“Austin Askew”–Chapter IX– Clara Driscoll and Laguna Gloria

Twenty years ago I was invited by a college classmate to spend Spring Break at his family home in Tarrytown. Austin in those days was  electric, unique, exciting, and weird, and there were still, to steal one of my own phrases, “more poets than programmers” in the city, or so it seemed to me. I always loved visiting Austin and never really needed an excuse to come, and anyway, I’d never gone anywhere for Spring Break before then and I really wasn’t the beach-going type.

My friend came from an artsy family, and on my first morning in town he wanted to take me to where he’d attended art school, at some place called “Laguna Gloria.” I was pleased and surprised to see that Laguna Gloria consisted not only of a cluster of art studios, but also of an old villa, and extensive gardens and grounds.

I learned the house had been built by Clara Driscoll, the “Savior of the Alamo.” I had heard the name before, but not much else about her. I’d naturally assumed she’d lived in San Antonio.

One of the last places my buddy took me by on his tour of the grounds was a little hollow, below the grade of the pathway and easy to miss, where a twisted tree extended out over the lake. Here my friend said he’d come between classes to sit and sketch and relax. I told myself that when I one day moved to Austin I would find that tree and do the same thing, but good intentions being what they are, I never made it out to Laguna Gloria very often, and when I did I was never there long enough to sit on that tree.

We now fast-forward to September 2000. I was a food critic at this point, and on a night that can be best described by the cliche “glittering” I attended “La Dolce Vita,” a wine and food event held every year to benefit the Austin Museum of Art. The lawn was lit by strings of lights, an orchestra played, and hundreds of us all wandered amongst the dozens of booths, nibbling, noshing, gulping, slurping, and guzzling samples of the best wine and food the city had to offer. It felt a bit like one of Gatsby’s parties–we were all there making ourselves comfortable at the home of someone we’d never get to see.

Every hour or so I’d stumble up the berm to the south terrace to try to peek into the windows. The house was locked, but I was pleased to see that somebody had started taking down partitions and false walls in preparation to restoring the house to its (more or less) original appearance. It had always bothered me that so many of the windows and doors of the grand old house had been blocked up in order to make it a functional art gallery.

But that evening got my imagination racing. Laguna Gloria must’ve been a great house for entertaining in its day, and I would’ve loved to have seen it when Clara Driscoll was at her peak.

Clara Driscoll was born in 1881 in St. Mary’s, Texas, a now-vanished village on Copano Bay near Rockport. She was the youngest of the two children of Robert and Julia Fox Driscoll. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents were Irish immigrants and her father’s surname was originally O’Driscoll.

Robert Driscoll and his brother Jeremiah (aka “Jerry”) returned to Texas from the Civil War with nothing, but took jobs working cattle and soon made huge fortunes. Around 1890, the brothers divided their South Texas holdings, and before his death in 1914 Robert Driscoll had a net worth around $10 million, consisting of oil fields, cattle, and land holdings, including the 85,000 acre Palo Alto Ranch in Nueces County, the 13,000 acre La Gloria Ranch and 53,000 acre Sweden Ranch in Duval County, the 20,000 Los Machos Ranch in Jim Wells County, and the 8,000 acre Clara Ranch near Skidmore, Texas. The town of Driscoll was named in his honor, while Robstown was named after his son.

Mrs. Driscoll insisted that her children be well educated. Robert, Jr. got his undergraduate degree at Princeton and later went to law school in New York. Clara was sent to private schools in San Antonio and New York, before completing her education at the Chateau Dieudonne convent school near Paris. After that, Clara toured the world with her mother and brother, even living on a houseboat on the Godavari River in Bombay for a summer.

Clara was on vacation in Spain in 1898 when the Spanish-American War broke out. Most Americans fled Spain at that point, but Clara, who was a fluent speaker of Spanish, merely assumed a Spanish name, adopted Spanish customs, and continued her vacation unmolested for the duration of the war. She did, however, return to Texas in 1899, after her mother died in London.

After the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, the buildings of the old mission/fortress lay in ruins for many years. Eventually the US Army leased the property from the Catholic Church, using it as an arsenal, and an Army engineer had the chapel rebuilt, adding the rounded battlement on the west facade that makes the building one of the most recognizable in the world.

In 1877, merchant Horace Grenet bought the Alamo convent building (which was a barracks during the battle) and an adjoining courtyard, and took a long-term lease on the chapel. He built a two-story store on top of the convent, designed to look like a castle, with crenellations and flags, and used the chapel for storage. In 1883 the Church sold the chapel to the State, but little was done to improve or preserve the building.

By this point, most people thought of the Alamo as just the chapel and nothing else, when in fact the mission/fortress complex consisted of several buildings, and spread west and northwest of the chapel, across what is now Alamo Plaza to the other side of the street where all those souvenir shops stand today.

After Horace Grenet’s death, the firm of Hugo, Schmeltzer, and Heuermann ran a liquor store out of the convent, but by 1903 there was talk of building a hotel on the site. Adina De Zavala, granddaughter of Texas patriot Lorenzo De Zavala and an early champion of historic preservation, had a fit when she heard of this plan. She lived across the street from the Alamo at the Menger Hotel, and sought out the Menger’s owner, thinking he would be willing to buy the convent in order to prevent having another hotel in competition with his on Alamo Plaza.

The owner of the Menger, however, was out of the country, so Zavala told her story to one of the hotel’s guests, Clara Driscoll. Clara made a $25,000 down-payment on the convent, then started a campaign to raise the remaining $50,000 that was needed to complete the purchase.

In 1905 the State Legislature, goaded by member Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., the future father of Lyndon Johnson, voted to appropriate the funds necessary to buy the convent and ensure its future preservations. Miss Driscoll’s expenditures were reimbursed, but without interest, and the property was put under the supervision of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

But the trouble wasn’t over yet. The DRT split into factions over what should be done with the Alamo property and how it should be interpreted to the public historically. Adina De Zavala maintained that most of the fighting, and therefore, most of the heroism, at the Alamo, had taken place at the convent, so she thought that building should be emphasized, while Clara Driscoll, oddly enough, thought the convent should be dismantled and the chapel made the most prominent building.

In 1908, Zavala heard of a plan, supposedly being considered by the Driscollite DRTs, of turning the convent into a dance hall or other sort of commercial property, so she went on a hunger strike and barricaded herself in the convent for three days until she had scared up enough publicity to prevent the destruction of the building. As it was, the State did not acquire all of the current Alamo complex until the 1930s (again with Clara’s financial help), and the convent wasn’t restored until the 1960s.

During her campaign to save the Alamo, Clara met Tennessee-born Uvalde newspaperman and State Legislator Henry Hulme “Hal” Sevier. Hal was related to the Tennessee pioneer John Sevier, as well as St. Francis Xavier and the French Royal House of Bourbon. In 1906, Hal took a job as financial editor of the “New York Sun,” and later that year Hal and Clara got married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

After the couple spent several months honeymooning in Europe, they returned to New York and began construction on a large Italianate villa in Oyster Bay, Long Island, not far from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Sagamore Hill” home. During her years in New York Clara devoted much time to gardening and entertaining, and also started “The Texas Club,” for expatriated Texans living in New York City.

Clara also became an author at this time, writing rather flowery historical fiction. “The Girl of La Gloria” (1905) tells of a young girl, half-Mexican/half-American, and her search for love, while “In the Shadow Of The Alamo” (1906) was a collection of short stories set in San Antonio.

“Mexicana” was a comic opera about a New York businessman who poses as a bandit in Mexico in order to regain his lost fortune. Clara paid an undisclosed amount to put this show into production, and it ran on Broadway to reasonable critical and commercial acclaim from January to April 1906, before going on the road.

When Robert Driscoll died in 1914, Clara and Hal moved to Austin, where Hal started the “Austin American” newspaper (which after many decades and mergers eventually became the “Austin American Statesman”). The following year the Seviers bought a twenty-eight-acre property on Lake Austin that Stephen F. Austin had once owned and planned to use as a home site. The area reminded them of Lake Como, which they had visited on their honeymoon, and they named the estate “Laguna Gloria.”

There is a story that a house was constructed on the site while Clara was no doubt off on another one of her long vacations, and when she returned she disliked the house so much she had it torn down and replaced by the one that stands there today, but this story has not been substantiated.

Much of the grounds were left in their natural state, but about five acres were turned into formal Italian-style terraced gardens with urns and balustrades and classical statuary. The entrance to the estate was through wrought-iron gates that had once been used at the State Capitol. Other features included a Tuscan wishing well, a Roman fountain of a putto (a winged infant, like a cherub) holding a fish, a cannon, a mission bell, a sundial, a sunken rose garden, and a columned “Temple of Love.” (More modern pieces, such as a Charles Umlauf sculpture of a reclining woman, have been added since Laguna Gloria was turned into a museum, but they do not detract from the setting.)

The white, Italianate house at Laguna Gloria, designed by San Antonio architect Harvey Page, seems to be smaller than the Sevier house on Long Island was, though this peculiar structure seems perfectly designed for a rich, childless couple who loved to entertain. The entrance facade is fairly plain, with a boxy, three-story central block, diamond-paned windows, an unimposing front door, and off to the left, a two-story wing and a walled service courtyard. Lighting the entrance hall, however, is a replica of the famous “Rose Window” from the San Jose Mission in San Antonio.

Inside, the entrance hall leads to a low, arched hallway, guarded by iron gates, which in turn leads to the story-and-a-half high sunken ballroom. (Forcing people to go from a low, confined space into a large, open space makes the latter seem all the more impressive. This was a favorite design trick of Frank Lloyd Wright’s.) The ballroom has tall windows looking west and south and is filled with light.

On the north side of the ballroom is an inglenook with benches and a mantelpiece carved from a wooden beam from the Alamo. “Minstrel’s Galleries” overlook the ballroom on the north and east sides, but while the balcony of the north side looks like it could possibly hold a few musicians with instruments, chairs, and music stands, the balcony on the east is too small and shallow to hold anything but a couple young children, and anyway, the only way up there is through a cabinet-sized door.

To the east of the ballroom is a long, sunny tea room, with arched windows opening onto the south terrace on one side, and arched doorways opening into the dining room on the other. The dining room has windows on the north and French doors on the east, the latter opening onto a small balcony. The kitchen and service areas of the house were located on the north side, between the front hall and the dining room, but they aren’t open to the public now. There is, however, an odd little two-foot wide doorless opening located off the hall and up a couple steps, which leads to a private kitchenette for the Austin Museum of Art personnel who work in the building today. (I guess that’s one way to prevent excessive weight gain.)

At the top of the staircase is a large photo of Clara Driscoll, with a plaster ornament of the Alamo, no doubt original to the house, above it. To the left of the stairs is a passageway that, after serving as the northern “Minstrel’s Gallery,” leads past offices, and restrooms (formerly a guest room) and another set of stairs, to the sunny, yet cool and green, second floor Solarium. You get the impression that this was where the Seviers spent most of their time. The room is lined by windows on the north, south, and east, and like the rest of the house has colorful tiled floors, but there’s also a fireplace on the west side of the room, as well as the tiny door to the eastern “Minstrel’s Gallery.”

The rest of the house consists nowadays of offices, but the third floor used to have four bedrooms, while the fourth floor tower was used by Clara as her library and study, giving her excellent views and access to the rooftop promenade.

Both Clara and Hal were active in Democratic politics, and Laguna Gloria was the site of many luncheons, fundraisers, and other such gatherings. The quality of conversation at these events was of the highest calibre. Clara’s other interests included the Austin Pan-American Round Table, the Austin Open Forum, the Violet Crown Garden Club, the American History Club, the Austin City Health Council, the DRT, and various other commissions and committees.

Clara lived fulled-time at Laguna Gloria from 1916 to 1929, when the death of her bachelor brother, Robert, Jr., left her in charge of the Driscoll family empire and she moved back to South Texas to manage it. Clara and Hal did, however, return to the house from time to time to spend their winters. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt appointed Hal Ambassador to Chile, and Clara left her business affairs in the hands of others while she was out of the country.

Ill-health forced Hal to resign his post in 1935, and upon their return to America, Hal and Clara quietly separated. In 1937, reporters informed Hal that Clara had filed for divorce, and he had to contact her for confirmation. Clara was reportedly recovering from a heart attack at the time. The press spread rumors of a possible reconciliation, but when Hal tried to contact Clara again, she refused all further contact, the divorce went ahead as planned, and Clara resumed her maiden name.

The cause for the divorce was never made clear (other than the vague charge of “mental cruelty” listed in the divorce petition), but the two leading theories are that either Hal’s infidelities became too much for Clara, or he tried to take over control of the Driscoll estate from her. Hal died in 1940.

Predictably, Clara threw herself into her work to keep busy. From 1928 to 1944 she was Democratic National Committee Woman from Texas, and was an ardent supporter of the presidential campaigns of Al Smith and FDR. In 1940, she campaigned for her friend, John Nance Garner, until Roosevelt made it clear he was going to run for a third term.

In 1938 she loaned the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs $92,000 so they could pay off the debt on their huge Georgian Revival headquarters building at Twenty-fourth and San Gabriel, but in 1939 she had the loan converted into a gift.

In 1941, Clara built the twenty-story Robert Driscoll Hotel in Corpus Christi. The story goes that a few years before she had received such poor service at a hotel that she told the manager that she would build her own hotel next door, “tall enough so I can spit on yours!” Apparently, though, “spit” was the term the demure old lady historians preferred when telling this story, but Clara had actually used a much more colorful four-letter word, although it did as well describe a bodily function.

In 1943, Clara gave Laguna Gloria to the Texas Fine Arts Association, along with $5,000 to be used to start an art gallery. Laguna Gloria is today part of the Austin Museum of Art.

Clara died in 1945 in her penthouse at the Robert Driscoll Hotel in Corpus Christi. Her funeral was held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, and she was entombed at the Masonic Cemetery there in the family mausoleum. Her honorary pallbearers included such  prominent figures as Amon Carter, Dan Moody, Coke Stevenson, Beauford Jester, Cordell Hull, Tom Connally, Sam Rayburn, Pat Neff, Richard Kleberg, John G. Kenedy, James V. Allred, John Nance Garner, and Lyndon Johnson.

By the terms of her will, Clara created the rather clumsily-named “Robert Driscoll and Julia Driscoll and Robert Driscoll, Jr. Foundation.” Her assets went to this foundation, as did the proceeds from the sale of her art collection and other belongings, and the some of the income from the family land holdings. The chief function of the foundation was to establish and run the Driscoll Foundation Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, the services of which were to made available free to any child, regardless of his or her ability to pay.

Obviously, Clara was an aristocrat in the truest sense of the word.

–May 26, 2005

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