The Driskill Hotel History Tours
Address: 604 Brazos St.
Tours begin daily at 4 p.m. in the Driskill lobby. Free for hotel guests. Members of the general public can purchase tickets online for $10 per person.
As I finish my quiche and bloody mary garnished with a generous bacon slice at the Driskill Hotel’s first-floor 1886 Cafe (named for the year the hotel opened), I realize I’m time traveling in a few different ways.
First, it’s the middle of a sunny afternoon, but I went with brunch choices. Also, I worked at this cafe as a server in 2007; it’s undergone a remodel since then and I can’t stop staring at the Western-themed toile wallpaper. And with its double doors leading out to Sixth Street, which was merely an unpaved road lined with hitching posts for horses when the hotel opened, I’m picturing the dazzling entrance of a Western film hero. I close the notebook I’ve been scribbling in and push my plate and napkin to the side. It’s time to head to the lobby for a guided tour of the hotel.
Earlier this year, The Driskill began offering guided tours detailing the rich history of the property located in the heart of downtown Austin. Tours are free for hotel guests, and members of the general public may purchase their $10 tour tickets online. During the tour, which begins under the Tiffany-style stained glass lobby dome at 4 p.m. each day (and ends conveniently in the Driskill Bar), attendees hear all the stories and lesser-known tidbits of the hotel, which celebrated 135 years as a nexus of Texas politics, culture, and society at the end of 2021. There are ghost stories, gunfight stories, fistfight stories, and even political power couple stories, as Lyndon Baines Johnson and wife Lady Bird had their first date at the Driskill in 1934.
During my tour, the portrait of hotel founder and cattle baron Col. Jesse Driskill, which hangs above the first flight of stairs in the lobby’s grand staircase, had been replaced by a Texas flag, as the portrait had been sent out for restoration. By the end of the tour, I watched the staff carry the portrait in, remove the flag, and affix the portrait to the wall, where Col. Driskill “can oversee all the activity in the lobby,” jokes Melissa King, the Driskill Hotel’s marketing manager and one of several front office staffers trained to give the tours.
The portrait was given to the hotel in 1890, the year Driskill died. A decade later, it witnessed a duel between two lawyers, John Dowell of Austin and Mason Williams of San Antonio. According to an April 1908 article in The Waxahachie Daily, the battle occurred as a result of litigation over the foreclosure of ranch property Dowell owned. He filed suit for Williams’ disbarment. An hour before the trial resumed, the duel occurred in The Driskill hotel lobby, and two bullets pierced the canvas of Col. Driskill’s portrait. Though the canvas was mended, the bullet indentations are still faintly noticeable some 115 years later.
The story of that early 1900s duel is just one of many retold by Driskill tour guides. Behind each object, there’s history, such as the mirrors in the Maximillan Room, which were once owned by Ferdinand Maximillian’s bride Carlotta, empress of Mexico. After Benito Juarez captured the Maximillian palace, the couple’s belongings were scattered and ended up at an auction in San Antonio, where Driskill staffers discovered the full set of mirrors for $2,500 just in time for the hotel’s 1929 renovation. Each mirror features a bust of Carlotta, and the set of mirrors are valued at over $9 million today.
Other objects with stories revealed during the tour include a bank vault, horseshoes found under the floor in the Crystal Room (which was originally stables for guests’ horse-drawn carriages) during the hotel’s 1929 renovation, a Barvo Walker sculpture titled The Widow Maker (because it depicts a cowboy who has just been dragged to his death as a result of a spur from one of his boots catching on a stirrup), a hidden message in a Western mural, a photograph of Lady Bird signed by the first lady herself, and a cigar box encased in glass.
It’s just a 45-minute tour, but by the end, I’m ready to sink into a leather couch in the Driskill Bar on the second floor of the hotel. As I take sips from my Old-Fashioned—a signature drink at the bar adorned with Western art, cowhide rugs, and a grand piano—I contemplate the rich history tucked away inside one of Austin’s oldest institutions.
So much in Austin has changed since I moved here in 2006 from San Antonio, and I’ve heard fellow residents of the capital city lament the “old Austin” that was here when they moved to town in the ’80s, ’90s, or even a decade after I arrived. But the Driskill is a Romanesque oasis in the center of the city, where anyone—hotel guest or not—can duck in for a few hours for a meal, high tea, guided tour, live music, or even a self-guided audio art tour to take in the Austin that President Johnson and Col. Driskill before him inhabited.