A view of Hotel Emma from the river with the amphitheater. Photo by Scott Martin.
A view of Hotel Emma from the river with the amphitheater. Photo by Scott Martin.

Editor’s Note: Silver Ventures, owner of the Pearl, and San Francisco-based Kimpton Properties, an international boutique hotels operator, have dissolved their operating agreement for Kimpton to operate and manage the Hotel Emma, set to open on the Pearl campus in the former brewhouse on Oct. 1 this year. Pearl officials have said they will operate the high-end boutique hotel with its own management team and with the employees hired here by Kimpton.   

With a spring-fed water supply and a sizable population of German immigrants, San Antonio proved to be an ideal place to make beer. As a result, several breweries sprang up along the winding path of the San Antonio River in the closing decades of the 19th century, including the San Antonio Brewing Association. In time the company built a sprawling campus just a mile north of downtown and managed to survive Prohibition to flourish throughout the 20th century. In the 1950s it was renamed the Pearl Brewery Company after its most popular product.

By the end of the 20th Century, however, the economics of the beer industry had changed and in 2001 beer production ceased on the 23-acre campus. This was not the end of the Pearl Brewery. Instead it represented the start of an exciting new chapter.

At this point, the story of the transformation of the Pearl Brewery has been told many times as it has become an integral part of the San Antonio built landscape. As well as being a destination in itself, the Pearl also has acted as an important catalyst for the redevelopment of a once-blighted part of town.

For all the changes that have occurred in and around the Pearl Brewery over the past decade, the Old Brew House has remained a mostly unchanged landmark at the heart of the campus. With its rather unintuitive “San Antonio Brew’g. Ass’n.” abbreviation carved into its east façade, the towering 1894 structure has acted as a landmark for the entire campus even as the building itself continued to sit empty. Although the exterior of the seven-story structure with its iconic cupolas was restored in 2008, the conversion of its interior into a four-star hotel did not begin until 2012.

Named after Emma Koehler, the socially progressive wife of founder Otto Koehler who took over the brewery after his death in 1914 and was considered responsible for the success of the brewery in its early years, the 146-room Hotel Emma,which includes a New Tower addition, was designed by the team of  Roman and Williams, a New York-based architecture and interiors firm responsible for such iconic boutique hotels as The Standard and The New York Ace Hotel and Three Living Architecture of Dallas, who worked closely together to develop the design.

Emma Koehler took over the brewery after the death of husband Otto in 1914 and ran the brewery for 26 years, surviving 14 years of prohibition in the process.
Emma Koehler took over the brewery after the death of husband Otto in 1914 and ran the brewery for 26 years, surviving 14 years of prohibition in the process.

The Hotel Emma will have little to no resemblance to the generic cookie-cutter designed chain motels that cluster around highway exits. What is being created at the Pearl is instead a singular hotel experience that will be a unique reflection of a treasured part of San Antonio’s colorful history and the vibrant, multicultural history of South Texas.

As with the rest of the campus, the unconventional design will seek to blend the old with the new. Just as artifacts of the Pearl’s history are incorporated into the development’s public spaces, restaurants, shops and landscape, great effort has gone into preserving and integrating industrial artifacts of the Old Brew House itself.

Although the historic structure reads as a landmark to rival the civic presence of a courthouse or other public building, the Old Brew House was actually built as a machine for the efficient creation of beer. Its height allowed for the brewing process to be assisted by gravity. Grain would be mechanically lifted to the top level of the building and passed through a series of ovens, mixers and tanks. Beer would flow out of the bottom.

The historic integrity of the original structure has been left mostly intact but considerable work has been done to carve guest rooms out of the cellar additions built to the rear of the Old Brew House. Although many of these rooms are relatively small in terms of floor area, their tall ceiling heights make them feel voluminous. Other rooms – especially those in the Old Brew House, are truly spectacular. For example, the grain hopper in the cupola will be preserved as part of what promises to be an amazing penthouse suite.

The cellars vaulted ceilings, columns and thick brick walls will be featured in the final guest rooms at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.
The cellars vaulted ceilings, columns and thick brick walls will be featured in the final guest rooms at Hotel Emma. Photo by Scott Martin.

Striking a balance between the desire to preserve the spirit of the building while at the same time creating a functioning hotel proved to be the main challenge of designing and building the hotel. When a compelling piece of machinery or manifold was discovered, it would be integrated into the design. Although this has caused the schedule of the project to be extended, there seems to be a deeply embedded desire to do this project right, even if it means talking a little longer to do so.

Although the individual rooms will no doubt be interesting, the public areas of the hotel will be truly spectacular. The main entrance to the hotel will be off the northern side near the existing amphitheater. After checking in at the lobby, visitors will pass by an intricate ammonia manifold and through an arched opening into a great hall called the “Sternewirth Bar and Club Room.” This huge space was once packed tightly with large metal tanks, most of which have been removed. Three have been left in place, however, and have been converted into elevated banquettes.

Toward the back of the hotel will be the “Elephant Cellars,” a grand ballroom defined by various salvaged tank artifacts that act as wall accents. An adjacent outdoor terrace overlooks the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River. Adjacent to the terrace on the first floor of the New Tower addition, will be a restaurant that shares similar views of the river.

Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery, a second restaurant located on the ground floor of the original Brew House, will be opening in the coming weeks prior to the rest of the hotel. Outdoor dining will take place in the “Plaza” that will act as a landscaped front lawn for the original Brew House. This is part of several acres of new green space that is being added to the campus as part of its ongoing redevelopment.

The opening of Southerleigh will act as an enticing prelude to things to come. When the Hotel Emma itself opens in October, it will represent a significant addition to an already unique collection of world-class restaurants and shops. It will also provide another example of how the old and the new can work together to create something truly unique.

Related Stories:

Southerleigh Brings Brewing Back to the Pearl

Pearl Adding Sunday Farmers Market

New ‘For Sale’ Market Growing Around Pearl

The Budding Midtown Music Scene

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Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is an architect at HiWorks. He also teaches at San Antonio College and is the interim editor of Texas Architect magazine.