“Austin Askew”–Chapter III– Lawyers, Guns, and Maid Service: A Selective History of the Driskill Hotel

The grizzled Mr. Kinney affected to rub his eyes. “It startles me, your jumping up like that to go and dance with Isabel Amberson! Twenty years seem to have passed–but have they? Tell me, have you danced with poor old Fanny, too, this evening?”


“My Lord!” Kinney groaned, half in earnest. “Old times starting all over again! My Lord!”

“Old times?” Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. “Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”   

And he vanished in such a manner that he seemed already to have begun dancing.

—Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the surest sign that an American city had “arrived” and become truly important, was the construction of a “grand hotel,” a place impressive and luxurious enough to house visiting heads of state and international celebrities, where balls and political events would be held, where the accommodations, fixtures, and food were more lavish and exotic than were common in the area.

Texas has had plenty of grand hotels: Galveston had the Tremont House and the Galvez, Houston the Rice, Dallas the Adolphus, San Antonio the St. Anthony and the venerable Menger. For Austin, though, “THE place” has always been the Driskill. Like many old ladies, there have been times when she’s fallen and seemed unlikely to get back up, but she has somehow managed to recover from every set-back and remain an impressive and relevant hostelry, well into her second century.

Maybe it was the Texas heat, maybe it was the decades of staring at the backsides of cows, but something gave cattle baron Colonel Jesse Driskill a crazy idea he just couldn’t shake. He was convinced that Austin would be the first city in Texas to reach a population of 100,000, and as such, he felt it needed a grand hotel to serve as the epicenter of all social, political, and business activity in the new metropolis. (Never mind the fact that there were only 11,000 people in Austin as of 1880.)

In 1884 the Colonel paid $7,500 for an L-shaped downtown lot of almost half a block, measuring 150 feet on Pecan Street (Sixth), 170 feet on Brazos, 80 feet on Bois d’Arc (Seventh), and 260 feet on the alley parallel to Congress. Over the years this lot had been the site of several different enterprises–a public ballroom called “Peck Hall,” a newspaper office, a pawn shop, military offices, a feed store, a grocery store, a bookstore, a pharmacy, a fire station, and a five cent saloon (a concept I would like to use my vast power and influence as “Planet” History Columnist to encourage Sixth Street bar owners to look into re-instituting).

Driskill hired local architect Jasper N. Preston to design his hotel. Preston sat on the jury that selected Elijah E. Myers as architect of the new Capitol, and later served for a time as supervising architect of that project.

The hotel was designed in the Romanesque Revival style that had been popularized by Louisiana-born Boston architect H. H. Richardson. Hallmarks of the style include heavy, rough-finished stonework, squat columns, and broad, low, and massive archways.

Though the style was an adaptation of one popular in early Medieval Europe, in the hands of Richardson and his followers (including Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, Louis Sullivan) it became truly Americanized, allowing for a play with interior space and form unlike that seen in American architecture up to that point. In a sense then, Romanesque Revival as a style was the great-grand-daddy of American modernism.
The building was constructed of six million pressed bricks, with dressed limestone ornaments and trim. Localized decorative touches included carvings of longhorns on the gable ends, and busts of Driskill and his sons on the various facades– J. W. “Bud” Driskill faces Brazos, A.W. “Tobe” Driskill looks over the alley on the west side, and the Colonel himself presides over Sixth Street.

Building fires were even more dangerous in those days than they are now, and the Driskill was promoted as being practically fireproof. Indeed, in the original part of the hotel, each wall, floor, and ceiling has several inches of concrete filled into it, so that if a fire managed to break out in one room, it might consume the flammable contents of that room, but would have difficulty spreading to another room.

The hotel had four principal stories, not counting attics and the basement. The first floor consisted of two broad corridors, one running north and south, the other east and west. Men entered either off the alley to the west or from the south side, off Sixth, and that end of the hotel catered to their interests with a saloon, a billiard room, a barber shop with baths, a news stand, and a cigar shop that featured thousands of brands of cigars from all over the world. (The contents of this last amenity had sadly all turned to grey ash by the time notorious cigar connoisseur Bill Clinton came to visit.)

To spare them exposure to rough talk and such, ladies were expected to enter by the eastern, Brazos side.

At the center of the building, where the two main corridors intersected, was a rotunda, topped with a skylight. Since the floor plan was repeated on the second, mezzanine level with broad hallways with huge windows and doorways at each end, this rotunda served as a vast flue, sucking up the hot air from the interior. (The rotunda was closed up when the hotel was outfitted with air conditioning in the 1940s.)

The second floor included a main dining room and ballroom (measuring 60 by 40 feet, topped with a 30 by 15 foot skylight, decorated with murals and ten chandeliers, and capable of seating 200), separate parlors for ladies and gentlemen (each measuring 60 by 30 feet), a ladies “Ordinary” dining room, a children’s dining room with an English Wilton carpet, two bridal suites, a few guest rooms, two broad corridors covered with 1,500 feet of velvet carpeting, and several large balconies. The third and fourth floors were given over almost completely to guest rooms. There was a hydraulic elevator and all the rooms had steam heating, though there were no private bathrooms in the hotel yet, but then again, it was the 1880s, so any bathroom at all was pretty impressive.

The construction did not proceed without incident, though. In January 1886 some workmen were trying to hoist a stone column into position on the fourth floor exterior. This required moving a derrick around, but unfortunately, one workman failed to do his job correctly, a guy rope slipped, and the derrick and some heavy cables came down, ripping down all the telephone wires on Sixth Street, crashing through a barbershop awning, seriously damaging the south wall of the hotel, and killing one horse and injuring another. (Presumably the workman who started all this later got a job working for the State.)

The Driskill Hotel opened for business in December 1886, and this was apparently the biggest thing that had happened in Austin up to that time, because the purple prose-spouting journalists of the day thumbed their thesauri to shreds trying to come up with ever more elaborate encomiums to properly position this event in the history of Western man.

The “Daily Statesman” issued a special supplement on December 17, 1886, and it is clear that whoever wrote the lead article had gone into rapture:

“WHAT A BONANZA AUSTIN POSSESSES IN ITS NEW CARAVANSARY….A Blessing to the City and State which Cannot be Over-estimated….

“Man loves to eat and loves to sleep; loves to be made comfortable, and will seek that place which offers him these comforts of mind and body, in most pleasing and agreeable form….

“In proportion as nature has endowed Austin over all other Texas cities, causing it to be selected as the capital of the state, so also can Austin justly boast of her superiority over any other city in the south in that this city now possesses a magnificent hotel building, whose appointments would be an ornament to New York, St. Louis, or San Francisco, being the peer of any hotels in those cities.”

(Later on the writer crows about the fine views obtained from the hotel, including, from the north, the new Capitol building, the UT Main building, and “still another mile beyond that the immense structure used as one of the State Lunatic asylums.”)

Truly the Driskill was the “Queen of Sixth Street” long before cross-dressing eccentric Leslie Cochran ever drew breath.

On January 18, 1887, new Governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross celebrated his inaugural with a ball at the Driskill. The menu included raw oysters, consommé a la cohort, spiced salmon, roast turkey, ham, roast chicken, beef tongue, corned beef, lamb tongue, escalloped oysters, fried oysters (good thing there was an “r” in the month), chicken salad, lobster salad, boned chicken in jelly, lemon ice cream, vanilla ice cream, assorted cakes, confectionery, compotes of fruit, nuts, raisins, and coffee. It’s a wonder anyone could manage to dance that night.

(Other Governors, including William Hobby, Ma Ferguson, Dan Moody, Beauford Jester, Allan Shivers, Price Daniel, John Connally, Preston Smith, and Ann Richards would also have their inaugural balls at the Driskill.)

Sadly, in May of that year, much of the staff got lured away to work in a new hotel in Galveston, and the Driskill had to close. It re-opened in October under new management, but a drought and a bitter winter cost the Colonel his cattle and his fortune, and he had to sell the place in 1888. When he died in 1890 his friends presented the hotel with a life-sized portrait that has graced the lobby ever since.
In 1895, Major George W. Littlefield, local businessman, philanthropist, and another cattle baron, purchased the hotel. Other than Colonel Driskill, Littlefield has been the only single person to own the hotel outright. He sunk $60,000 into renovating the hotel, bringing in electric lights and fans, and installing the bank vault that is still visible in the lobby today.

On the afternoon of April 16, 1908, Austin attorney and president of the Austin Bar Association John Dowell walked into the Driskill lobby though its east entrance, carrying a double-barrelled shotgun. Spotting San Antonio attorney Mason Williams entering the lobby from the bar, Dowell emptied both barrels into Williams, reloaded, then fired again. He then pulled a pistol, fired once, and misfired several more times.

The gutshot Williams had by this point fallen against the hotel’s front desk and taken refuge behind one of the lobby’s iron columns, and managed to pull his own pistol and squeeze off several rounds, hitting Dowell in both legs with one shot. After Dowell ran out of ammunition, local bank president E. P. Wilmot, Judge Charles Ogden, attorney for the estate of the notorious New York miser Hetty Green, and Will Green (no relation to Hetty), disarmed him and broke up the fracas.

Not long afterwards, the hotel was swarming with police, Sheriff’s deputies, Texas Rangers, and Mayor F. M. Maddox.

Though three buckshot entered Williams’s belly, and five others grazed him, and his pants were ripped into shreds, he not only avoided being mortally wounded, he apparently made plans to go back home to San Antonio that evening. As for Dowell, a bullet had entered one leg, then buried itself near an artery in the other, but he survived his wounds as well.

The strange thing is that Dowell’s doctors concluded his wounds were the result of a .45 calibre bullet, and Williams had been using a .38. Some witnesses claimed a third man was involved in the shooting, but he was never identified (and no, there was no grassy knoll nearby for him to shoot from).

What started this donnybrook was that a ranch owned by Dowell had been foreclosed by a San Antonio bank with which Williams was affiliated. Dowell sought to have Williams disbarred, and the disbarment proceedings got postponed on the morning of April 16th. All parties concerned went to cool their heels in the Driskill bar, Williams and Dowell began arguing, then Dowell left and went to his nearby office and fetched his shotgun.

Sadly, the sport of lawyer shooting never quite caught on in these parts, and Austin is the poorer for it.

It seems that in those days the Driskill was quite the home away from home for short-tempered soreheads. Once, Chief Justice Reuben Gaines of the State Supreme Court was hosting a formal dinner in the ballroom. A lady came in late, so Gaines politely rose from his seat. A waiter assumed Gaines had gotten up to carve the turkey, so he pulled the Judge’s chair out a little more to give him extra room.
Any fan of the “Three Stooges” can guess what happened next: the Judge then tried to sit down, but finding no chair to catch him, went crashing to the floor. In his panic, he grabbed for the tablecloth and succeeded in pulling all the food and china onto himself. Embarrassed and angry, the Judge grabbed the carving knife and started chasing the waiter around the room, down the stairs, and all the way down 6th Street.

Always a center of political activity, in November 1908 the Driskill became the best place in town to spend Election Night. It was then that election officials started projecting results from the hotel onto a wall opposite by means of a magic lantern-type device called a “stereo-opticon.”

In 1909 the Driskill opened a Turkish bath on the premises. The bath featured hot sulphur water, which in those days was thought to have curative powers. This amenity proved so popular that the Driskill began to take business away from such Texas resorts as Mineral Wells and Sulphur Springs.

From 1928 to 1930, a high-rise annex was built to the north of the old hotel building. More stories would be added in 1947, until the annex finally consisted of twelve floors and a penthouse.

Even though The Colonel had bought a lot that extended up to Seventh Street, the original hotel building didn’t go up that far. The north part of the lot had been occupied prior to 1928 by a service building that contained things like the kitchens, storage, and servants’ quarters.

The ground floor of the new annex contained a broad corridor that connected Seventh Street to the Main Lobby, and was dubbed “Peacock Alley,” after the famous hallway in the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (now the site of the Empire State Building) where well-heeled New Yorkers would go to strut their stuff and show off their finery. The Driskill’s “Peacock Alley” featured beamed ceilings, thick archways, and glazed display cases that showed off the wares of various Austin shops. (The space is now home to the bar and the Driskill Grill.)

In the 1860s the French emperor Napoleon III got ambitious and decided to set up an empire in Mexico. Napoleon didn’t want to put any of his Bonaparte kinsmen at risk by sending them to the howling wilderness of Mexico, so he approached the Hapsburgs, and found a willing sucker in the Archduke Maximilian. Maximilian was a kid brother of the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, and as such didn’t have much to do but govern minor provinces and eat strudel, so naturally he jumped at the chance to become a big shot in the New World.

For three years Maximilian and his glamorous Belgian wife Carlotta reigned over Mexico in the lavish Chapultepec Castle, built on a hill overlooking Mexico City. But the good times didn’t last.

The Mexican people hadn’t wanted to become part of an empire in the first place. They’d been happy with a republic, thank you very much. So when they got fed up, and the Americans to the North (now finished fighting the Civil War) realized the Monroe Doctrine was being violated in a big way, Napoleon tucked his tail between his legs and called his troops home, and left old Max to face a firing squad.

All these tragedies proved too much for Carlotta, and she spent the sixty years remaining to her as a recluse back in Europe, mad as a hatter.

But royalty’s loss is quite often the antique world’s gain, and the fall of Maximilian and Carlotta proved that in spades. Some of the furnishings from Chapultepec made their way north. Nine gilt mirrors, each measuring six feet in width and eight feet in height and topped with a little bust of Carlotta, spent close to three quarters of a century in the store room of a San Antonio antique dealer before the management of the Driskill bought them and gave them a parlor of their own off the mezzanine (formerly the “Gentlemen’s Smoking Room,” but thereafter called the “Maximilian Room”).

In the spring of 1934, Frank Hamer and a group of Texas Rangers took a room at the Driskill. They stayed all of one day and well into the night, meticulously planning what would soon become the successful ambush and killing of the famous outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

If modern Texas politics has ever had a rock star, it was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Starting out as a Congressional secretary and working his way up through the U.S. House and Senate, and eventually to the White House, El Presidente burned his brand onto everything he touched, and the Hill Country in general and Austin in specific would be very, very different today if not for his patronage. Not surprisingly, the Driskill played an important role in his life.

In 1934, while heading up a New Deal agency over in the Littlefield Building, LBJ met a young woman named Claudia Taylor, whose nickname was “Lady Bird.” He talked her into going on a breakfast date at the Driskill Coffee Shop, and while there, stunned her by proposing marriage.

Exactly thirty years later, in 1964, LBJ was the leader of the free world. On his visits to Austin he’d sleep in a suite on the fourth floor of the hotel, but would do his business and wait on Election Night returns on the second floor in the “Jim Hogg Suite,” (named after the nineteenth century Populist governor). And he was waiting in the “Jim Hogg Suite” on the night of November 3, 1964, when he beat Barry Goldwater in a landslide.

In those days, when the President came to town the Driskill was the center of the world. The White House Press Corps set up shop there, and when LBJ was out at his ranch, a little sign would be placed at the foot of the stairs in the lobby to announce the times for daily press briefings.

But by 1969 the glory days of the Driskill seemed to be over. LBJ retired to his ranch, depressed that the Vietnam War might obscure the other accomplishments of his career. The hotel that had been his headquarters was very run-down and there was talk of tearing it down and putting up a parking garage on the site.

The owners of the Driskill started selling off all the historical old furniture and fittings, but they left the Presidential Suite untouched. They couldn’t bring themselves to sell Lyndon Johnson’s bed.

Fortunately, some concerned citizens formed a corporation dedicating to saving and restoring the old lady. The group raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on its own, and after other loans and contributions had been made, it soon had a couple million dollars to spend on a renovation. In 1970 the hotel was designated as a State and National Landmark.

In 1973 the Driskill held a “Grand Re-opening.” Then-Governor Dolph Briscoe was invited, as was every living ex-Governor, as well as the descendants of all the men who had been Governor since the hotel originally opened in 1886. The only gubernatorial family unable to attend was that of Oscar Branch Colquitt, which was a shame, because we all know how those Colquitts love to party.

Every few years since then, through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, there has been a major renovation of the hotel, always dedicated to “restoring the hotel to its former glory.” There was a period in the taste-challenged ‘70s when the Driskill was the home of the “Cabaret” discotheque, but all that soon passed away like a bad dream.

In 1992 the musical group Concrete Blonde released a song, “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man,” that described the time lead singer Johnette Napolitano stepped out of the shower in her room in the Driskill, only to find herself being ogled by a studly and approving ghost. But that ghost doesn’t have the place to himself. The hotel is also said to be haunted by the spirits of two jilted brides who committed suicide there (one in the 1990s), a little girl who fell to her death on the main staircase, Pete Lawless (who lived at the hotel for over thirty years and who supposedly checks his watch in the elevator), and several others, including the old Colonel himself, who walks around smoking cigars and turning lights on and off.

Various movies have been filmed at the Driskill, including “Outlaw Blues,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Miss Congeniality.” Famous guests have included William McKinley, Edwin Booth, Theodore and Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, the Clintons, Michael Jordan, Paul Simon, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Billy Graham, Richard Nixon, Sandra Bullock, Sheryl Crow, Count Basie, Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Larry King, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Walters, Helena Modjeska, Bonnie Raitt, Rue McClanahan, Delbert McClinton, the Doobie Brothers, Taj Mahal, Sandra Day O’Connor, Richard Moll, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sam Rayburn, Gloria Steinem, Agnes de Mille, Mikhail Barishnikov, the Dixie Chicks, Vice President Alben Barkley, Dan Rather, and Richard Avedon.

President-elect George W. Bush interviewed potential Cabinet members at the hotel. Drew Barrymore’s actor great-grandfather, Maurice, used to drink in the old Driskill bar, and musician, novelist, raconteur, and gubernatorial aspirant Kinky Friedman used to patronize the current bar, but hasn’t been seen around there much since it went smoke-free.

Today the Driskill is still the center of action downtown. In a few weeks the place will be swarming with music and film industry hotshots, in town for the South by Southwest convention. (I remember a few years ago at SXSW watching musician Stephen Malkmus trying to get his cell phone to work on the big balcony overlooking Brazos.)

Food expert and cookbook writer Helen Corbitt used to be Nutritionist at the Driskill. She tried to convince the world that there was more to Texas food than chili, barbeque, and enchiladas. Today, the Driskill Grill is, in the opinion of this former restaurant critic, one of the finest restaurants in Austin, and is presided over by the city’s most talented chef, David Bull.

This spring the Driskill will be releasing The Driskill Hotel: Stories of Austin’s Legendary Hotel/A Cookbook for Special Occasions , featuring historical tales collected by Turk Pipkin and recipes from the brilliant Chef Bull.

So the next time you and your significant other are feeling romantic, don’t go out of town–just rent a room at the Driskill for the weekend. If you’re really lucky maybe the ghost of LBJ will materialize, show you his appendectomy scar, and lecture you about the Great Society.

—February 24, 2005


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