Have you ever fallen for a hotel room? Lusted after furnishings? Wanted to recreate the look and feel of that paradise at home?
Hotel aficionados Shelly Leibham and Mark Vornberg have done just that, distilling stellar travel experiences into their Hotel Eleven home, a unique blend of boutique and owner-occupied hotel on Austin’s historic East Side.
Travel + Love = Business
Hotel Eleven was born from two travelers’ mutual love for beautiful interior spaces and their shared desire to live the good life. Vornberg has building in his blood; now the principal architect, he’s been with Austin’s prestigious Dick Clark + Associates for more than 20 years. When the two met, Leibham was a practicing lawyer ready for a career change. Inspiration came via a romantic get-away.
The couple stayed at La Pensione, a 70-room boutique hotel in San Diego’s Little Italy. The venue sparked some unique passion: what, exactly, made that hotel so amazing? “Mark went to the hardware store and purchased our first on-the-road measuring tape,” Leibham remembers. “And an idea was born on that trip.”
Over the next years, Vornberg filled a notebook with inspiration. He noted details—those room measurements—that made fabulous hotels. Lighted mirrors in Portland, Penny the dog at La Pensione, soaking tubs, perfect mattresses…those and many other items formulated a perfect place. The couple conducted more research on their 2009 honeymoon—five countries over 30 days. Then in 2013 came five nights in New York, staying at five different hotels and touring another 30. (The “death march across Manhattan,” as Vornberg laughingly calls it.) These were their first steps to becoming hoteliers.
Settling on Austin’s East Side
In 2008, Vornberg became interested in a property on Austin’s E. 11th Street. “There was so much energy on the east side,” Vornberg explained. Proximity to historic spots (Texas State Cemetery, the French Legation) and cultural treasures (Victory Grill, Texas Music Museum, Austin’s east side Gateway Arch) drew the investor while the location’s potential rooftop view (downtown’s skyline and that gorgeous, giant Texas flag over the cemetery) sold the architect. By 2011, Leibham and Vornberg were focused on a hotel project marked with their special wedding number—11.
As in many successful pairings, Vornberg and Leibham complement each other. Vornberg’s an eager optimist; Leibham, with her law and finance background, the more risk averse. Together, their parts form an adventurous whole. “Neither of us would have done [the deal] without the other,” Leibham said. They were ready to sell their Travis Heights house and build the dream.
As the hotel got underway, varied talents came to play. Because Austin’s 1980s–era development plan didn’t allow east side hotels, changes to code were required. The approval process meant Vornberg and Leibham met and befriended the area’s existing business owners (nowadays, Hotel Eleven is their go-to meeting space). To learn the hospitality business, Leibham left her law practice, took classes at ACC and spent six months working the front desk at an Austin hotel.
“There’s nothing we didn’t put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into here”—Mark Vornberg
Breaking Ground on a New Life
Vornberg’s travel notebook was transformed into building renderings and plans. All those special measurements and takeaways from years of fact-finding hotel stays metamorphosed into schematics. And how should an architect best keep an eye on that passion project? The answer: Live on site. In September 2014, the couple moved into an approximately 500 sq. ft. owners’ suite.
Their new accommodation became the Hotel Eleven test site. Vornberg had designed a light-filled space that efficiently used every square inch without feeling cramped. Downstairs, the front door opens into a sleek, fully functioning kitchen. Immediately ahead lies the cozy living room, dominated by a large sectional often occupied by the couple’s cats. There’s space for Vornberg’s desk and a full guest bath. The master bedroom and bath are located up an open staircase in the loft. That clean, open, modern design is reflected in each of the guest rooms. Though similar, no two rooms are identical.
How do companies decide on interior decorating? “Big hotels build mock-up rooms,” Liebham explains, but Hotel Eleven didn’t have that budget. Instead, everything—paint colors, plumbing fixtures, furniture—was tried and evaluated in the owners’ suite. When the right item wasn’t available, they collaborated; Drophouse Design, a local design and build company, created bedside tables and platform beds to specification. In April 2016, after eighteen months of construction, Hotel Eleven opened—each of its unique fourteen guest rooms a reflection of the home Leibham and Vornberg had lovingly realized.
“Happiness on Our Own Terms”
This spring, Hotel Eleven and its owners celebrate two years on Austin’s east side. “Nothing fully prepares you,” says Leibham, who “still learns something every day.” Whether stopping in for a beverage at Louie’s Lounge (so named for Hotel Eleven’s cat-in-residence) or staying the night, chances are good Leibham’s handling registration and overseeing the bar; Vornberg designed the lobby so one person can conveniently manage the entire area. On New Year’s Eve, Vornberg took over the hotel kitchen to cook for friends. When you live at work, home spills over, an essential aspect of this small hotel’s charm. Leibham talks of satisfaction (“every time I go into a room, I think, ‘Oh, I love this!’”) and connection (“people love knowing the owners are on site; it makes a difference”) that spreads beyond their 500-sq.-ft. apartment to encompass those outdoor patios, café tables, and guest rooms. Measure by measure, room by room, Hotel Eleven’s Mark Vornberg and Shelly Leibham have “found happiness on our own terms” to build a home.