Jan | February 2022, TXEX


January 1, 2022 at 8:06 am

Before it was converted into a hip Austin boutique hotel, that was it Carpenter Hotel was a nondescript meeting room for a carpenters union. If you weren’t a carpenter, you probably never noticed the single-story brick building surrounded by a pecan grove, even though it’s just blocks from Barton Springs. However, architect Jen Turner saw potential in the structure and its surroundings, especially in the trees. “You can’t even begin to give a site that charm,” she says. And so she started her first hotel project.

“To be honest, I never thought I’d work in hotels, but here I am,” says Turner, co-founder of the Hospitality Group The mighty union with her husband Jack Barron. Their mission is simple: to breathe new life into older, disused buildings.

Modernization has been one of her projects since 2014 Shuttle Lodge in the Deschutes National Forest near Bend, Oregon, and re-imagined the 1948 carpenter’s union building as the Carpenter Hotel. Turner, BArch ’98, leads construction and project management and shares design and creative lead with Barron, who is also responsible for business development. Partner Donald Kenney completes the triangle by overseeing operations. Her next project is to transform the oldest chop suey restaurant in Honolulu’s Chinatown neighborhood into a 23-room boutique hotel. It is well on the way to opening next summer.

From an early age, Turner’s mother urged her to preserve monuments. Real estate development was also in her blood. Born in Houston, she grew around her father’s work – first Conroe, then Katy, and then Sugar Land (“every little town that was taken by Houston,” she says) – because of her father’s work. He was vice president of Gerald Hines, the master planner who changed Houston’s skyline and developed the Sugar Land factory town.

Turner, the eldest of seven siblings, enjoyed the arts and took classes at the Glassell School of Art in downtown Houston during high school. She began considering a career in architecture with a focus on heritage conservation. “I thought architecture was more like art and just one of those arts,” she says. “And I knew enough that preservationists are usually architects too.”

She graduated from the top of her class and considered other colleges (Texas Christian University offered her a scholarship) before deciding at the last minute to apply to the University of Texas at Austin. She planned to major in economics and get a master’s in architecture, but after finding business courses a little boring, she applied to the School of Architecture and got in. Once she took design courses, she gave up heritage conservation to focus on design and brainstorming. It would be years later for her interest in historical buildings to return.

To complete her degree, Turner interned at Tod Williams Billie Tsien’s architectural practice in New York City. At the time, Turner was a small company that Williams said it was easy to integrate into their community. “During her internship, we realized that she is just a great spirit – optimistic, curious and ready to shoulder any task we give her,” he says. “She was extraordinary.”

After graduation, she returned to the city and new vacancies came up. She sought the advice of her former bosses, who immediately offered her a position, and she impressed her with her ambition, her open-mindedness and her uncomplicated approach to customers.

“She is a strong woman. She will always say what she thinks. She’s just very, very open, ”says Tsien. “She also has a quirky, crazy side that I think expresses itself in very interesting ways.”

During her 11 years with the company, Turner worked at the Natatorium in Cranbrook, the Johns Hopkins University Creative Arts Center, and the Museum of American Folk Art. But by 2009 she was ready to set up on her own and focus on exhibition design for the Museum of the City of Focus on New York and furniture design, which she continues to do for The Mighty Union.

Turner had met Barron by 2013. As 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 a co-owner of the Portland Hotel). Both are from Texas and the couple decided to move to Austin.

“We both wanted to be warm again,” says Turner, “and to be able to live somewhere inside and outside.”

A year later, an investment group bought the carpenters’ union building. “We loved the building at first sight,” says Turner. “It just felt so familiar.” Investors considered converting it to offices or other uses until The Mighty Union came up with the idea of ​​converting it into a hotel and restaurant.

While Turner says she leans modern in her designs, she takes inspiration from the surroundings of a building. So she made sure to keep the pecan trees around the property and added Texan touches, including walls made of terracotta bricks from the D’Hanis Brick and Tile Company of San Antonio.

Following Tsien’s description of Turner, Barron describes his wife and partner as the only true professional in the Mighty Union group.

“She brings a degree of rigor and insight that we urgently needed,” he says.

As a couple that work together, he adds that bringing their 7 year old son, Dash, was the greatest joy. Barron describes him as a “bohemian Eloise in the plaza”.

“We always joked that before he was five he saw more dilapidated buildings than most people in their lifetime,” he says. “It took a while before he realized that he wasn’t allowed into every restaurant kitchen, only ours.”

In the nearly 25 years that Turner has worked as an architect, she has accepted that 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, $ 1 million was canceled on the Carpenter Hotel’s books when SXSW announced it would not happen in 2020. In July to pay off debts, Turner says Carpenter acquired new ownership. In spring 2021, The Mighty Union bought the management contract.

“It was bittersweet,” says Turner, “but like many things in life, things always change. It also helps in retrospect to crystallize things, how we want to structure things. In a way, it’s a gift to learn these things before the next project. “

The pandemic also resulted in a halt to The Mighty Union’s San Antonio project (it can still happen, Turner says). But the group has something positive: They had their best year at Suttle Lodge in 2020, which Turner attributes to the location outside of an urban center, as people felt safer on road trips and overnight stays in huts than hustling into downtown hotels .

Claiming not to be an expert, Turner believes it is too early to see how much the hospitality industry will change or how long the effects of COVID will last. However, she knows that the industry is having a hard time adapting to the new reality. “People are really struggling to find the service that may have been offered before and at the same price,” she says.

That year, Turner and Barron moved the family to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they spent much of 2020. They hope to buy 12 acres of five buildings from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. But this project also has its hurdles, including major renovations and the sale in bankruptcy court.

“We really hope it can move forward because we love the project,” she says. “If not, there will be something else. It’s always like that, isn’t it? “

CREDITS: Clair Cottrell, Alex Lau (2), The Mighty Union, Chase Daniel