Earlier this week, a demolition permit was issued by the city for the Extended Stay America building at 600 Guadalupe Street in downtown Austin. Despite its central location, this fenced-off, unremarkable low-rise structure was nearly identical to what you might find on the side of a highway anywhere else in America, and unless you were a business traveler looking for a room with a kitchen, your brain likely protected you from the hotel’s drab existence by declining to notice it — or its comically large parking lot — whenever you passed.
Of course, this address is about to get a little more interesting. The demolition of the hotel is the first step in clearing the site for downtown’s tallest tower yet built, 6 X Guadalupe. This 66-story mixed-use structure will bring street-level activity to the block in the form of restaurants on the ground floor, along with a large amount of office and residential space — a mix of uses that adds up to what I might call a “truly modern building,” were I writing the brochure.
The replacement of the boring-ass hotel currently haunting this prime downtown lot is great, but there’s a more exciting history to be enjoyed under the surface — after all, the Extended Stay building has only been there since 2000. Before that, this block was home to the Alamo Hotel, a relic of an older Austin people name-check with similar reverence as a place like, say, Liberty Lunch. Much of that is due to the Alamo Lounge on the former hotel’s ground floor facing Sixth Street, which hosted in its heyday the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Townes Van Zandt; to name only a few.
The Alamo was enigmatic — through its history from the 1920s to the 1980s, it was both a decent hotel, occupied by traveling salesmen and politicians; and what at least one blogger describes as “a popular place to commit suicide.” By the end of its era, the Alamo’s reputation was that of somewhere like Skid Row, a place for people on the margins to either get back on their feet or fall all the way off them.
Over the course of its slow decline in respectability, the Alamo grew in stature from a regular hotel to something far more interesting, an icon of a sort of Austin culture notable enough to appear in both the Clash’s music video for “Rock the Casbah” (at 2:02) and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s video for “Pancho and Lefty” (at 3:21).
Keeping that in mind, let’s dig up the Alamo’s body and poke it with a stick for a second — I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you why everyone liked it so much, but at least we can learn more about where it came from and where it went.
The story begins in 1925, when the newly-constructed Alamo Hotel opened to the public. Built at a cost of $250,000 — when adjusted for inflation, that’s only roughly $3.5 million in modern dollars, meaning the $370 million Fairmont Austin cost over 100 times more — the 80-room, five-story Alamo was described as having all the necessary trappings of luxury, with plenty of gold trim in the lobby, baths in every room, and a restaurant that only employed “experienced white help” in its kitchen, according to the Austin Statesman.
The hotel changed ownership several times in the 1920s, first hoping to rent rooms to traveling businessmen but slowly expanding its focus to tourists and long-term leased residents (The average daily rate for a room at this time was about $2.50). The building’s 100-space garage, a minor rarity for the time period, made it particularly attractive to individuals traveling by car.
Besides the mention of a well-loved coffee shop, drugstore and barbershop operating out of ground-floor retail spaces in the building, there isn’t much interesting about the Alamo in the newspaper for the next few decades — aside from a couple of dead bodies in the rooms from time to time, it was just another hotel.
The Alamo’s manager, James Lee Hubby, was arrested in 1945 for allegedly selling heroin from the hotel’s front desk, but the charges were later dropped. Things started getting interesting in the 1960s, when Austin entrepreneur Eli Garza took over operations at the hotel’s Alamo Lounge, installing an antique German bar said to be more than 125 years old. The lounge was always used as a music venue of a sort, but it was in the 1970s, when the hotel had grown worn around the edges and declined into what people still remember, that its iconic nature as a venue was solidified:
The Alamo Lounge was shaped like a coffin. It was carved out of one corner of the ground floor of the Alamo Hotel, which used to reside at the corner of Sixth and Guadalupe until some no-necked developer built a vacant lot there. Winos ascended like angels up the Alamo’s creaking elevator, and the rooms were populated mainly by transients . . . as for the Alamo Lounge itself, it was long, narrow and as full of smoke as a Tammany Hall back room. The luckless performer perched on a stool in front of a pillar in the middle of the room while his – or her – audience assembled themselves around the bar’s periphery. The bathrooms were in the rear of the establishment, which meant that patrons had to squeeze past the headliner – sometimes under the very neck of her guitar – to attend to nature’s call.
There was no amount of whiskey that would ever have led anyone to mistake the Alamo Lounge for, say, the bar at the Ritz Carlton. But the beer was cold, the audiences were rapt, the music was damned near free (a big mason jar collected musicians’ tips), and there were nights when it seemed as though everyone in the place was allied in a grand conspiracy against ponderous reality. Every musician should have an Alamo Lounge in his life, too . . .
— John T. Davis, Austin American-Statesman, 1992
Between its cheap rooms and well-loved venue, the Alamo saw more than its fair share of minor celebrity residents — actor Harry Anderson lived there before finding fame on “Night Court,” for one — but undoubtedly the most legendary occupant was Sam Houston Johnson, brother of Lyndon Baines.
As far as presidential relatives go, Sam Johnson wasn’t quite a Billy Carter, but his problems with alcohol and gambling diminished his usefulness by the end of LBJ’s presidency, and in 1975, an Austin American-Statesman article described him living in a leased four-room suite at the “rather tawdry” Alamo Hotel. A 1978 profile, also in the Statesman, indicated that he still lived there, and also briefly mentions the lung cancer that would kill him only three months after the article’s publication.
The hotel’s decline and seedy status placed it in the crosshairs of development, and the Alamo Lounge closed in 1981. The property was purchased by the Lamar Savings and Loan Association, which planned to develop a new headquarters, known as Lamar Financial Plaza, atop the Alamo site and the block directly east of it.
The Alamo Hotel was demolished in 1984, but its memory lived on, in the form of the “Alamo Curse:”
In 1984, former Austin street minister Tony Hearn laid a curse on property where the hotel is planned because he wanted a homeless mission built there. He mixed red-wine vinegar with food coloring and circled the land pouring the blood-like concoction. The curse, he said, would prevent anybody from making money off the property if they didn’t consider the interests of the poor.
— Austin American-Statesman, 1998
The curse appeared to work pretty well, at least on the Lamar folks — during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, the company failed and was taken over by the federal government, while its president was indicted and later convicted of fraud. The site of the Alamo Hotel remained empty until the Extended Stay America hotel opened there in 2000, its backers seemingly unafraid of any such omens.
Though there’s a good chance the developers of 6 X Guadalupe haven’t considered the curse at all in their plans, they’re probably safe just the same. The Downtown Density Bonus Program, the gatekeeper requirements of which the building must meet to build its planned height and floor-to-area ratio, mandates on-site affordable housing or a development bonus fee paid into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The tower’s developers, Kairoi and Lincoln Property Company, have opted for the latter by paying roughly $2.74 million into the fund, an amount presumably sufficient to protect the building from any bad mojo. Only time will tell, of course — but just to be safe, if I were them, I’d open a bar on the building’s ground floor and call it the Alamo Lounge. It’s really the least they could do.