Texas HistoryTexas History: Austin’s Driskill Hotel Enters 135th Year

The Driskill Hotel has changed hands numerous times in its nearly century and a half in operation.
December 20, 2021
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Push open the large French doors of the historic Driskill Hotel around this time every year and you’ll be immediately greeted by a Christmas tree the height of two Dirk Nowitzkis.

Each Christmas season, the hotel is decked out in festive decor as locals and travelers alike flock to its lobby for pictures. This year marks the 135th of its existence as a downtown Austin staple.

Photograph of a northwest view of the exterior corner of the Driskill Hotel taken in 1888. (Courtesy of the Portal to Texas History)

Col. Jesse Lincoln Driskill bought the land and began construction on the hotel that would in total cost $400,000 in 1884, $11.3 million in today’s dollars, opening its doors two years later. It was constructed while the state Capitol and the first University of Texas building were being built.

Driskill, a Tennessean at birth and cattleman by trade, moved to Austin in 1869, two years before the city would be named the state’s permanent capital.

At the time, Driskill said he wanted to build the finest hotel south of St. Louis.

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What he built turned into a landmark within which ordinary citizens, public figures, and even the president himself regaled one another with booze and hospitality.

One year after it opened, the hotel hosted the inaugural ball for newly elected Governor Sul Ross — a tradition that would be replicated for William Hobby, Ma Ferguson, John Connally, Ann Richards, and others.

Shortly after, massive staff attrition caused the Driskill to close its doors after half the staff was hired away by Galveston’s Beach Hotel. At that time, Galveston was the most populated city in Texas at 22,000.

Col. Driskill reopened the hotel under new management later that year, but he lost his family fortune in 1888 due to a drought that killed off over 3,000 of their cattle herd.

This forced Driskill to sell the hotel to his brother-in-law who more or less operated the establishment in the same manner as the colonel.

Driskill would breathe his last breath two years later after a stroke. Shortly thereafter, the hotel purchased a life size portrait of its founder which still hangs above its main staircase today.

In the span of 20 years, the hotel would be bought and sold multiple times, finding itself under the proprietorship of five different owners.

Being in the heart of Texas’ capital city, its political ties are widespread. In 1908, the hotel hosted its first election night watch party, showing national results on a stereopticon, an early form projector.

Texas and American flags hanging off the Driskill Hotel balcony. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Forty years later, future president Lydon Baines Johnson awaited the results of his first U.S. Senate race in the hotel’s Jim Hogg suite. He would repeat this habit in 1964 when he defeated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for the presidency.

Johnson’s ties to the hotel are renowned. The most impactful is that he met his would-be wife, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor, at the Driskill for their first date, beginning a long relationship between Johnson and the most famous hotel in Austin.

Five years later, the Driskill Hotel would find itself under new ownership yet again. Facing a wrecking crew, the Heritage Society of Austin petitioned for its establishment as a landmark, saving it from destruction in perpetuity.

It would be bought and sold multiple times in the years since but is now operated by the Hyatt Hotel Corporation.

Each year, the Driskill Hotel welcomes thousands number of patrons and every other year becomes a temporary meeting place for the state’s legislators and lobbyists trying to squeeze two years of legislation into five months.

The hotel has two entrances, one on 6th Street and one on Brazos Street, but used to have another on 7th Street that served as an entry point for women. At that time, the hotel had a billiard room, a barbershop, and a bar for the men and a separate dining room for the women.

In the 20th century, the hotel was remodeled to increase the number of rooms in capacity. Today, it has 189 guestrooms.

Portraits of Texas governors hanging by the hotel’s Heritage Suite. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Today, those rooms are buttressed by a café and bakery, restaurant, barroom, and banquet halls galore — each more elegant than the last.

While the Driskill Hotel is intertwined with the state and city’s political history, googling “stories about the Driskill Hotel” yields pages and pages of stories about hauntings within its walls.

Ghosts or not, the Driskill Hotel occupies a position of supernatural lore among the City of Austin and the political scene it entertains.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.