At first sight, it is hard to believe that San Antonio’s Pearl Brewery building could originally have served such a utilitarian purpose. Completed in 1894, it is an imposing brick structure — built in the Second Empire style, with a central tower and huge arched windows — that looks as though it might have been designed as an upscale apartment complex. Today, as well as housing the 146-room Hotel Emma — which opened in November 2015 — the former brewery has given its name to the surrounding (and buzzing) gastronomic and retail neighborhood, which boasts an array of restaurants and cafés, boutiques, bars, a bakery, a micro-brew pub, a Culinary Institute of America outpost, a farmers market and even an open-air amphitheater.
In 1921, a catastrophic flood killed more than 50 people in San Antonio. The city’s responding flood-control scheme eventually led to the creation of one of its most iconic visitor attractions, the River Walk, a colorful thoroughfare that meanders through San Antonio for several miles. Hotel Emma is located at its northern end, close to the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Alamo lies approximately two miles to the south.
The Pearl Brewery prospered for 25 years, but with the onset of Prohibition, the company escaped oblivion thanks only to its redoubtable owner, Emma Koehler, who diversified into dry cleaning and auto repair, as well as the manufacturing of soda and ice cream. The formidable Koehler remained at the brewery until her death, in 1943.
The building’s recent conversion was undertaken by New York-based Roman and Williams, a design firm that has come to specialize in the repurposing of historic buildings (other projects include The High Line Hotel in Manhattan and the Chicago Athletic Association on the shores of Lake Michigan).
The central public spaces of Hotel Emma are astonishingly bold and dramatic. To describe the lobby as an example of “industrial chic” scarcely does it justice. True, the brewery’s cast-iron tanks and machinery remain in place, and the original brick walls are unadorned, but the addition of caramel-colored leather sofas, saddle blanket-style area rugs atop polychrome tile floors, hardwood furniture and paneling, and display cases of earthenware and ceramics has created a marvelous synthesis of old and new, one that is distinctive and stylish but, at the same time, inviting and civilized. Off the lobby, a serene library of some 3,700 books, its two levels connected by an iron staircase, is reserved for hotel guests. And the adjacent Sternewirth bar and lounge — with its 25-foot ceiling, fireplace, pool table covered with burgundy baize and banquette seating within the old fermentation tanks — is a tour de force of imaginative design.
We had opted for a Terrace Room, which featured an 86-square-foot outdoor seating area with a gas fireplace, a mesquite-framed daybed and a Redondo Tile floor. As much as we enjoyed sipping a glass of wine on our terrace in the evening, the bedroom itself was, at 330 square feet, on the small side and rather austere (though the Frette linens were a pleasing touch). The tiled bath was well-lit, with a single large sink, an excellent walk-in shower (but no tub), unusual guayabera robes and superior Malin + Goetz toiletries. In general, the accommodations at Hotel Emma are idiosyncratic, being housed within an old building originally intended to fulfill another function entirely. It is, therefore, hard to give definitive advice. However, I think it is important to request a larger room — for example, a 520-square-foot Artesian Brewhouse King, with two sinks and a claw-foot tub — or opt for one of the seven top-floor suites.
Hotel Emma is further distinguished by its restaurant, Supper — which, confusingly, also serves breakfast and lunch — where talented Midwestern chef John Brand offers a seasonal menu of New American cuisine in a light and attractive bistro setting. During my stay, I tried the smoked quail with pickled corn relish and gold potato purée, and the grilled beef bavette with polenta, garlic spinach and chimichurri. Both were outstanding. As elsewhere in the hotel, the service was consistently friendly and efficient. (A charming concierge sorted out a knotty rental-car problem with minimum fuss.)
Amenities at Hotel Emma include a 24-hour fitness center and a rooftop pool. Overall, this is an exceptional property that, unlike most fashionable design hotels, is likely to appeal to all tastes and age groups. I enjoyed every minute of my stay.
The brilliant design; the delicious cuisine; the integration of the hotel in a vibrant urban setting.
Despite being one of the more expensive accommodations, our Terrace Room was on the small side.
Larder, the hotel’s gourmet market, is a delightful place in which to enjoy an unhurried snack.