Driskill's Dream

Surely, the saints of Austin's Heritage Society saved Austin's Driskill Hotel from the wrecking ball, and Texans should thank them. This grande dame of Texas hostelries is not to be missed. The next time you're in Austin, forget those modern monolithic high-rise hotels. Go for the charm. Go for the Driskill.

A landmark Texas hotel and a member of the National Historic Hotel Association, the Driskill was once held by the Austin Heritage Society, a group that purchased the bulk of the hotel's stock after it closed in 1969, saved it from slated demolition in 1971 and rehabilitated and reopened it in 1973 under the leadership of Braniff International. But the trials of the last 30 years only elaborate on the fascinating life story of a hotel that was opened by one ambitious man during the last century. Colonel Jesse Driskill moved from Missouri to Bastrop, Texas, in 1849, where he later made a fortune in Confederate money by selling beef to Southern forces during the Civil War. After the war, he amassed another fortune driving cattle to Northern markets, and he and his family moved to Austin in 1870.

Driskill decided Austin should have a first-class hotel, one to rival the great hotels of America, one that would be "the finest hotel south of St. Louis," one named after him. His namesake business opened December 20, 1886, the Austin Daily Statesman saying the event promised the dawn of a new era in the history of Austin.

Driskill committed $350,000 to the project in 1884, hiring architect Jasper Preston to design and oversee the construction. Preston chose the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style for the new hotel, stressing its massive yet elegant lines. Six million bricks and tons of local limestone went into the outer walls, which featured three grand entrances, arched windows and inviting balconies. Gargoyles and busts of Jesse Driskill and his two sons, Bud and Tobe, still peer out from high above each entrance; shorthorn steer heads adorn the outer walls. Preston built a four-story atrium with wide corridors, skylights and hallways, so "there will never be a time when a cooling breeze isn't playing through the hotel." Today, the hotel has central heating and cooling, but many rooms have private balconies for those who still appreciate fresh air.

Despite the hotel's auspicious start, it soon floundered. In May 1887, it closed for the first time, going through five owners during the next half century. But it remained a burgeoning social center. The Daily Texan wrote of its 50th anniversary in 1936: "Through all these years The Driskill has served as a pivot around which great men and great events revolved." For example, it was U.S. President and long-time Texas politico Lyndon Baines Johnson's election night command post from 1941 to 1964. Today, politicians and lobbyists who live in condos and apartments in Austin can still be spotted in the Driskill Bar.

David Highfill, longtime bartender in the lobby bar, recalls the movies made at the Driskill and the movie stars who stayed there: "Chill Wills, Slim Pickins, and John Wayne used to hang around during the filming of 'The Alamo.' Peter Fonda, upset because Susan Saint James was marrying another man, rode his motorcycle through the lobby in 'Outlaw Blues,' crashing through the wedding cake and carrying Susan off into the sunset. Even the bar has a movie connection. It was used in the movie 'Cabaret' with Joel Gray and Liza Minnelli. The hotel management had it imported from Germany." The dark mahogany bar-still there to be appreciated-has a brass railing, scrolled mirrors and crystal globes. Comfortable couches and chairs surround it for socializing, and Nickolay from the Ukraine, a new-era Texas barkeep, entertains patrons with his observations: "The two best jobs in America are: lawyer, because everybody sue [sic] each other-and doctor." Scenes from a recent made-for-TV movie, "Texas Justice," were shot inside the Driskill. This produced a dividend for the hotel; film execs had a bar built especially for the movie and, later, deciding it was too big and too much trouble to remove, gave it to the hotel. The mahogany, marble and copper bar now stands on the mezzanine.

Show business visitors still keep the Driskill lobby and all its bars lively. Entertainer Jerry Jeff Walker, composer of the sentimental pop-ballad "Mr. Bojangles," frequently visits the Driskill. "Talk about a party! He always celebrates his birthday here, with his wife, Susan, coordinating things," says veteran barman David Highfill. The Driskill's reputation for hospitality may draw entertainers, politicians, tycoons and movie actors. But where do they sleep? The guestrooms run from the small but beautiful to the Governor's Suite and the Small Suite, with their 20-foot ceilings and private balconies. A mixture of Victorian and contemporary furnishings complements each room elegantly but not to the point you feel you can't touch anything without risking breakage. Call it elegance without guilt. The Maximilian Room contains eight goldleaf-framed mirrors that once belonged to Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlotta, whose likenesses adorn each frame. These mirrors disappeared for years but were found in 1930 in San Antonio. Austin is Texas' capital city. History lovers touring it couldn't do better than choose the Driskill as their headquarters. A place that boasts steer sculpture on the exterior and Mexican empire pieces on the inside is the right spot to get tour advice. The Driskill's front desk provides walking tour brochures.

The gables and arches of Colonel Jesse Driskill's 1886 Austin hotel almost make it look a century younger, until you notice the steer heads and other fancy embellishments no one's doing these days.

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