The recent purchase of a historic building at the southeast corner of West 15th and Lavaca Streets in downtown Austin by the State Bar of Texas likely indicates the demise of a previously planned hotel tower project at this location.
The Bartholomew-Robinson Building at 1415 Lavaca Street, built in the 1880s but most recently serving as office space for the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, was imagined by Houston-area developers William Franks and Trend Hospitality LP as the future site of a 12-story, 159-room hotel project under the Motto by Hilton brand, which would have occupied a modern tower rising above the existing building designed by Houston firm MCS Architects.
The State Bar of Texas, which currently operates out of the office directly next door to the east at 1414 Colorado Street, purchased the property last month for a reported $3.25 million, thanks to funds from its reserves authorized for use by the Supreme Court of Texas earlier this year, with plans to occupy the building as overflow office and meeting space — but the organization’s motive might also involve its stated opposition to the project as a design they didn’t want to see going up next door:
Trey Apffel, executive director of the State Bar of Texas, spoke out against the tower project at the Feb. 24 meeting. The organization’s headquarters is next door to the historic building on Lavaca Street.
“As the next door neighbor to this property, we have a sincere interest in maintaining the historical integrity of the building,” he said. “We do not feel like a 12-story hotel built on top of that building does that or accomplishes that objective.”
Apffel said the State Bar did attempt to buy the building, but its offer wasn’t accepted.
Apffel wasn’t available for comment on whether this purchase indicates the hotel project is truly dead in the water, but you could also just read the above quote again. The Houston hotel developers, previously under contract to buy the building, are entirely absent from this recent transaction — it’s easy to believe after the last year that the hospitality sector might be scaling back or abandoning some of its previously-announced developments, a fate we expect for perhaps a few more hotel projects, or even just regular projects, that currently remain in limbo around here.
Originally built as a stone house in 1883 and expanded into a grocery and feed store that added the structure’s three distinctive corner towers in about 1886, the Bartholomew-Robinson building is a rare surviving local example of the so-called Second Empire style of architecture. The building has gone through many interior changes and uses since then, many of them contending with its advanced age — part of the Hilton project’s stated motivation for adapting the site was the increasingly poor condition of the original structure, which suffered several plumbing-related issues that motivated the TOMA to vacate the site as office space back in 2017.
The plan, which would have preserved the structure’s exterior walls and the decorative roof turrets providing most of its character, was never particularly popular with the Historic Landmark Commission, which moved to deny the project’s Certificate of Appropriateness last summer on the grounds that the tower wouldn’t adequately maintain the original building’s historic merit. Though the developers were free to appeal that vote, it was the last we heard from them. With plans to adapt the building for its own needs, the State Bar now shoulders the task of an extensive renovation maintaining the integrity of this historic structure — and we think it’s safe to say they won’t be putting any towers there.