Long before its current growth spurt, Austin was known as the place to be. The hipster set of yesteryear used to gather at the Terrace Motor Hotel on South Congress near where the new SoHo House club will be. Here, our pop culture historian Lori Duran takes a dive into the swinginest city destination of long ago.
MID-CENTURY MOD Matthew McConaughey would have loved the Terrace Motor Hotel. In the 1950s and 1960s it was Austin’s hippest hotel known for hosting business executives, politicians, celebrities, famous athletes and the social elite. James Cagney, Sandra Dee, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bonanza TV star Dan Blocker, among countless other notables, stayed there. It was also a destination for honeymooners from all over Texas. For the employees of the Terrace and their families it was an exciting time, too. In fact, the children of one of the last managers were driven to school in the hotel’s branded bellhop jeep and they were subsequently teased at Fulmore Junior High School for being rich kids even though they weren’t wealthy.
The Terrace Motor Hotel was setup as a series of small cottages, some big and some small, with suites having their own carport. The front office was at 1201 South Congress and Academy Drive separated the two halves of the entire site. It had beautiful terraced landscaping and bell hops driving those signature jeeps. On the back of each jeep was inscribed Follow Me and customers would be led by the vehicles through the expansive property to their suite. The Terrace also featured two sizable swimming pools with an adjacent bar, a singing barber, its own beauty shop, a well-regarded restaurant and a nightclub. The restaurant manager made sure top-quality food was always served. It was located in a sophisticated setting adjacent to a foyer of fountains with full length glass windows that let in the abundant light. The hillside terraces and the jeeps reminded some of the sophisticated clientele of the famous Las Brisas Hotel in Acapulco. Longtime Austin residents remember the Terrace fondly. More than forty years after the hotel was closed, the Terrace still has allure. A copy of its room service menu is available for $175 on eBay.
The Terrace was in a very attractive setting and close enough to downtown to attract desirable clientele. The venue had been built in the Fairview subdivision of south Austin, which was home to large Victorian homes as well as more modest dwellings. It faced the fast-developing South Congress Avenue and was on the most desirable street in Fairview, Academy Drive, which had acquired that name when there had been a boy’s military academy a few blocks east. The next-door neighbors were Leslie and Ann Miller Crockett who were related to Davy Crocket – their Victorian house still stands, and has now been converted into the boutique Hotel Saint Cecilia.
MAD MEN MOOD When it was finally fully built, the Terrace Motor Hotel had 366 suites/rooms, and a convention center. Taking inspiration from high style mid-century design, Dude McCandless built this hotel and another popular venue in town, the Villa Capri Hotel, which sat on the eastern edge of the University of Texas at Austin campus. In 1960, the Terrace Motor Hotel was advertised as the largest motor hotel in Texas, spread out over both the north and south side of Academy Drive, with the front office located along South Congress Avenue. Situated just south of Austin’s downtown along the main highway from the south, near the scenic area of event-heavy Municipal Auditorium and City Coliseum, it should have had long-lasting success. But what ultimately became of the Terrace was a tragic loss.
As soon as it opened to great expectations, it only had about twenty good years before it ended, run-down by neglect. The owner had other priorities and didn’t keep the motel in the best shape. Maybe he was discouraged by the adjacent area of South Congress Avenue, which was starting to experience an economic downturn in the early 1970s. Family members of one of the last managers said he should have been able to keep it going, but it was already being abandoned to a sad fate— much of the top-notch management and sales talent at the Terrace begun to leave.
In the early 1970s half of the hotel rooms were converted into apartments. Dude McCandless had become intrigued by the success of the apartments complexes built up in the nearby Riverside Drive area and wanted to be a part of the boom. By the mid-1970s, the Terrace was completely converted to apartments, and the convention center business also transitioned to a new role as well.
TIME MARCHES ON
In 1977 Willie Nelson and partners bought the Terrace motor hotel and its convention center. The convention center was well suited to showcase live music performances, and it soon became the Texas Opry House, later renamed the Austin Opry House. Reborn as the Opry House, the convention center turned out to be much larger in Austin’s collective memory than the Terrace Motor Hotel. The fabled Opry music venue attracted fans for great live music, and musicians who were able to rent the apartments while they stayed to play in Austin’s strong music scene. Nelson himself may have lived there for a time.
The Opry boasted air-conditioning, a professional kitchen and a paved parking lot, at a time when many other music venues didn’t have those amenities. This incarnation of the Terrace enjoyed a long period of success, but by the late 1990s things were changing again. The Terrace property on the south side of Academy was rebuilt into luxury apartments. The north side apartment buildings were left standing, but most of them were demolished in 2017.
It is poignant that so much effort and expense was put into the swanky motor hotel that lasted too few years. Yet although it didn’t last long as a motor hotel, the property that became the Opry House provided a home for the musicians that drove the evolution of Austin’s unique live music culture. Today, the original convention center houses Arlyn Recording studios, where musicians from around the world keep Austin’s musical traditions alive. The area north of Academy drive awaits the imminent redevelopment of the area into Liz Lamberts latest luxury inn, Hotel Magdalena. As Austin continues to reinvent itself, the efforts of creative entrepreneurs shall keep the local identity alive. Time’s onward march may indeed bring inevitable change, but history shall always leave its mark.