Hotel Magdalena courtyard evokes Hill Country canyon

October 06, 2022

After a recent day of meetings on South Congress, I walked down Music Lane to the Hotel Magdalena, a boutique hotel opening in 2020. I’ve been wanting to visit the place since learning about Ten Eyck Landscape Architects landscaping and landscaping. Flato Architects designed the hotel itself.

If you’re not already familiar with their iconic work, check out Ten Eyck’s Kingsbury Commons at Pease Park and Lake. Flatore Central Library in downtown Austin. The two firms are creating spaces that define today’s Austin through modern yet earthy, sustainable, outdoor celebration designs.

The Hotel Magdalena sits on a hill, and the lobby is tucked off the street on the second level, accessible by elevator or by tree-shaded stairs. One of ten Eyck’s signature moves is turning a building’s facade into a green wall with high-climbing vines on rusted mesh trelliss.

Hotel Magdalena’s groovy neon sign

Near the entrance, I was delighted to hear an exhortation in a window to “Confess here.” Later I saw Gun Confessional and discovered it was an interactive music project:

Sinner or saint, we all have a story to tell

Started by Austin musicians, Walker Lukens and Jack Catanzaro, Gun Confessional was initially conceived as a music festival activation. Beginning this summer, Gun Confessional’s story recording booth will take up permanent residence at the Hotel Magdalena.

Come down to the booth 8am – 8pm to tell any story – old, new, long, short, coming of age, fish out of water – we’re all ears. Confessions will be reviewed by local songwriters, and selected stories will be developed into original songs with the opportunity to be featured on the Song Confessions podcast. Selected entrants will have their original song pressed onto a 7″ record.

I kind of want to go back and admit a good story!

American beautyberry pressed against a mesh stair railing

A traditional live oak preserved during construction resides between two of the hotel’s buildings, its limbs seeming to bump against the walls. Its canopy is thin — I hope it makes it! Under its welcoming shade, stairs rise from the street to the main courtyard.

Potted tropical plants add greenery to the lobby balcony, with a plant atop a rock mushroom.

Inside the small lobby, glass doors offer a large view of the courtyard garden. Let’s explore it.

And this is where ten Eyck’s native-centric design really comes to life. Does it look like any other hotel courtyard you’ve seen? There is no default lawn. No tightly clip hedges. No row of Crayola-bright annuals. No heavy paved roads. Instead, native Texas plants such as grasses, palmettos, bald cypress, American beautyberry, Turk’s cap and yucca and non-native Mexican sycamore fill the terraced beds that dominate the steep slopes.

Chunks of limestone laid in a loose, almost zigzag pattern form the terrace of a reimagined hill country canyon wall. A pipe-fed stream arcs in a corten ring surrounded by moisture-loving water clover – a stylized canyon spring? When bald cypresses and other trees fill in, the space will be more shaded and the walls of a canyon more evocative.

Oil pipe fountains and steel basins

The facing edge of the quarry block limestone has an interesting pattern resembling a network of tree roots. What is it — a fossil?? Someone knows, I hope.

This summer has been unusually harsh — the second hottest in Austin’s recorded history — and the plants were still a bit stressed on this 100-degree day in mid-September. But considering how new everything is, planted only two years ago, the landscaping seems to be holding up pretty well. At best, as Ten Eyck describes, plants are irrigated with stormwater runoff and HVAC condensate collected from buildings.

A side view of zigzagging limestone blocks and pipe fountains

Stairs lead to the outdoor bar and swimming pool, and from here you get a better view of the lake Architectural design of flats. Five buildings surround a central courtyard, connected by covered walkways. Each floor has generous balconies with seating overlooking the courtyard. Like all lakes Flato Design aims to encourage people to be outdoors, creating comfort by creating natural air, fans and shade.

The hotel is also the first mass-timber boutique hotel built in North America. What is mass wood, you may ask? It is “composed of multiple hardwood panels nailed or glued together, providing exceptional strength and stability. It is a strong, low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel,” according to Think Wood.

Terrace bar seating

I only took a quick peek at the pool, where bathers were enjoying the sun and water. The long, narrow pool’s angular shape is reminiscent of Barton Springs Pool. A “live” edge where stone paving meets artificial turf adds to the effect of a natural, spring-fed swimming pool.

Back on the main level I admired the silvery blue palmettos under a Mexican sycamore.

A path leads to…

…on a modest-sized event lawn, surrounded by string lights and umbrella-shaded chairs.

The hotel’s restaurant, Summer House on Music Lane, is on my list of places to try. The patio is shady and inviting.

Each Bunkhouse hotel — Bunkhouse-owned Hotel Magdalena along with the equally hip Hotel San Jose, Hotel St. Cecilia, Carpenter Hotel, Austin Motel and more — is given a story that informs its design. Lake culture informs Hotel Magdalena, according to an interview with the CEO of the bunkhouse Forbes:

“Lake culture was an inspiration because people in Austin do it to beat the heat in the summer. It’s part of the fabric of the city and a big part of the vibe people fall in love with. The simple fun, hanging out with friends and their dogs on the water, grilling, swimming, music. Listen or play. It’s fun, casual and comfortable, which is what this hotel is all about. The feel of the hotel draws inspiration from the 70s era, which is particularly interesting only because of the richness of the music scene and the lore of that time – a sleepy but fun-loving and rebellious college town that somehow The underground brought together free-love society. Culture with cowboy culture. It was the era that created the love of the Austin people.”

Forbes, September 28, 2020

That such a nostalgic view of Old Austin inspires the look of New Austin is no doubt ironic to the old timers hanging around our growing, urbanized, suddenly ridiculously expensive city. Austin can feel unfamiliar by the month, as apartments, hotels and tear-downs spring up on once-sleepy streets seemingly overnight. And yet Austin somehow retains that friendly, laid-back vibe and wild, natural beauty that draws people here and tells them this is home.

Music Lane Street Scene

I look forward to returning to Hotel Magdalena to enjoy a meal in that lovely courtyard and soak up the nostalgia of Old Austin in a new Austin setting.

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October 20th Garden Spark Talk “Black Flora” author Teresa Speight is on sale now, and you’re invited! Teri will share the stories of pioneering Black florists, floral activists and florists doing incredible work across the US in her profile of these incredible creatives. black flora is uplifting and inspiring; See my book review for more information. Join us and meet Terry during his lecture and book signing. Seating is limited, and tickets must be purchased in advance.

Learn about garden design from the experts here Garden Spark! I host private talks with inspiring designers, landscape architects, and writers several times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance. Just click on this link and ask to be added. You can find this year’s speaker lineup here.

All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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