The intersection at 6th Street and Congress Avenue has long been the crossroads of downtown Austin. Six blocks to the north is the Texas State Capitol building. Six blocks south is Lady Bird Lake, the last of the Highland Lakes flood control project, which has enabled Austin to grow along its banks. Nearby, the blocks are flanked by skyscrapers that have recently transformed the city’s skyline.
But one block east, at the corner of 6th and Brazos – the west end of the city’s famous party strip that could rival New Orleans’ Bourbon Street or Nashville’s Lower Broadway – the Driskill Hotel has stood regally for over 130 years.
In 1884, cattle baron and local civic leader Colonel Jesse Driskill purchased a city block in Central Austin for $7,500 as the site for what he called his “Hotel of Dreams.” His goal was to construct a modern hotel to improve the city’s national reputation. “It was built to rival New York City, St. Louis, Chicago … some of those larger cities,” explains Mark Bedford, the Driskill’s current Director of Operations.
Opened in 1886, the four-story hotel was built for $400,000 (roughly $92 million today), a vast sum at the time. With its grand Southern style reflected in ornate columns and a large, open lobby, the Driskill was hailed as the “Finest Hotel South of St. Louis” and featured, among other luxuries, 12 rooms, each with its own attached bath, which was unheard of at the time. In January 1887, the hotel hosted the inaugural ball for the newly elected Texas Governor, Sul Ross.
Unfortunately, the glow of the Driskill’s opening was short-lived. In May 1887, the hotel had to close for six months after half its staff left in order to work at the Galveston Beach Hotel. Then in 1888, a catastrophic drought and record cold winter killed three thousand head of Col. Driskill’s cattle herd and ruined his family fortune. In May of that year, Driskill was forced to sell the hotel to his brother-in-law Jim “Doc” Day (some say he lost it to Day in a poker game …). He died of a stroke just two years later.
The hotel changed owners a number of times over the course of the next 30 years, while continuing to be the city’s most luxurious place for not only overnight visitors, but also for galas and political events. A 1930 renovation built the 12-story annex with its additional rooms, added private baths to the existing rooms, and created the Maximilian Room. Originally known as the Men’s Parlor and Smoking Room, the room is named for the eight Austrian gold leaf framed mirrors (reportedly bought in a San Antonio antique shop) that once belonged to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and his wife, Empress Carlotta, whose image is on each frame.
The 1930s also saw such historic events as a three-day run of performances by Louis Armstrong in October 1931, an event commemorated in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, which flew in the face of the era’s segregationist policies. In 1934, the Driskill’s restaurant also served as the site of the first date between a young congressional aide named Lyndon B. Johnson and Claudia Alta Taylor, who was known as Lady Bird. The pair would return to the Driskill regularly, even spending election night in 1964 watching the returns as Johnson won another term as President of the United States.
(L) Lady Bird Johnson and (R) then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson flank Pauline LeFon Gore and Senator Albert Gore, Sr. of Tennessee (parents of Vice President and SXSW Alumnus Albert Gore, Jr.) at a 1956 Democratic fundraiser at the Driskill.
By 1969, the Driskill’s fortunes were fading. When a proposed renovation and expansion, including a new glass tower, fell through, demolition was a real possibility. “They were going to put a wrecking ball through the Driskill, but the Austin community stepped in and said ‘That’s not going to happen to our beautiful hotel,’ ” says Bedford.
The Heritage Society of Austin raised money in some interesting ways, including a bake sale, and as Bedford explains, “They also sold stock in the hotel for about $10 a share. We have a piece in the bar with the names of all the stockholders who really took it upon themselves to make this a landmark and keep this beautiful property the way it is.”
“The collaborations and ideas that come out of SXSW and knowing that that’s happening right in our bar, and also seeing people who come from all over the world getting a feel for Texas and what Texas life is like … it’s just amazing!”
Thanks to their efforts, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1969, and some $900,000 was raised to be put toward renovations. The hotel held a grand re-opening in February 1973 and has attracted a steady stream of both visitors and locals ever since, whether to stay or visit the bar and restaurants. “If these walls could talk, it would be amazing to hear some of the conversations that have gone on over the years,” says Bedford.
Since SXSW’s launch in 1987, the Driskill has been a favorite hotel for out-of-town registrants, and since another major renovation in the late ’90s, it has also been a location for official SXSW events. The aforementioned Victorian Room, a stylish and intimate 180-person capacity venue, has been a regular location for music showcases, including a then-unknown Katy Perry, among many others.
Meanwhile, numerous sessions and special events, including Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show Presents the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library” activation in 2019, have been held in the hotel’s various conference and ballrooms, and the hotel bar is always a hotspot for conversation and collaboration. “My first day here at the Driskill was during SXSW, and just seeing the lines and the different people coming through the door was just amazing,” remembers Bedford.
The Driskill Hotel is also the annual site of frequent, and sometimes offbeat, celebrity sightings during SXSW. A notable one in 2018 featured Bill Murray, accompanied by a cellist, standing on the hotel’s steps at the corner of 6th and Brazos reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “Dog” prior to the Isle of Dogs film premiere. But though the cameras were there to record that one, other encounters can go relatively unnoticed. “Johnny Depp came and dined in our restaurant during SXSW,” remembers Bedford. “He came in through the back and was trying to help the staff lift cases of beer into the cooler instead of getting into the restaurant.”
Drummers for Isle of Dogs premiere – Photo by Judy Won
Though the Driskill’s mission as a hotel is to serve its visiting guests, and it is currently owned and operated by Hyatt, Bedford maintains that the Driskill management is keenly aware of the landmark’s unique importance to Austinites. “We have a high expectation of service that we make sure that we deliver, but we’re also part of the fabric of the community because we’ve been here for so long,” he says. “So I think that it’s important that we adjust and change, and it’s really important to us to follow the local vibe.”
And part of that effort, Bedford concludes, is to continue to welcome SXSW visitors with open arms: “The collaborations and ideas that come out of SXSW and knowing that that’s happening right in our bar, and also seeing people who come from all over the world getting a feel for Texas and what Texas life is like … it’s just amazing!”