• The 32 stories step back from Shoal Creek in a nod to local limestone cliff formations. Precast concrete panels, slightly offset, create a subtle undulating effect. - photo by Dror Baldinger, FAIA

The Austin Proper Hotel & Residences offers a master class in modern luxury.

Client The Kor Group
Architect Handel Architects
Interior Design Kelly Wearstler
Contractor Austin Commercial
Development Manager Trammell Crow Company
Structural Engineer and Sustainability Consultant Thornton Tomasetti
MEPS/Energy BLUM Consulting Engineers
Civil Engineer Quiddity
Landscape Architect Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
Code Consultant Austin Permit Service
Facade Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates
Elevator Persohn/Hahn Associates
Technology AppliedTech Group
Lighting HLB Lighting Design
Acoustics Salter
Hardware and Specifications AWC West
Parking HWA Parking
Kitchen Equipment Muller Design, Stafford Design Group
Laundry and Waste Laschober+Sovich
Commissioning EEA Consulting Engineers
Accessibility Jensen Hughes
Signage Janke, Reverb

There’s a music hall tongue twister from the 1920s that ran through my mind as I toured the Austin Proper hotel in downtown Austin: “All I want is a proper cup of coffee/brewed in a proper copper coffee pot.” When I mentioned the song to Natascha Seifritz, the affable and eagle-eyed director of hotel relations, she was quick to shake her head. “That’s not ours.” There’s the “Proper” way (with caps), and there’s everything else — and part of Seifritz’s job is to hold that line. 

As with most work that results in an effortless appearance, it’s not an easy job. Fortunately, Kelly Wearstler, the celebrity interior designer on the project greatly contributes to the success of the enterprise. Wearstler’s vision is everywhere in the building, from the dramatic wallpaper and plushy chairs in the morning coffee room to the vintage Turkish carpets lining the luggage racks (“They didn’t come like that,” notes Seifritz with satisfaction). If “proper” conjures up an old-fashioned way of doing things (as in “prim and proper”), the Proper brand is solidly contemporary, and while the staff is well-mannered, the vibe is decidedly un-prim. 

The Austin Proper, which opened at the corner of 2nd and Nueces in December 2019, is one of four Proper hotels (though more are on the way) and the first outside of California. It’s also the first of the Proper projects to mix hospitality with multifamily residential, offering 244 hotel rooms and 99 residences — all for the luxury market — in an era where luxury is being redefined daily. “I think people are looking for a place where they feel great, where they think, ‘This is how I love to live,’” says Seifritz, who worked for years at the Four Seasons. “Compare that to a regular five-star hotel with white linen on the table but where you don’t always feel that great. You can sit there and think, ‘Well, this is nice,’ but do you feel at home? People nowadays want to feel like, ‘I belong.’” 

Austin’s luxury market is booming, in part because Austin is seeing so many immigrants from New York and other coastal cities. Glenn Rescalvo, FAIA, a partner at Handel Architects, who designed the sculptural 32-story structure, says: “People from both coasts are moving in, and their expectations are different than those of a local person in that market. Someone coming from New York or San Francisco might expect different types of amenities, or units that are organized differently.” In the case of the Proper, these amentities include concierge services; four different food and beverage outlets (all managed by Austin hospitality group McGuire Moorman Lambert, who are themselves now in the hotel business); two pools (one just for residents, one shared with hotel guests); a spa; a gym; and plenty of lounge space. It’s not exactly a modern model: Rescalvo points to the pre-war apartments of New York, which, once elevators, electricity, and central air became available, offered former mansion-dwellers luxury living in the heart of the city. High-rise luxury living is, however, a fairly new model for Austin. Rescalvo notes, “It’s a very fierce competition out there, where developers are trying to come up with the next evolution of residential.” And what a lot of developers are finding is that residential buyers — and residential renters — are interested in both the amenities and the brand names that hotels offer. 

Rescalvo’s firm was brought on through a competition held by The Kor Group, who were looking for architects with experience in both condominiums and hospitality. With hotel and high-rise multifamily projects around the world, Handel Architects has plenty of that experience (they are currently working on the Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin — that is, a hotel-branded residential development without a hotel — as well as another high-rise tower, the 58-story 321 West tower in downtown Austin, in collaboration with Page). The condo/hotel mix is a complicated formula of service, security, and programming, says Rescalvo. Each entity demands exclusivity, but there are places where you want the amenities to mix. At the Proper, that mix seems to be successful. By the time the hotel opened, all 99 condos were sold, and 65 percent were occupied (some owners stayed at the hotel while their apartments were being finished out). Financially, the condos make the hotel project less of a gamble. According to Seifritz, it’s also a successful mix socially. “We’re very lucky. I’ve worked in hotels where we’ve had residences, but they were empty. They were more of an investment. But here we see our residents every day. They come through in the mornings to grab their coffee; they have family staying with us while they’re visiting.”

The hotel is a sensory delight: an evolving collection of oversized ceramic pots under a sculptural stair built by Artisan Hardwood Floors; dramatic wildflower arrangements by local florist Serracinna; a smoky perfume in the air that turns out to emanate from the wood-fired grill at The Peacock, the Proper’s downstairs Mediterranean restaurant, where a wall of antique Portuguese tiles also makes for a prime Instagram moment. Wearstler’s love of craft — and of weird antiques, often sourced from the antiques fair in the town of Round Top— is evident. Possibly the most stunning instance of craft is the foyer at the residents’ entry, whose walls and ceilings are clad in what, at first glance, appears to be an ornate pattern woven in rope; on closer examination, it reveals itself to be a three-dimentional undulating plywood pattern carved by CNC. 

With so much to take in, it’s easy to overlook that the building is rated LEED Gold. The architects conceived of the building as a kind of land mass responding to Austin’s limestone shelves, with deep overhangs and a gradual stepping up from Shoal Creek to the tower. These overhangs, along with a sculptural facade composed of precast concrete panels, do much to reduce solar heat gain in the building. The building’s operators also strive to eliminate the use of harsh chemicals and plastic. Says Seifritz, “People don’t realize what’s involved — maybe you don’t see plastic on your table or in your room, but it all came wrapped in plastic.” The heavy use of vintage furniture and art is an aesthetic move with environmental benefits (that lamp in the shape of a stand of tall gray mushrooms, for instance, did not come wrapped in plastic).

The hotel is ever evolving. For one thing, it was designed as a business hotel, where single travelers would check in then go off to meetings. In practice, it’s a leisure hotel, attracting a surprising number of families. “We weren’t really thinking that we’d have that many children,” says Seifritz, “but you adapt to what’s happening.” Many families use the hotel as a home base during visits to Austin while their kids attend The University of Texas, “so we’ll get the families for a couple of years.” Wearstler also has a relationship with UT Austin: In 2021, the School of Architecture’s Interior Design program announced a partnership with Wearstler, who has committed to work with UT to support students with new learning and professional opportunities, and whose endowed fund will provide undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships to design students with financial need. 

It’s hard to hate. Some people do, of course. With rooms starting at $633 per night (at the time of this writing) for a king bed and suites just under $3,000, it’s hard to afford, at least for most Texas locals. Seifritz nods. “I understand the resistance.” But the money just keeps coming, and the demand for Wearstler’s brand of “loose luxury” does too. Because if you’re going to spend it, you might as well spend it right. 

Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.

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