Western Trips

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Driskill / Texas History

Driskill Hotel, Austin Texas

There might be no better known hotel in all of Texas than the historic and beautiful Driskill Hotel right in the heart of downtown Austin Texas.

When you tour this hotel you will marvel at the architecture, both inside and outside. This Austin Texas hotel is both a popular and fully operational hotel and at the same time is one of Austin Texas' most historic sites. When you're making a list of things to do in Austin Texas I would recommend you add the Driskill Hotel to your list.

The Historic Roots of the Driskill Hotel

The Driskill Hotel was built by a man who moved to Texas from Missouri in 1849 and ended up a wealthy cattle baron thanks in part to the Civil War. Jesse Driskill happened to be at the right place at the right time. Texas, a confederate sympathizer during the war, was a great place to raise beef cattle and to sell that beef to the Confederate Army. As a result of this, Jesse Driskill made a lot of money. In fact, anyone who could successfully raise a herd large enough and keep it away from rustlers and Union troops in the area stood to make a good amount of money.

Prior and during the Civil War one of the largest cattle ranches in the world was located deep in southeast Texas just south of Corpus Christie. The King Ranch was the earliest large ranch in Texas occupying the majority of land between the Mexican border and present day Corpus Christie. The King Ranch today is still a working ranch and has a wonderful collection of exhibits for the south Texas tourist.

Building the Driskill

Main stairs from lobby
Jesse Driskill purchased land at the corner of 6th and Brazos Streets for his new project of building a grand hotel. He had plenty of money from his Civil War beef operations and wanted to branch off with other investments.

The Driskill Hotel was built for a reported $400,000. Not small money today and obviously a hug sum in the late 1800's. Driskill built his luxurious Austin hotel to compete with the palaces of New York, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco. When the hotel was completed it was by far the centerpiece of this frontier town being constructed of local brick and limestone with a hand laid marble floor. There was no other hotel like it in Texas at the time.

The Driskill Hotel had it's grand opening on December 20, 1886. The new hotel was built with an open floor plan which encouraged air flow (no air conditioning in 1886) and a four story dome in the center when you enter the hotel. Other features which in 1886 were considered quite luxurious in a frontier town such as Austin were an electric bell system, marble bureaus and washstands, gas lighting and steam heat. Another amenity of luxury hotels in this era was a separate ladies entrance which allowed women to enter avoiding cattlemen and sometimes rowdy males at the main entrance. Many hotels such as some in Denver and New York and St. Louis were built with ladies entrances.

For well over 100 years this hotel has welcomed everyone from foreign dignitaries to legislators to socialites and tourists. Another interesting fact about the Driskill Hotel is that soon after it's opening, newly elected Governor Sul Ross, held his inauguration ball there on January 1st, 1887. This was the start of a Texas tradition and ever since 1887 every Texas governor had their inaugural ball at the Driskill Hotel Austin.

The operation of the Driskill Hotel was not without problems. The hotel was absolutely magnificent, but the problem was that Driskill's room rates were about $2.50 per night and up. Other hotels were charging perhaps .50 cents a night. Driskill's problem was that most people needing a hotel could pay the .50 cent price but not Driskill's $2.50 and up rate.

Mostly because of this problem the hotel closed down about six months after it opened. Legend has it that Jesse lost the hotel to his brother-in-law in 1888 during a poker game. In 1895 the hotel was bought by George Littlefield of Austin, a rancher and banker, and he maintained that the hotel would not close again.

Littlefield supposedly paid $106,000 for a hotel that Jesse Driskill spent $400,000 to build about ten years prior. Since that time the hotel has changed hands several times but always remained open for business. The hotel had a major expansion in 1930 with a thirteen story tower added.

Today's Driskill Hotel is absolutely magnificent having been carefully restored to it's early splendor. A striking feature in some of the areas of the hotel is it's unique carpeting. The picture below left shows the Driskill carpet depicting the letter "D".

The Hotel Serves as a Capitol Building

Driskill carpet with XIT
There's also a interesting connection between the Driskill Hotel, Texas' need for a state capitol  building and the famous XIT Ranch that was located at that time in the Texas Panhandle region.

The existence of the famed XIT Ranch and the building of the Texas state capitol building were really one and the same, To raise funds for the construction of the capitol building the Texas Legislature sold off 3.5 million acres of land in the panhandle region. It's a very interesting story how it all came about and you might want to read the story of the XIT and the Texas state capitol building.

Along with the King Ranch in south Texas, the XIT was one of the world's largest cattle ranches. During the construction of the capitol building, the Driskill Hotel, which was newly constructed, was used as a temporary state capitol by legislators.

Visit the Driskill Hotel

Western art
The next time you visit Austin or if you happen to pass by Austin during your Texas vacation and you're contemplating what to do in Austin TX,  I would highly recommend a stop at the Driskill Hotel. As you can see from this small sample of photos, the hotel is a restored historic masterpiece. When you peruse the interior you will notice many interesting pieces of furniture and frontier artwork which adorn many walls. When you're walking around ithe Driskill it's also interesting to reflect on all the inaugural balls and official receptions that took place there dating back to the year 1887.

The Driskill Hotel is one of the most visited Austin attractions.

(Photos from author's private collection)