When Liz Lambert bought the San Jose Motel on Austin’s South Congress Avenue in 1995, she planned to get a bank loan for renovations. But the renovation loan stalled, and Lambert left her job as a lawyer and decided to work at the hotel full-time.
In the late 1990s, South Congress was still a bit dicey, in terms of clientele, and the San Jose was the housing of last resort for some people on the verge of homelessness. The rooms rented for about $30 to $35 per night, or a bit less if you paid by the week.
The residents were colorful: street musicians who depended on gigs on Sixth Street, drug addicts, young people trying to make it on their own but without many prospects — and a wide variety of what some folks would call losers.
Lambert, however, shows no disdain for these folks in her new documentary “Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose,” which had its virtual world premiere on March 16 at the virtual South by Southwest Festival.
Instead, Lambert gets to know her long-term tenants and begins to document her experiences with them on film. A lot of the scenes feature first encounters with folks as Lambert stands behind a plexiglass window and takes in rent money. Some of the renters seem desperate. Others seem shady. And still others are charming, in an offbeat kind of way.
Lambert turns the camera on herself at times, too. She explains that she was a frequent visitor to the Continental Club across the street — and that one day she went to the motel and asked whether it was for sale. To her surprise, it was, and she bought it for $550,000.
Of course today the boutique hotel today is worth millions in part because Lambert eventually got her renovation loan and in part because she knew how to create an inviting space for travelers. Since the San Jose experience, Lambert has gone on to found Bunkhouse Group, FARWEST and Lambert McGuire Design.
The new documentary is Lambert’s first, along with co-director Tina Gazzerro Clapp. A much-earlier version of the film screened in Austin in 2005. The new version includes different footage as well as updates on the renovations, as well as what happened to the cast of characters.
One of the motel residents is Gerry Van King, who plays bass on Sixth Street, and he and Lambert strike up a friendship. Another is a young man who works as a housekeeper at the motel in exchange for rent. He dreams of attending college eventually, and has a very troubled father. There’s also a single mom with a son who eventually gets hit by a car on South Congress, which leads to a dramatic change in her life.
While the people are the heart of the documentary, Lambert forthrightly explores the idea of gentrification and what will happen when she has to shut down the motel for renovations. By the time she got the loan to do so in the late 1990s, South Congress was beginning to change — big time. And the renovation of what then became the Hotel San Jose was one of the keys to the area’s gentrification.
To her credit, Lambert works with the long-term motel residents to help them find other accommodations once the motel closes for renovations. But some of the residents are clearly destined for living under an overpass. And this, of course, makes the new documentary even more timely. It shows the human side of those citizens living on the streets — and how some of them ended up in such dire straits.
The soundtrack for the documentary is quite remarkable, with an original score by Stephen Barber and Charlie Sexton. Musical contributors include Fiona Apple, St. Vincent, Leon Bridges and others.
“Today, traveling down South Congress Avenue, one of the most visited streets of Austin, you’ll find a completely different place thank what I found when I bought the San Jose Motel in 1995,” Lambert says in a press release.
“At that time, we had no idea what the area would become or the change that we would spark. We hope this film will help feed conversations around thoughtful city growth and how we can better look out for those who are at risk by the impacts of change.”