Before being transformed into a hip boutique hotel in Austin, the Carpenter Hotel was a nondescript meeting room for a carpenters union. Unless you’re a carpenter, you’ve probably never noticed the one-story brick building surrounded by a pecan plantation, even though it’s a few blocks from Barton Springs. But architect Jen Turner saw potential in the structure and its surroundings, especially the trees. âYou can’t even begin to put that kind of charm into a site,â she says. And that’s how she embarked on her first hotel project.
âTo be honest, I never thought I would do hotels, but here I am,â says Turner, who co-founded The Mighty Union hotel group with her husband, Jack Barron. Their mission is simple: to revive older and disused buildings.
Since 2014, their plans have included renovating Suttle Lodge in the Deschutes National Forest near Bend, Oregon, and reinventing this 1948 Carpenters Union building as the Carpenter Hotel. Turner, BArch ’98, leads construction and project management, and shares design and creative direction with Barron, who also handles business development. Associate Donald Kenney completes the triangle overseeing operations. Their next project is to transform the oldest chop suey restaurant in Chinatown Honolulu into a 23-room boutique hotel. It is set to open next summer.
From a young age, Turner’s mother pushed her towards historic preservation. Real estate development was also in his blood. Born in Houston, she grew up moving – first Conroe, then Katy, then Sugar Land (âevery little town that has become encompassed by Houston,â she says) – because of her father’s job. He was vice president of Gerald Hines, the senior planner who transformed the Houston skyline and developed the industrial city of Sugar Land.
The eldest of seven siblings, Turner loved art and took classes at the Glassell School of Art in downtown Houston while in high school. She began to envision a career in architecture with an emphasis on historical preservation. âI thought architecture was more akin to art and was just one of those art sciences,â she says. “And I knew well enough that historical curators were also generally architects.”
Almost at the top of her class, she considered other colleges (Texas Christian University offered her a scholarship) before making the last-minute decision to apply to the University of Texas at Austin. She was planning on majoring in business and earning a master’s degree in architecture, but after finding business classes a little boring, she applied to the School of Architecture and enrolled there. As soon as she started taking design classes, she gave up on historic preservation to focus on design. and ideation. It would be years later that his interest in historic buildings would return.
To complete his degree, Turner interned at Tod Williams’ husband-and-wife architecture firm Billie Tsien in New York City. A small business at the time, Turner was able to integrate easily into his community, according to Williams. âDuring her internship, we began to realize that she was just a great spirit – upbeat, curious, ready to put her shoulder to the test for whatever task we put in her,â says -he. “She was exceptional.”
After graduation, she returned to town and job vacancies started pouring in. She sought advice from her former bosses, who offered her a job on the spot, and impressed them with her ambition, openness and ease of dealing with clients. .
âShe is a strong woman. She will always say what she thinks. She’s just very, very open, âTsien says. “She also has a quirky and wacky side, which I think comes across in a very interesting way.”
During his 11 years with the firm, Turner worked at the Cranbrook Natatorium, the Johns Hopkins University Creative Arts Center, and the Museum of American Folk Art. But by 2009, she was ready to go on her own, focusing on designing exhibits for the Museum of the City of New York and designing furniture, which she continues to do for The Mighty Union.
In 2013, Turner had met Barron. Also an architect, he was a partner of the Ace Hotel group and worked on their boutique hotels in Portland, Palm Springs and New York (he is still co-owner of the Portland hotel). Both from Texas, the couple decided to move to Austin.
âWe both wanted to be warm again,â says Turner, âand be somewhere we could live inside and outside all the time.â
A year later, an investment group bought the building from the carpenters union. âWe loved the building from the first glance,â says Turner. “It was so familiar.” Investors were considering turning it into offices or some other use until The Mighty Union came up with the idea of ââturning it into a hotel and restaurant.
While Turner says she leans modern in her designs, she takes inspiration from a building’s surroundings. So, she made sure to keep the pecans around the property and added Texan elements, including terra cotta brick walls from San Antonio’s D’Hanis Brick and Tile Company.
Echoing Tsien’s description of Turner, Barron describes his wife and partner as the only true professional in the Mighty Union group.
âShe brings a level of rigor and insight that we desperately need,â he says.
As a working couple, he adds that the greatest joy has been bringing their 7-year-old son, Dash. Barron describes him as a “bohemian Eloise at the Plaza. “
âWe used to joke that he visited more abandoned buildings before he was 5 years old than most people do in their lifetime,â he says. âIt took us a while to get him to understand that he was not allowed in all restaurant kitchens, only ours.
In the nearly 25 years that Turner was an architect, she accepted projects come and go, but the pandemic has made her job particularly difficult. The hospitality industry has been hit hard, and in the case of The Mighty Union, they saw $ 1 million on the Carpenter Hotel’s books written off when SXSW announced it wouldn’t happen in 2020. In July To pay off the debt, says Turner, the Carpenter acquired a new ownership entity. In the spring of 2021, The Mighty Union’s management contract was bought out.
âIt was bittersweet,â says Turner, âbut like a lot of things in life, things always change. It also helps in hindsight crystallize things, like how we want to structure things. in a way, it’s a gift to learn these things before the next project.
The pandemic also caused The Mighty Union’s San Antonio project to shut down (it can still happen, Turner says). But there was one bright spot for the group: They had their best year at Suttle Lodge in 2020, which Turner attributes to its location outside of an urban center as people felt safer traveling on driving and staying in cabins rather than cramming into downtown hotels.
Pretending not to be an expert, Turner believes it is still too early to see how much the hospitality industry will change or how long the impact of COVID will last. What she does know is that the industry is struggling to adapt to its new reality. âPeople are really struggling to offer the service that could have been done before and at the same prices,â she says.
This year, Turner and Barron moved the family to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they spent much of 2020. They hope to buy a 12-acre property with five buildings in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. But even this project has its hurdles including major renovations and the sale being blocked in bankruptcy court.
“We really hope that it can move forward, because we love the project,” she said. âOtherwise, there will be something else. It’s always like that, right?
CREDITS: Clair Cottrell, Alex Lau (2), The Mighty Union, Chase Daniel