The entrance to Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.
The SATPID plan calls for the City to collect 1.25 percent of each overnight hotel stay at participating hotels. Credit: Scott Martin for the San Antonio Report

When the Hotel Emma at the Pearl celebrates its grand opening on Thursday, San Antonio’s evolving profile as a destination city will change in a big way. In a city with 45,000 guest rooms and a $13 billion tourism and convention industry, how does a 146-room luxury hotel do that?

For the first time, San Antonio will have a destination hotel unlike any other in the country, a hotel that itself becomes the attraction, along with its surroundings at the still-growing Pearl campus, an increasingly recognized Southwest culinary destination. The Museum Reach of the San Antonio River enhances the hotel’s setting, pointing visitors to nearby museums and cultural destinations and south through downtown to Southtown, the Mission Reach and the World Heritage Spanish Missions. As Broadway continues to grow more dense with locals, hotel visitors will find themselves right in the middle of things, and an Uber ride away from everything else.

San Antonio is starting to build a new economic niche, one based on the discerning traveler who seeks authentic urban experiences that spring out of this city’s historical and cultural roots and its ever-growing culinary and contemporary offerings. That kind of visitor arrives with a different set of interests and expectations. He or she wants to live like a local, and is able and willing to pay a premium to do so. For the Pearl, the Emma brings back to life the most iconic building on its property, even as the campus continues to evolve with new residential, culinary, and entertainment offerings. If management can achieve its world-class service ambitions in such a unique setting, word will spread and people will come to San Antonio to experience the Emma, rather than come to the Emma to experience San Antonio.

What makes the Emma so special?

A Brew House No Longer Abandoned

The concierge desk at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.
The concierge desk at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.

Set in the Pearl’s iconic 121-year-old brewhouse, the Emma is a design, engineering, and construction triumph that can be described at length, yet can only be truly appreciated through personal experience. What distinguishes the Emma from all other luxury hotels in the state and region begins with the approach its owner and developer, Silver Ventures, and its visionary, Kit Goldsbury, took to preserve and celebrate the site’s history as a blue-collar brewery with all its gritty industrial edges.

“For the first couple of months that I worked here, before my wife had the chance to come visit, I’d go back to Houston and find myself unable to fully answer her questions. For the first time in my career, I found myself stumbling as I tried to explain the concept and the vision and the incredible surroundings,” said General Manager Mark Yanke, who came here after serving as president and CEO of Redstone Hospitality, owner of the Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, among other properties its has since sold. “She really didn’t get it until she saw the Emma for herself.”

When I asked Yanke to compare the Emma to other hotels in Texas and the Southwest, he instead offered up another hotel on his resume of past work, the Lanesborough Hotel in London, a Georgian style former hospital that is walking distance from Knightsbridge and Buckingham Palace, and at 93 rooms and suites, is small enough to offer 24-hour butler service.

“The lure for me was to be part of a world-class property under the umbrella of Silver Ventures, and to be part of the whole Pearl campus, and to contribute to building and operating something special from the beginning,” Yanke said. “An opportunity like this would be of great interest to any professional in my field.”

Texas has other unique destination hotels: The Houstonian, The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, The Four Seasons on Town Lake in Austin, and its fair share off offbeat venues like the Gage Hotel in Marathon, but many of the luxury hotels found in Texas are modern and generic or encapsulated neatly in historic shells. Designers of the Emma have transformed a 19th century brewery into a visually arresting hotel that proudly displays its beer factory lineage at every turn of every corner. It would be no great surprise to see brewhouse workers suddenly materialize from a century ago, wheeling barrels of Pearl lager through the front lobby from the fermentation vats to waiting horse-drawn wagons.

The main entrance with fireplace at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.
The main entrance and outdoor fireplace at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.

Arriving guests will step out of vehicles under the hotel portico formed by heavy steel beams, welcomed by uniformed staff standing against a backdrop of wood-burning fireplaces. The “hecho en San Antonio” seersucker guayaberas by Dos Carolinas worn by staff are the first evidence that the Emma is a showcase for locally-made artisanal goods at every opportunity. The guayaberas also signal a casual informality that is one of San Antonio’s defining characteristics, yet the Emma is reaching for a standard of exacting service. That’s expected at luxury hotels whether they are found in big cities or remote destinations. Can it be achieved in San Antonio at the Emma? Time will tell. If the hotel falls short, it will be merely eclectic. If it succeeds, the hotel will be known on a first name basis in elite circles of the national hospitality trade.

An early 20th century, ammonia-driven engine that once pumped chilled air into the brewhouse now dominates the lobby interior as guests enter, their first glimpse of show-stopping industrial machinery from yesteryear. Layers of chipped plaster, exposed masonry, and vintage concrete floor tiles all signal the Emma makes no apologies for its past.

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Inviting easy chairs and sofas, plush carpets and a waiting self-service bar of aguas frescas invite guests to linger. Some will already be holding a la babia margarita, the complimentary cocktail that will be offered to guests based on the Goldsbury’s ranch recipe, which they will share for interested margarita aficionados.

“I’d be happy to share that information with you when you check in,” said Yanke. “It will only cost you $350 to get that recipe. The bellman will swing by the concierge desk where we have a portable cocktail station and we will offer you and every other arriving guest a hand-shaken margarita or non-alcohol aguas frescas “

Rooms will range in price from $350 to $10,000 for the four-bedroom, two-story Emma Koehler suite that features a grand piano, wood-burning fireplace, and an outdoor balcony that can handle dinner for 22. That’s on weekends. Weekdays rates will probably be lower, meaning some rooms may go for slightly less than $300. The price point will be a test for the San Antonio market. The Emma’s target market is the well-heeled traveler willing to pay for a singular experience. The rate, while high locally, would only get you a room in a second-tier hotel in New York or San Francisco, and even Dallas, Houston, and Austin have hotels charging substantially more. Still, the Emma will be more about attracting new visitors to San Antonio rather than luring existing ones away from other hotels.

A pedestrian passes by thoughtfuly designed landscape at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.
A pedestrian passes by thoughtfully designed landscape at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.

The Emma won’t have 24-hour butler service, but it does have Hugh Daschbach, the city’s only “culinary concierge.” Daschbach, a New Orleans-area native, Trinity University graduate, and well-known personality in the local culinary community, has found his calling, say friends (including myself).

At an early PechaKucha talk delivered at the Pearl’s Full Goods building, Daschbach offered a 6:40 tutorial in 20 slides of how to do an authentic Louisiana crawfish boil. After whipping up the audience’s appetite, Daschbach asked if anyone was hungry. He then invited the entire audience of several hundred people out to the parking lot where a posse of fellow Louisianans were putting the finishing touches on several hundreds pounds of freshly boiled crawfish, potatoes, and corn on the cob. A feeding frenzy ensued, and the event remains one of the most memorable moments in local PechaKucha history. You can watch the video here.

What exactly does a culinary concierge do? It’s a good question since I don’t ever remember meeting one, here or at any other hotel I’ve stayed at elsewhere.

“The Culinary Concierge concept is unique to Hotel Emma,” Daschbach said. “The Concierge team at Hotel Emma will strive to be an unprecedented resource that brings focus to our guests’ culinary and cultural experiences by providing unique insights into ‘authentic’ San Antonio. We take great pride in the culture, history and personality of our community, and we invite those elements to interact intimately with guests inside the hotel. By allowing our favorite cultural and culinary influences to think of Hotel Emma as a platform to showcase what they do we connect guests to San Antonio is ways that go far beyond the offerings found in local listings or advertisements.”

In other words, Emma guests can call, email or text ahead of their visit and Daschbach will convert their stated interests into a roadmap of local experiences in the hotel, in the Pearl and off campus, too. Daschbach will stay abreast of what’s happening in any given week and make sure clients have a full menu of social choices.

“I think you are going to see this position start to appear in a lot of other upscale hotels,” Yanke said. “It isn’t Hugh’s job to book a guest’s needs just at or around the Pearl. His job is to be thoughtful and spontaneous and create experiences here and throughout the city.”

The Rooms & The Larder

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Not every guest is going to venture beyond the Emma or the Pearl. Like a Silicon Valley campus, the Emma is designed to meet a lot of needs that will keep you on the premises. All of the 146 rooms and 11 two-story suites are equipped with ice boxes stocked with local and regional products: Mexican Cokes, Topo Chico mineral water, and room for items guests purchase in the richly-stocked Larder. All of the rooms have chinaware, stemware, cutlery and cutting boards. Guests will find Bakery Lorraine’s Parisian Macarons on their pillows.

Larder is like a mini Balducci’s in New York, a gourmet market that stocks local groceries, local olive oils, baked goods, flowers and freshly-prepared foods. It’s designed to appeal to nearby residents of the Can Plant as much as hotel guests, a convenient upscale stop for a steak to grill at home or a last-minute pickup of a craft brew or bottle of wine.

Supper and Sternewirth

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Chef John Brand’s menu at Supper, the hotel’s dining establishment with indoor and patio Museum Reach views, is going to attract a lot of locals and add renewed energy to the continuing conversation about everyone’s list of top chefs and restaurants. The setting is bistro casual and the food is ambitious yet uncomplicated. The menu is designed for informal sharing with dishes that reflect a local, farm to table sensibility. Brand also oversees the team at Larder, all in-hotel dining, and an inviting demonstration kitchen available to service ballroom and meeting room dining,visiting guest chefs,  or for hotel guests who want to arrange a special culinary experience with friends.

The “Sternewirth Privilege” is a phrase I had not heard in the context of the Pearl’s history. It apparently refers to the brewery’s policy of allowing workers to drink beer on premises as long as they did so in moderation, whatever constitutes moderation when drinking on the job. Now it’s the name of Emma’s bar with Bar Manager Mike McKinney, most recently at the Blue Box, in charge.

Sternewirth could be the Emma’s most popular venue, one where locals vie with guests for coveted seats in the two-story fermentation tanks that have been turned into private circular banquettes. Beneath a 25-foot vaulted ceiling, a long table for groups, lots of inviting, comfy furniture, and interior balcony are going to make it one of the city’s premier people-watching places.

“The bar top is cut from an original foundation beam dating back to before the Pearl, when the place was known as the City Brewery,” Yanke said. Under the drinks, each coaster offers one of the quirky stories about the brewhouse’s history.

The bar’s signature drink is the “Three Emmas” – gin, apricot brandy, and absinthe – named for Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler’s wandering eye and the consequences. It’s well-known that Koehler stepped out on his wife, Emma, to be with the two nurses, both named Emma, who cared for her after an auto accident. When Koehler’s wandering eye turned from the second Emma to the third one, he was fatally shot by Emma #2 in a downtown house he kept for his assignations. I’ve heard different versions of the story, but what is not in dispute is that Emma Koehler then became the Pearl Brewery’s owner and master. Ask the bartender or your server to sort out the truth.

The Library & Public Spaces

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Many hotels use books of little or no interest as design props, often bought by the linear foot and never meant to be opened. In contrast, the Emma’s two-story library is home to a 3,700-volume book collection acquired from Sherry Kafka Wagner, a former Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, novelist, cultural anthropologist, and urban planning consultant who told friends at Silver Ventures that she “was downsizing.” Wagner organized the collection and the library will be available as event space. Guests are invited to peruse the stacks and check out books for their own use while staying at the hotel.

“It was her personal collection,” Yanke said. “She loves literature, is a writer on her own, everything from children’s stories to folk art to international business. A lot of the books have personal inscriptions from the author to her. She spent weeks labeling the books as she brought them in.”

The library will be a quiet refuge within the Emma. The Elephant cellar, on the other hand, will be its most public meeting room for business. With doors that open up to the exhibition kitchen and the courtyard overlooking the river, the room itself is spacious 3,250 sq. ft., its two main walls formed by the butt end of massive brewing tanks, their pipe trunks giving the room its name. Vintage German bottle labels serve as chandeliers.  The courtyard itself can hold 150 people for parties and receptions. One can imagine the space as the newest wedding venue in San Antonio.

Curio, an upscale boutique located in the main passageway between Supper and the hotel’s lobby, is where visitors can purchase a custom-tailored guayabera, signature robes, and other offerings exclusive to the shop. The Emma’s website describes Curio as a “cultural jewel box offering guests and locals alike a carefully curated and edited selection of treasures.”

The Team

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What to do with the old brewhouse? The vision for the Emma developed slowly as the Pearl itself came back to life over the last decade. By the time the Culinary Institute of America campus became a reality, Goldsbury’s own vision of the Pearl as a culinary destination and catalyst for urban transformation was realized and widely recognized. If Goldsbury’s advisors initially doubted the wisdom of his purchase of the Pearl, those doubts have long vanished as the project turned into one of the most interesting urban developments in the country. When the Pearl’s decision to partner with Kimpton Hotels was superseded by the Kimpton’s sale to an international hotel group, the Pearl’s leaders took a calculated risk and decided to do the hotel on their own. The best way to make sure corners were not cut and standards were not compromised, they reasoned, was to do it on their own.

That’s when Yanke was recruited to San Antonio. In the space of six months he has assembled a team of 200 at the Emma. That leaves about 10 jobs to be filled, in case you are wondering.

The New York design firm of Roman and Williams, which first gained fame for its Hollywood set designs, was hired to bring the vacant brewhouse back to life with a design that would work without requiring that the building and its history be gutted. Clayton & Little Architects in Austin and Giles-Parscale of San Antonio designed Larder. Principal Jill Giles also designed the way finding and external signage and the branding elements, including menu designs.

Working with Giles, Robert Diaz De Leon fabricated the signage and custom metal work, including the chandelier in Sternewirth and the chandeliers in the Elephant Cellar Ballroom. Pearl Farmers Market regulars might recognize the Pandelier that hangs from the CIA’s entrance, a signature work by De Leon.

Harvey Cleary served as the project’s contractor.

“The team has had a special energy to it that definitely comes from the top, from Kit and Bill Shown and Elizabeth Fauerso, all of whom are inspiring people,” Giles said as the hotel prepared for its opening. “All of them were so on board with creating a magical place that shows South Texas and its many quirky qualities and its mash of cultures. The Pearl and now the Emma are old San Antonio preserved and brought forward, and the Emma breathes new life into all the old stories. The people who have lived here a long time or all their lives will recognize we kept the history and charm.”

Some in San Antonio will bridle at any display of luxury or wealth (excepting the Spurs), so the Emma, do doubt, will be the target of critics and those who already deride the Pearl as Disneyland, too expensive, or Anglocentric – all false stereotypes. San Antonio’s history includes that period of time in the mid-to-late 19th century when the city and Galveston were the state’s first real big towns in Texas. Hotels like the Menger, the Gunter and then the St. Anthony once stood as luxury destinations. All three continue to hold special places in the city’s hospitality trade, but none can claim to be in the same category as the Emma. For those who want to see San Antonio realize its rising ambitions without sacrificing its “Big City, Small Town” charm and authenticity, the Hotel Emma will be seen as the crown jewel of the Pearl, a place that honors the city’s history in a new century. 

This story was originally published on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.