During a recent weekend jaunt to Austin, I carved out enough time to visit a favorite old haunt. The courtyard at the Hotel San Jose on South Congress Avenue is an urban refuge amidst the commerce and clamor of the uber-hip boutique-and-restaurant-laden neighborhood. For years, as a reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, my colleagues and I ambled down the street from the newspaper offices to wind down after a day of wrangling sources and generating copy. It’s the perfect place for a relaxing, pre-dinner drink with friends or a date. A hideaway to film, art, music, literary and publishing insiders from near and far, the courtyard provides a cool getaway for a cold beverage, a cheese plate and conversation — and, if we are being honest, a little prime people watching too.
Liz Lambert, a former assistant district attorney turned designer and hotelier is the creative and entrepreneurial force behind projects including the funky Airstream “trailer park” hotel concept El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas; the opulent rock-and-roll-inspired Hotel Saint Cecilia near the San Jose in Austin; and the Hotel Havana in San Antonio. Lambert is known for her minimalist aesthetic and attention to detail. At the San Jose, she created a hip, peaceful oasis from what once was a run-down, $30-a-night flophouse. Nestled amid the red clay tiled buildings of a 1930s-era tourist motor court, a jumble of clean-lined, wood and metal tables, long wooden picnic table and benches and a rustic fire pit, tattooed servers whisk pint glasses filled with sangria, bottles of Lone Star and my personal favorite, Champassion (passion fruit juice, Champagne and three riper raspberries) to chic patrons. Time seems to slow down as you take in the scene or gaze into the bamboo barricade around a diminutive and inviting wading pool. In Austin at least, this is my happy place.
Part of the reason I love the San Jose so much is Lambert’s design. She once told me, “Good design is often about knowing when to stop. It is about finding a balance between elegance and simplicity, vibrancy and calm, old and new. It's about collecting objects that reflect your life experiences and your passion more than it is about filling a room. And for me, it's usually about letting the people be the color in the room rather than the stuff.”
Lambert’s remarkable restraint, which seems to come so easily, is something I struggle to master in my own design endeavors. I’m drawn to it and find myself most at peace in those places, which seem to embody it. For example, there’s a coffee shop in Houston, Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails, which was once like a second home. The custom bar has a simple palm leaf design crafted with sand beneath a protective layer of a thick, clear industrial coating. High backed barstools covered in latte-colored leather that’s secured by decorative brass upholstery rivets curve at the top, hugging your back as you sip your coffee beverage. Perhaps most importantly, the cappuccinos, lattes and cortados are like the food of the gods.
In the New Orleans area, I keep finding excuses to visit Earthsavers in Metairie for spa treatments and mini-retreats. The dimly-lit lounge has four low-slung, cushy chairs and a room with a two cushioned banquets and a table. Calming messages are inscribed on the walls, but the rooms are otherwise spartan and devoid of decorative elements. It’s serene and soothing mentally and physically.
For me at least, not every happy place is found in a well-designed interior. St. Charles Avenue is a where I find inspiration, relaxation and recreation. Walking or biking down the tree-lined streets, taking in the grand manses, lush gardens and the clatter of the streetcar is like being transported to another era. It sets my imagination at play and overwhelms my senses with the sights, sounds and scents that fuel my creative fires.
At times however, it’s good to switch it up. When I feel the need to escape, a drive to the beach is just what the doctor ordered. Waveland, Biloxi and Gulf Shores are close enough for quick weekend trips. Within an hour or three, toes are firmly burrowed into the sand and dozing in the breeze to the sound of crashing waves is practically mandatory. As far as nature goes, the beach is my No. 1, non-manmade happy place.
Thankfully, the location at the top of my list of havens is free and just a few steps away from my living room — our front porch. It overlooks a historic church and St. Charles Avenue and is the perfect spot to sip coffee or a cold beverage, scribble in my notebook, visit with friends and neighbors, catch up with Mark or kick back in the rocking chair with my eyes closed to daydream, plan or just be still for a few minutes. During temperate parts of the year, it’s where I start the day and where I end it. The porch also is probably one of the few places I’ve managed to take Lambert’s design advice of, “finding a balance between elegance and simplicity, vibrancy and calm, old and new.” It’s the happiest happy place, because it’s home.