With a new visionary at the helm, the legendary Phoenix Hotel rises again


If you've been to a pool party at the Phoenix Hotel this summer, you might have noticed a few changes, like the revamped lobby area now selling edgy rocker tees, or the swanky new lounge furniture outside on the deck.

It's all thanks to Bunkhouse Group, the Texas-based boutique hotel brand responsible for the coolest crash pads in Austin and Marfa. Liz Lambert, founder and owner of Bunkhouse, took The Phoenix under her wing last year, and has since done a number on the legendary hotel in the heart of the Tenderloin.

The property, as most longtime San Franciscans know, has a rockin' past—a heritage that appealed to music-loving Lambert...but we'll get to that. Though the wild pool parties nowadays draw talent like The Knocks and Jazzy Jeff, some of rock-and-roll's biggest names have allegedly spent a night or two in the 62-year-old motel. In the 1950s, Neil Young was a rumored resident while recording with Crosby, Stills & Nash, when the old motor lodge was hardly prime real estate.

Two decades after that, the decrepit property was swooped up by a young hotelier by the name of Chip Conley, who breathed fresh life into the space, revamping it with a new look and a new name, and a slice of SF history was risen from the ashes. The rest is local and even international lore: Conley would go on to fame and fortune as the zen master behind Joie de Vivre hotels; The Phoenix the first small feather in his cap.

Over the next two decades, the hotel hosted touring musicians and creatives, drawing the likes of David Bowie and Kurt Cobain who like its low-key location within earshot of the Warfield, Bill Graham Civic Center, and Great American Music Hall (not to mention its convenient, tour-bus-friendly parking lot). In the '90s, Conley commissioned artist Francis Forlenza to create a mural in the bottom of the pool, not knowing that state law required all swimmable pools have a plain white bottom; the masterpiece is not only the property's centripetal force, but it's also one of just two landmarked swimming pools in the country.

When the time came for The Phoenix to rise just a little higher yet again, Conley called on his longtime mentee Lambert in the hope that she'd take the reins; the legacy, the stories, and the rock-and-roll spirit drew her immediately to the place. Bunkhouse's properties in Austin—including the Austin Motel, Hotel San Jose and, our favorite, the Saint Cecilia—frequently play host to touring musicians. Sound familiar?

The Phoenix "became this sort of legendary place over the years, where the grittiness of the Tenderloin became the backdrop for the rock-and-roll scene traveling through town—there were a lot of crazy memories born there," Lambert explains. "When Kurt Cobain died, he had a note in his pocket on Phoenix Hotel stationary. He had written joke wedding vows to Courtney on it. Pretty amazing."

The Phoenix's storied past remains, along with the Art Deco exoskeleton of the building itself, the artful swimming pool, and the retro vibe Conley created back in the '80s. But the fresh coat of paint and lush palette of new colorful, eclectic decor comes courtesy of Bunkhouse, along with thoughtful new programming that encourages community among strangers.

Photo Credit: Nick Simonite

"We paid homage to its cultural heyday in the late 80's and early 90's. We wanted to acknowledge its roots and elevate the legend that it is, but at the same time we want to be sure to manage guests' expectations — it's still a motel in the heart of the Tenderloin," says the hotelier. "We're going to do our part to carve out a little bit of soul here if we can."

The 44 courtyard-facing guest rooms have been majorly refreshed in a slightly more minimalist style than the tropical look they used to wear. Now floating, bright-blue headboards, vintage-inspired concert posters, and neon light installations funk up the otherwise clean-lined quarters.

"My brother Lyndon always said, 'let people be the color in the room,'" says Lambert. "When you create a backdrop for things to happen, a kind of blank canvas for human experience, that's where the magic is."

Guests check in and out at the newly revamped lobby reminiscent of a recording studio with wood-paneled walls and a Shinola record player spinning decades of hits. There's also an array of punk/grunge-inspired tees, music memorabilia, and a variety of drinks and snacks for retail. Outside, the central courtyard bursts with a new crop of potted plants alongside comfy striped pool cabanas, perfect for lounging in the sunshine with a cocktail in hand. Along with the music-accompanied pool parties that rule SF summer weekends, Bunkhouse has a host of plans up its sleeve, like Drag Queen bingo and a newly-launched Saturday series of poolside yoga, in partnership with Outdoor Voices.

Also sticking around is the onsite restaurant, Chambers Eat + Drink, where a new chef, Nick Andoe, will helm the kitchen, serving "New American cuisine, with rustic influences" to the soundtrack of indie hits spinning from the restaurant's impressive vinyl collection. The dimly-lit, retro-inspired digs are a prime location for a low-key brunch, while the poolside patio and fire pit offer serene surrounds for a pre-show tipple.

Lambert, like Conley, says her ultimate goal as a boutique hotelier is to create something different. No matter where, whether in San Francisco or Austin, says she believes travelers are "really just looking for a hotel that tells them the story of a place and leaves them with a sense of having been somewhere." The indelible footprint that The Phoenix has left on the city's musical and cultural history is only growing.

"We paid homage to its cultural heyday in the late '80s and early '90s. We wanted to acknowledge its roots and elevate the legend that it is, but at the same time we want to be sure to manage guests' expectations—it's still a motel in the heart of the Tenderloin," says the hotelier. "We're going to do our part to carve out a little bit of soul here if we can."

// The Phoenix, 601 Eddy St. (Tenderloin), phoenixsf.com.

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