Hotel Ella: A Revival of Elegance in Austin - Texasliving

Hotel Ella: A Revival of Elegance in Austin

By: Kimberly Suta

Photos Courtesy of: Hotel Ella

Imagine the early 20th century, a time when etiquette reigned supreme and courtesies such as formal greetings and hand-written letters were highly valued, when language was carefully crafted and eloquent. Well-known American families, including the Vanderbilts and Guggenheims set trends when it came to decorum as well as décor. In the year 1900 in Austin, Texas the Wootens were such a family. The University of Texas remembers them well, as Thomas Dudley Wooten was one of the founders of UT Austin. It was his son, Goodall, who married a distinguished socialite named Ella Newsome, the woman who is the inspiration as well as the heart and soul behind this historic boutique hotel, Hotel Ella.

Located just a couple blocks away from the UT campus, Hotel Ella is an integral part of the fabric that makes up downtown Austin. This statuesque mansion has 47 guest rooms, a stunning wrap-around veranda perfect for enjoying brunch and afternoon cocktails, and a pool lined with cabanas for some modern-day relaxation. Although the house is over 100 years old and has served many purposes throughout its lifetime, Hotel Ella has only been open since 2013, after undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation. “As soon as you walk in, you can tell there’s something special, something charming, about it,” said Tiffiny Dunn, the hotel’s general manager and self-proclaimed property mom.

Although she has only been with the hotel since the beginning of 2014, Tiffiny has already developed a special bond with the house as well as its namesake and family. She speaks highly of the Wootens and of the legacy they created. “Ella had it decorated by Neiman Marcus. They held a lot of social events here,” explained Tiffany. In 1910, she had the original house transformed into the Greek Revival-style structure that it is today. Relying on the Vanderbilt’s recommendation, she had new columns built by the stone carver that constructed the famous Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, North Carolina.

When it came time to perform the 21st century renovations, the eclectic group of owners and entrepreneurs that also own Hotel Ella’s sister property, South Congress Hotel, wanted to preserve the namesake’s iconic taste and elegance as well as her dedication to modernity. “I try to communicate that to the staff – that we’re just keeping up with her tradition. We cater to our guests to make them feel at home. We’re locally-owned and operated, so we really focus on providing genuine Texas hospitality,” Tiffiny said.

Sadly, the galas of the early 20th century could not last forever. Ella sold the property in 1944, after Goodall passed away. The new owner, Fred Adams, converted the building into student housing for UT and that is how it remained for over three decades, until it was then purchased by a revolutionary woman named Delois Faulkner, who used the space as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic. “That’s when the additional rooms were added on to the back,” said Tiffiny. “It was a hospitable place.”

For a time, it was also a Bed & Breakfast called Mansion on Judge’s Hill, but that was its last incarnation before becoming the beauty it is today. As part of the renovations, the dining room and bar were redone, a courtyard with a pool was added, and all of the guest rooms were completely renovated. “When Ella was here, she kept everything to the modern state of her time, so the owners wanted to modernize it, but preserve that charm,” shared Tiffiny.

The 47 luxury guest rooms come with all of the usual amenities. Each room, as well as the hotel, is tastefully decorated with original artwork, so that no two rooms are alike. “It was important to the owners that art be included in Ella. We have a lot of modernist pieces on the property, including works by a terrific 70s sculpture, Charles Unoff. We have a lot of his sketches as well as a lot of works by his contemporaries. The female form is very present throughout Hotel Ella as a way to honor Ella herself,” she added.

Tiffiny has had the honor of meeting some of Ella’s decedents personally. “They have come to stay here and brought me look-books. Her daughter was good at record-keeping and put scrapbooks together, and her great-great-grandson showed me all these records and pictures that they kept,” Tiffiny said, her voice full of exuberance. “This is my first hotel job and, by far, the best job I’ve ever had. I feel extremely connected to their family history and the property.”

She also speaks highly of the staff, whose jobs are made easier by the visitors who choose Hotel Ella. “We have the best guests you could ask for. Here we hire friends or friends of people we have known for years, and everyone knows the history of the property and is dedicated to the service here. It’s very home-like.”

The guests are as eclectic as the house, which often plays host to UT parents, representatives of Texas legislature, wedding parties, and those simply looking for a short Austin getaway or staycation. Brides and mothers of brides will love the ballroom accented with crystal chandeliers. “It’s a naturally-lit ballroom that’s very stately and elegant,” said Tiffiny.

Texas Longhorns fans and families will love the fancy tailgate parties Hotel Ella puts on during every home game. “We put up a custom tent on the lawn and serve craft cocktails and a tailgate buffet. We also provide shuttle service to the game for our guests,” Tiffiny explained. “You can come and enjoy drinks and food. We show the pre-game on a big screen underneath the tent on the beautiful mansion lawn. We have a lot of guests that come for that.”

Goodall’s Kitchen

Chef Michael Paley’s superb American bistro cuisine served at the hotel’s onsite restaurant, Goodall’s Kitchen, is easily one of the highlights of Hotel Ella. Chef Paley has worked under several notable chefs, and has earned some accolades of his own. He helped Cincinnati’s Metropole, one of Bon Appetit’s 50 best new restaurants of 2013.

With a background working for chef-driven, boutique hotels, serving as the Executive Chef at Hotel Ella and the South Congress Hotel was something of a dream job. “At this point in my career, I like to do food that’s simple, seasonal, and market-driven,” Chef Paley explained. He likes to put a new spin on classic dishes, and hone in on the hotel’s straight-forward, bistro-style . “If you’re doing a roast chicken dish, it had better be really, really well done. Having a great burger is an awesome thing, and really great pasta,” he said. As you can expect, most everything from the bread to the cured meats are made in-house. He works with local brokers, such as Farm to Table, which enable him to procure local produce and regional proteins such as wild boar and quail.

Chef Paley speaks quite proudly of Hotel Ella’s gnocchi dish, which comes with roasted carrots, pumpkin seed pesto, and fresh goat cheese. Paley’s background working with regional Italian cuisine is where he, “started to blossom and develop my style that feeds into my current mentality of hype-regional cuisine that’s very soulful, but simple and delicious. Take our gnocchi {for example]; it’s simple to make but to do it right you have to know how to treat the dough so that it comes out pillowy.”

The restaurant offers specials throughout the week, including brunch every Saturday and Sunday, as well as a fried chicken dinner on Tuesdays for four that includes biscuits, honey butter, and collard greens. “It’s sooo good!” exclaimed Tiffiny. On Thursdays, guests can enjoy their “burger, bourbon, and beer” special. Do not forget to add the house-cut-and-blanched French fries!

If bourbon or other classic cocktails are what visitors crave, then they will appreciate the Ella Parlor Bar, which serves pre-prohibition-style handcrafted cocktails, wine, and assorted nibbles. Happy Hour takes place every Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. For a true taste of Hotel Ella, Tiffiny recommended trying the Blunderbuss cocktail, named after the gun they found in the attic, which is now encased above the mantle in the bar.

This Civil War-era firearm is the hotel’s back-up protection, Tiffiny joked. The drink, possibly more (delightfully) dangerous than the actual gun, is the hotel’s take on a French 75. The house-made simple syrup is infused with the rosemary that both decorates and perfumes the estate. It this is the type of blunderbuss that will really wet your whistle, you can probably expect to find one magically appear in your room after a tiring day of travel. That is the kind of hospitality Ella herself would have provided and the kind of hospitality Hotel Ella intends to emulate.