When the Pearl Brewery shut down for good in 2001, Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury and his company, Silver Ventures, purchased the 22-acre property with a vision to create a multi-use complex of interest to locals and visitors alike. Now, after years of hard work and dedication, the crown jewel of the culinary-focused complex is San Antonio’s newest, most stunning luxury hotel. In 2012, construction began to transform the spectacular brew house building, constructed in 1894 and designed by Chicago architect August Maritzen in the Second Empire style, into Hotel Emma. The property is named in honor of Emma Koehler, the wife of Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler, who kept the brewery afloat during prohibition after Otto’s passing and helped launch it into its most successful period.
Repurposing an industrial space is a very specialized endeavor. In fact, there are only three or four design firms worldwide with the experience and capability to undertake such a project. Goldsbury chose New York design firm Roman and Williams to take on the task of bringing the abandoned structure back to life. Known for their unique work blending historic elements with a modern aesthetic, Roman and Williams mined the site’s original fixtures and ephemera and repurposed them to create a space that pays homage to the building’s history while portraying a playful, modern Steampunk vibe. He also enlisted long-time friend and local designer Courtney Walker of Courtney & Company to be his eyes and ears whenever decisions needed to be made while he was away. As a consultant, Walker was also able to recommend local artisans to work on the project and curate decorative accents and artifacts.
“The team was perfect; it was a great collaboration,” says Walker. “The designers had a clear vison and were very firm about what they wanted. I offered input that could make us different from others, advising on things that had already been done. We wanted the space to be funky, yet sophisticated and different.” At Hotel Emma, preserved historic elements include early industrial equipment reimagined as light fixtures, banquettes and chandeliers, original 25-foot vaulted concrete ceilings, cast-iron spiral staircases, turn-of-the-century exposed brick walls, original beamed wood and pressed tin ceilings. Original painted cement tiles by Mexican manufacturer Redondo, which were found during renovation on the brewery floor and in the original brew master’s office, have been recreated in some areas of the hotel. Other floor materials include reclaimed chestnut from Germany, antique Texas long leaf pine and stained concrete, creating the mix-and-match feel of a home that has evolved. Indoor and outdoor cement water features include original steel pipes repurposed as spouts. The result is an eclectic juxtaposition of old, new, industrial and refined styles that evoke a familiar and romantic feel while paying homage to all the cultures and peoples that comprise San Antonio’s heart and soul.
It is hard not to gasp in admiration upon entering the lobby. Rather than wasting resources removing large industrial fixtures, Roman and Williams responded to the monumental scale of the hotel by embracing and reclaiming them. The fly wheel of a generator, which serves as a massive, sculptural focal point, is a great example. They also stabilized the existing chipped plaster walls, revealing layers and elements of the masonry beneath. Redondo tile and Sinker Cypress wood paneling add a layer of warmth and color to the space. Brass, bronze and blown-glass chandeliers hang from the preserved wood-slatted high ceiling. “These durable materials were chosen to stand the test of time,” says Beth Smith, Hotel Emma’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “They will actually look better as they age.” The team also assembled a collection of vintage furniture, exotic carpets, Texana and Mexican handcrafts to create little vignettes throughout the lobby. “The brew house was full of artifacts and equipment,” says Smith. “It was as if people had just left — there were coffee cups, notebooks, bottles and such things. Everything was slowly brought out as the designers decided what to do with the items. Most were repurposed based on the hotel’s design.”
Beyond the lobby, the cozy yet elegant Sternewirth bar greets guests and visitors in a great hall with soaring 25-foothigh vaulted ceilings which the Hotel Emma team sees as “San Antonio’s living room.” Buffalo leather-covered sectional sofas, Moroccan leather ottomans and oversized, vintage, Kilim-upholstered armchairs create the ambiance of an upscale Western lodge. A large bar with glowing amber lights occupies the west side of the hall. A steel mezzanine floats above the bar, housing a collection of books which can be accessed by a custom steel staircase created by Robert Diaz de Leon of San Antonio’s Flux Metal Studios, inspired by a piece of old brewery equipment. Facing the bar are three enormous cast-iron fermentation tanks fitted with curved banquettes and coffee tables, repurposed as unique and intimate places to enjoy a craft cocktail and a conversation. In the back sits an immense fireplace, flanked by an impressive chandelier built by Diaz de Leon out of a large metal component previously employed in the Pearl’s bottling room. Three more of his chandeliers, made from bottle labelers brought over from Germany in the 1920s, hang in the private ballroom nicknamed The Elephant Cellar.
Next to Sternewirth is The Library, a cozy space within a vaulted room featuring the 3,700-volume library of Sherry Kafka Wagner, a San Antonio icon, novelist, historian, Harvard Fellow and cultural anthropologist. Behind it is Larder, the hotel’s gourmet grocery store and deli, housed in what used to be a fermentation room. Although compact, the space is well utilized and bright, providing guests with a comfortable place for a quick breakfast, lunch or coffee break. Supper, the bright and airy full-service restaurant, offers a more formal dining option. This room strays slightly from the Steampunk vibe, leaning more towards a classic Art Deco style. Its high ceilings, crisp white walls and floor-to-ceiling windows give it a serene and elegant look with a carefree vibe. The patio, with a privileged view of the river, features custom-made steel tables by talented local artist Peter Glassford. A horseshoe-shaped bar with a European-style pewter countertop is an inviting spot to enjoy a beverage and a snack. In the main dining room, an open kitchen with a chef’s counter offers a front-row seat to witness Chef John Brand and his staff create simple and flavorful farm-to-table cuisine.
Hotel Emma boasts 146 guest rooms, including 11 suites. Some include private balconies, others claw-foot tubs. Guest rooms in the Brewhouse tower showcase the original brick and plaster walls and concrete columns, and proudly preserve historical elements and fixtures native to each room, while rooms on the newly built tower have natural burlap-covered walls. All bathrooms feature custom-glazed tiles in tones of blue and cream, with replicas of period porcelain vanities and brass plumbing fixtures. Every detail has been carefully thought out, from the plush bedding to the guayabera-style robes by local outfit Dos Carolinas. Designed to invoke serenity and simple yet luxurious comfort, all include 48 inch high-definition TVs and a stylish South Texas Icebox in place of a mini-fridge, stocked with local beer, farmers market provisions and ingredients for a DIY margarita — including a metal shaker and blue glassware from Mexico. The lovely third-floor pool terrace has an old Mexican hacienda vibe to it, and guests are welcome to bring beverages and provisions to enjoy poolside.
Hotel Emma’s design is meant to appeal to all age groups and demographics. “History is honored, but we are not a slave to it,” says Smith. “Whether it is for its historical aspect or its edginess, Hotel Emma has a broad appeal. And it will age well. It is trendy, but not in the way that it will become passé in five years.” This magnificent property is not only the cornerstone that is putting San Antonio on the map as a serious tourist destination; it is also a beacon of pride for San Antonians. “A high number of locals are staying, and patronizing the bar and restaurant,” says Smith. “After all the love, effort and investment poured into it, I truly believe Hotel Emma is Kit’s love letter to San Antonio.”
HOTEL Hotel Emma
210.448.8300 | Thehotelemma.com
DESIGNER Roman and Williams
212.625.3808 | Romanandwilliams.com
CONSULTANT Courtney & Company