My fascination with Hotel Emma began the moment I drove up the terra-cotta driveway under a colonnade of industrial beams for the first time. Once a 19th century Brewhouse, Hotel Emma is now home to 146 guest rooms on the banks of the San Antonio River, in the heart of food-centric Pearl district.
Originally built in 1894, Hotel Emma is named in honor of Emma Koehler, who kept Pearl Brewery afloat during prohibition and launched it into its most successful period.
The richly textured lobby is the first evidence that design firm Roman and Williams responded to the monumental scale of the hotel by embracing elements of the building’s original tenant. An immense fire-engine red fly wheel of a generator still sits in the center of the great room, the rusted corners defending its right to stay put through the eight-year redesign.
My eyes drop to the faded patterns on the concrete tiles under my feet. Hand-painted tiles are a theme throughout the property, and many were found hidden under the building’s original flooring and then duplicated to complete the design. My gaze travels up the chipped plaster walls revealing layers of the original masonry beneath, and up to the wood paneling anchoring the far ends of the lobby. As couples cozy up on velvet sofas in shadowy corners and solo travelers sink into worn leather chairs to read the morning paper, the faint scent of freshly-brewed coffee wafts in from Larder, the European-style cafe across the walls which used to be the old fermenting cellars.
Designers envisioned a design that incorporated old-world extravagance, Texas grandeur, and a rough industrial aesthetic borrowed from the brewery’s heyday. This is San Antonio’s memoir made palpable through the layering of high and low, historic and modern features. The depth from the Brewery’s history made for a starting point for Roman and Williams, who then finessed it without chipping away at the core. The care with which this was done is evident in the way the firm took time to stabilize walls and columns to keep from disturbing the original structure, as well as reclaiming hardwares to reinvest into the design plan.
Achieving a luxury aesthetic within the confines of the factory context of the building, was a challenge met by a detailed study of the location. Designers even went so far as to uncover historical trade routes that mingled Latin influences with European culture, and investigating original construction materials that still rested on the site, now obscured beneath layers of dust.
Staying at Hotel Emma feels a bit like sneaking into the home of the most interesting man in the world: it’s an experience filled with cups of tea sipped in the afternoon, quiet reading in the dimly-lit library - which holds historic brewing books and an extensive 3700-piece collection acquired from novelist Sherry Kafka Wagner - furtive tip toeing down the hallways in search of new secrets, and muffled conversation only interrupted by the soft creaking of century-old doors.
In my room sits a traditional glazed black bed, an elegant settee, and the humble surprise of hand-crafted art pieces, featuring Mexican saddle-hide leather and framed in white oak. The space feels almost domestic; like a guest room in a well-appointed friend’s ranch home - one with small luxuries and fine linens. The bathrooms features custom glazed tiles in watery blues and creams, and the simplicity of porcelain vanities and brass plumbing fixtures underscores the discreet charm of the room.
In the presidential suites, light from the private terraces floods the home-like spaces of over 2000 square feet, which opens up to views of the river. The grand suite is filled with small touches, vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, plus a showstopper of an antique cast iron clawfoot tub and grand piano.
Then there is Sternewirth Bar and Clubroom, located in the great hall. Under 25-foot-high vaulted ceilings a steel mezzanine bears a display of glowing amber beer bottles, a nod to its brewery past. At each end, laughter floats out of the repurposed cast-iron tanks reimagined as intimate seating.
An immense fireplace casts a warm glow over the room and complements the grand chandelier sculpted from a hybrid of metals previously employed in the Pearl’s bottling room. Trays are ferried around toppling over with classic cocktails and small bites, and the air vibrates with sneaky prohibition-era energy.
Grabbing a cocktail and venturing outside, I realize why courtyards have been outdoor living rooms in South Texas since the Spanish arrived in the early 1700’s: I watch as the murmur of guests loudens, the skies darken, and the stars begin to appear.
Though the luxury of this hotel is undeniable, the real story isn’t in the gourmet meals, the fine Frette robes, or in the culinary concierge services. It’s in the candlelight against old plaster walls, a petal falling off a rose in a forgotten corner, linen drapes flowing in the breeze, and family anecdotes told over craft beers.
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