The Hotel Emma
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Heavy Metal

Jul 12, 2016

“Blacksmithing in July in South Texas: you just drink lots of water and suffer. Maybe it’s good for the soul.”

— Robert Diaz de Leon

This is a man in love with making things, whether it’s baking from-scratch pizza in the wood-burning oven he built in his backyard, fashioning brass label frames for the hotel’s library, or creating 3,000-lb. ballroom chandeliers from repurposed bottling equipment.

“I’ve always been a maker — the process of solving problems and putting things together makes me happy.”

Man holding crank lever

Robert Diaz de Leon is a metal craftsman who admits to being a workaholic because of the joy he finds in his work. The evidence of that joy is everywhere in the hotel and around Pearl. Sternewirth’s huge circular light fixture, made from bottling machinery. Larder’s subtly embossed exterior sign. The individually-crafted numbers on guestroom doors. The elegant “pandelier” light fixture (made entirely of skillets) at the original entrance to Pearl’s Culinary Institute of America. The charming silk-swagged elephant identifying Hotel Emma’s Elephant Cellar.

About those Elephant Cellar chandeliers. Robert made them with parts from circa-1940 bottle-filling equipment, which he salvaged from Pearl’s warehouse. And he discovered a secret beneath decades of paint, dirt and grease: solid bronze. “Nobody believed me at first. They couldn’t imagine that a piece of equipment as big as a car could be made of solid bronze. That discovery was a happy accident.”

Blacksmith putting rod into furnace

Robert is an alumnus of Trinity University, a master blacksmith, an excellent cook and something of a philosopher, too. He speaks respectfully and poignantly about his connection to the people who built and used the old equipment he’s brought back to life. “Yes, there is a continuum. When I take something apart, I see where other people have worked on it, fixed it, made measurements and notes… people who aren’t around anymore. I think reusing this old equipment preserves the embodied human energy, the energy it took to make it and work with it.”

Two blacksmiths working in studio

“I like what I do here. Thanks to Pearl and Hotel Emma I get to work with the best architects and designers around, executing their ideas. I don’t dream this stuff up… I make it. Perfect execution preserves the idea and brings it to life the way the designer envisioned it.”

Man cleaning cast iron skillet

When Robert isn’t perfecting some exquisite detail at Hotel Emma, he might be back at his shop “relaxing” — refining a new line of custom-made carbon steel chef’s pans, refurbishing two vintage Airstream trailers, working on a 1960 mahogany boat, or making the vacuum tube stereo play music again.

“I like giving old things new life, which is why Pearl has been a good fit for me. I get to go play in the warehouse and find old stuff to use in new ways.”

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