The Grit and the Grandeur

Since purchasing the Pearl Brewery in 2002, private equity firm Sliver Ventures has transformed the 23-acre site just north of downtown San Antonio into a mixed-use, urban-scaled neighborhood. Based on a master plan by Lake|Flato, the district has been filled in with an eclectic assortment of buildings — some new constructions, others adaptations of old brewery facilities — designed by a variety of architects and occupied by apartments, offices, shops, and restaurants. 

The centerpiece of the bustling development is Hotel Emma, a 146-room luxury hotel named after Emma Koehler, who survived her husband, brewery president Otto Koehler, to run the company successfully even during Prohibition. Designed by Dallas practice three: living architecture, with interiors by New York City-based Roman and Williams, the hotel resides in the main brewery building, a Renaissance Revival German beer palace built in several phases throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a new tower designed to mimic the existing structures.    

The brewery buildings — which are lined up in a contiguous row, though not necessarily connected — contained on the ground floor an engine house, brewhouse, and cellars; and storage on the upper levels. They were essentially warehouses with monolithic reinforced-concrete and steel structures and loadbearing brick masonry envelopes. With the exception of the narrow, eastern facade, the buildings had no window penetrations. The architects added them, which required significant structural engineering due to the thickness of the masonry. They also cut horizontal circulation connections between the buildings, whose floor plates don’t quite line up. The 20-ft floor-to-floor heights also made it challenging to create proportions that felt right in the guest rooms, all of which are unique in the existing structures. 

“In all honesty, this isn’t the type of building you’d ever want to adapt to a hotel,” says Gary Koerner, AIA, founding principal of Three. “It proved to be a very complicated structure to configure guestrooms with windows.” 

Nonetheless, the design team took full advantage of the existing structures, stripping them down to their raw material essences and creatively reusing old brewery machinery for decorative purposes. The vaulted concrete ceilings and concrete floors were left exposed, as were the massive columns. The ground-floor public spaces are decked with battered steel tanks, twisting pipes, chunky valves, and other pieces reclaimed from the beer works. Salvaged doors and fixtures and rehabilitated antique furnishings, all selected by Roman and Williams to convey the building’s German-Texan heritage, complete the

composition: a blend of industrial grit and lavish, Old-World comfort. 

Three has made a specialty of designing small luxury hotels. While he was with Shepherd & Boyd, Koerner was responsible for the Mansion on Turtle Creek (1981) in Dallas. His firm designed The Peninsula Beverly Hills (1991), The Westin Riverwalk (1999) in San Antonio, and many more marquee destinations for the well-heeled. “In luxury hospitality, it’s all about creating emotional connections,” says Koerner. “You want the guest to have a unique experience, and to feel at home and identify it as their place.”

Emma is full of such moments, starting with the courtyard entry with its reclaimed brick fireplace. The architects positioned it on the north face of the building, as opposed to the feature facade on the east, in order to connect it to the river and keep the pedestrian plaza on the east free from cars. Reception is small and outfitted with an antique mail and key cubby. Arriving guests are served a complimentary margarita in the library, which has two levels of dark wood bookcases packed with many a dusty tome. Sternewirth, the bar, is spacious, but furnished with discreetly positioned lounge sets and tables, including two brew tanks that have been repurposed as semi-private seating areas. There is a grocery and coffee shop with a “soupçon of Euro-sophistication” called the Larder, and a series of ballrooms, including the Elephant Cellar, where old tanks and pipe works stand in for gilt mirrors and crystal chandeliers. At its western extremity, Emma meets the San Antonio River. Here, the architects peeled away the building’s walls, leaving a steel cage structure that forms a courtyard space for functions. It adjoins the Brewmeister Suite, the old office of the Pearl Brewery brewmaster, which has accommodations for weddings or board meetings. A pool deck on the third floor offers a sweeping view of the river and downtown. 

In the guest rooms, as everywhere else at Emma, this mix of industry and luxury, grit and grandeur, predominates. The furniture is contemporary, but sympathetic to the quaint atmosphere. Around the four-poster beds, rugs take the edge off the concrete floors, though the latter have been polished and sealed thoroughly enough to be comfortable against bare feet. The blue and white tiles, standing sinks, and brass fittings in the bathrooms give one’s daily ablutions a privileged air. “There’s no Modernism in this project,” Koerner says. “We kept the Old-World feel.” And what a good feeling it is, to lie on the bed, gazing at the vaulted ceiling and concrete columns, and dream your dreams of tectonics that time forgot.

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.

Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.