Bunkhouse Unveils the Shady Villa Hotel in Salado – Texas Monthly

Just three years after real estate developer Clark Lyda unveiled his much-anticipated renovation of the old Stagecoach Inn in Salado, the legendary property has just reopened again, under new management. After failing to draw enough visitors hoping to experience his faithful reinterpretation of a place that once hosted Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, Lyda has tapped Austin’s Bunkhouse Group to take over. And Bunkhouse has a few new ideas.

The company—which broke up with its visionary founder, Liz Lambert, about two years ago—isn’t the most obvious choice to run a small-town Central Texas inn whose roots go back to 1861, although it did help reimagine the thirties-era Austin Motel a few years ago. Known for such trendsetting properties as the Hotel San José (which reinvented South Congress Avenue), El Cosmico (which helped reinvent Marfa), and the Hotel St. Cecilia (which brought Hollywood glam to Austin), Bunkhouse tends to succeed by creating one-of-a-kind experiences in environments that push the edges of style and design. Its properties are the height of what might best be called New Texas.

The Stagecoach Inn is, well, the height of old Texas.

The management change has led to some questions from the locals, said Jenny Schipani, Bunkhouse’s Austin-based corporate director of experience, on a November morning in Salado as she stood on the porch of the property’s old white building that houses the Stagecoach restaurant. “We’ve taken a few calls over at HQ [from locals] and they’re like, ‘What’s happening up there? What is Bunkhouse? Are you going to tear everything down?’ And I’ll have to talk them through it and explain that everything is going to stay intact; there’s no demolition.” 

There will be changes, though. Most noticeably, while the restaurant will be called the Stagecoach, the 48-room hotel behind it is being rechristened the Shady Villa Hotel—a kind of kitschy branding move that also happens to be a return to the original nineteenth-century name. With the new moniker comes a summer-camp theme that will run through the property. “We wanted this place to harken back to the cabins in The Parent Trap or Dirty Dancing,” explained Tenaya Hills, Bunkhouse’s vice president of design and development.

The hotel—and all of Salado’s boutique-lined Main Street—backs up to the northbound lanes of Interstate 35, and that location has long made it a convenient road-trip stopover. And a chic one, where well-to-do Texans would stop to pay homage to then-owner Ruth Van Bibber and neighboring shopkeepers such as the former fashion model Grace Jones. While the hotel spent some dark years as a crash pad for truckers, the restaurant has more or less maintained its status as a destination lunch spot, even as it fell into disrepair before the 2018 renovation.

The team now hopes the summer-camp theme can make the hotel a quick weekend getaway for families—where they play bocce or horseshoes on the lawn, lounge around by the pool, and ride the hotel’s stylish white cruiser bikes down Main Street. The plan calls for two-stepping classes and lawn races and outdoor movies. Car shows and farmers markets in the parking lot. A Fourth of July picnic, parties, and partnerships with local institutions such as Salado Glassworks and Barrow Brewing.

Why go through all the contortionism of building out a campy theme for a place with such a legacy? The strategy is not without reason. Hills called the project “a brain bender” for designers: it’s a “beloved architectural time capsule” on one hand, but it’s also a collection of confoundingly disparate spaces.

The original building, which houses the restaurant, maintains the look and feel of a wooden farmhouse surrounded by gnarled old oak trees. It’s an elegant antique, both well-preserved and creaky. The hotel, on the other hand, comprises several separate structures built in the 1950s that surround a pool and house motel-style rooms with exterior entrances. Banana trees and mid-century lounge chairs complete the look. And between those two design extremes lies a more recently built limestone structure that shades an open-air bar and expansive game room.

The property’s previous design team, the architecture firm Clayton Korte, didn’t attempt to stitch the different areas together so much as optimize each for what it was: wood-paneled walls and tufted leather furniture surrounded by taxidermy and old books in the restaurant; Naugahyde daybeds and Saltillo tiles in the guest rooms; and so on. The Bunkhouse team’s big insight was essentially to separate the hotel and restaurant even further by renaming the former. And doing that allowed the company to build out a separate identity and ideal guest experience for the hotel, without compromising the restaurant’s legacy.

In addition to decking out and sprucing up the outdoor bar and game room, Bunkhouse has added a general store that sells family-friendly getaway goods (puzzles, dominos, orange Fanta), and it’s further embraced the mid-century aesthetic in the rooms, adding Nelson Ball Bubble lamps and colorful, blocky textiles that evoke the Mad Men era. Large photos of Texas landscapes by photographer Nick Simonite play off the notion of road trips. In the Stagecoach Restaurant, a few of the classic dishes remain on the menu (a gargantuan chicken-fried steak, the famous bowl of hush puppies, the decadent Strawberry Kiss dessert), while the rest is now a rotating cast of locally sourced, seasonal specialties.

Schipani called this new iteration of the property (with rooms starting around $155 and rates likely to creep up) “phase one and a half” of the renovation. Among other things, a currently unused clubhouse building will eventually host many of the planned activities. And there remains the tricky issue of road noise from the nearby highway—a constant reminder that, no matter how lush the landscaping and clever the branding, this gem of a hotel exists in a different world from its heyday.

For now, with the restaurant largely unchanged, those who come to honor an authentic piece of Texas history will get their nostalgia fix. Whether a younger generation embraces the new vision in the hotel remains to be seen, but Bunkhouse is committed to moving the property forward rather than looking back. “Our vision for the future is not completely in line with the vision that people want to carry on from the 1800s,” Schipani said. “We want to make sure those people are still included, so it can take them back to when they were kids with their grandparents. And we want to make sure when we bring in our campers from Austin, they can get that old feel but also be like, ‘It’s 2021. It’s beautiful here, but I can do new and fun stuff.’ We can meet in the middle.”