In scenes that look uncannily similar to the pandemic, the 1997 Hotel San José saw Austinites upon Austinites look Liz Lambert in the eye through a plexiglass screen and ask for a room for the night.
Lambert's newest documentary, "Through the Plexi-Glass: the Last Days of the San José," serves as a moving reprisal of her original, "Last Days of the San José." The documentary debuted at SXSW and tells the untold story of the San José, gentrification and how it led to her eventually leaving Bunkhouse Group, the hospitality company she created.
In the beginning, the film shows a peek back in time to South Congress in the late 1990s.
A lawyer who had just returned home to Austin from Manhattan, Lambert loved spending time on South Congress. She frequented the Continental Club, a longtime Austin staple, which lived across from the Hotel San José. While it looked decrepit, Lambert would soon discover that the hotel was "teeming with life."
The hotel had just been listed in China when Lambert approached asking to buy it. They said yes, and after buying the hotel, the previous owners left town and were never to be seen again.
Lambert didn't buy a traditional hotel. The Hotel San José was low-income housing, and she continued to run it, as-is, for more than three years while she raised capital to renovate.
Over the course of those three years, Lambert saw unimaginable things in that "red-light district," met a hotel full of characters and befriended many of them.
Lambert finally got a loan to renovate the hotel a few years later and closed. Ever since, South Congress has not been the same. At the end of the film, Lambert took responsibility for the spark that started gentrification on South Congress.
"That's the thing about change: You're losing something to create something new," Lambert said in the film.
Lambert said she sold the majority of Bunkhouse to Standard Hotels in 2017. She was fired from Bunkhouse Group because she and the company disagreed on "how to best grow the company."
"Why does every business in America see growth as the path to winning? I fought against it for, I guess, a couple of years," Lambert said. "I really hoped the specialness of what we had grown at Bunkhouse and at the San José would prevail."
In the film, overlaid with beautiful b-roll of the hotels she helped create, Lambert said it isn't lost on her that the gentrification sparked by the hotel's renovation was brought to bear on her.
"You're kidding yourself to think things aren't changing," Lambert said. "No matter what happens to the San José, it's always where I came from. Things aren't forever. Nothing gold can stay, right?"
If you were there to witness South Congress in the '90s, this will bring you back to old Austin. If you weren't, the film will show you a side of Austin that is gone forever.
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