fanfare is in preparation for the Downtowner Club’s big change-over to a “Roaring 20s” type operation, effective next week . . .
Just a few of the many new features to be included in the operation include a telephone booth entrance in place of the regular club door; an electric, cartridge-playing piano; flappers and shoulder-holster-toting bartenders; and a “radar-oven” that bakes a potato in all of eight seconds.
— Jim Langdon, Austin American-Statesman, Feb. 26, 1966
This atmosphere didn’t sit right with the Texas Liquor Control Board, which filed a complaint against the club for indecent exposure — the flapper-styled dancing waitresses wore “perfectly modest one-piece outfits,” according to Langdon.
Manager Haggard pledged to fight the charges in court, but the results, if any, are lost to history. In any case, the Roaring Twenties were gone a year later, with the club rebranding once again to “the quiet atmosphere of an old English pub.” Live music and dining persisted at the Downtowner, but the motel was never quite the same attraction after the ’60s, becoming a Ramada and later a Best Western before a bankruptcy in the early 1990s led to its acquisition by La Quinta in 1991.
Along with the necessary asbestos mitigation, the new owners undertook a full renovation, stripping the building down and starting over, according to news coverage at the time — giving us the motel we know today, many of its original architectural quirks covered in stucco or removed altogether. One of the few signs left of the Downtowner’s former life is its suspiciously wood-paneled conference room, which was likely at one time either part of its restaurant or club. Otherwise, you’d have no idea this motel was once anything more than a place to stay.