If These Walls Could Talk
Artful past of Austin's oldest hotel ranges from the presidential to the supernatural
Editor's note: Welcome to If These Walls Could Talk, our first installment of a monthly column uncovering the best known — and unknown — stories from Austin's art world.
Austin is known for keeping things weird, and its oldest hotel, The Driskill, opened in 1886, is no exception. While the hotel’s historic tales range from the presidential to the supernatural, it’s the stories behind the myriad of art that adorns its walls that is among the most mysterious.
Upon entering the lobby, the oversized portrait of Colonel Jesse Driskill hangs regally above the mezzanine stairs. Though the realistic portrayal of one of Austin’s most lauded trailblazers is quite majestic, its the ever-watching eyes of the colonel that can be a bit unsettling. Painted in 1890 by acclaimed artist William Henry Huddle, whose image of Davy Crockett hangs in the south wing of the Texas State Capitol, rumor has it the painting was struck by stray bullets during a duel between two Austin lawyers back in the day.
Guests will also find portraits by Texan artist Anne Nelson Sweat in the lobby, The Celebration and The Invention, painted for the Driskill’s centennial. The first depicts the first formal event held at the Driskill — the inauguration of Governor Sul Ross in 1887 — while the second celebrates the interstate telephone line which ran through the Driskill beginning in October of 1899. Look closely and you’ll be able to find the artist herself in both of the paintings.
Upstairs, the Texas-themed paintings continue, ranging from early politicians to cowboys on horseback to lush Texas Hill Country scenes. But on the fifth floor, a painting called Love Letters has earned quite the spooky reputation. In 1887, Samantha Houston, the four-year-old daughter of U.S. Senator Temple Lea Houston, was chasing a ball down the hotel's grand staircase when she fell to her death. Today, she is said to haunt the painting, and there has been many accounts of ghostly activity on that floor.
In addition to paintings, elegant stained glass can also be found around the Driskill, a hallmark of the hotel’s iconic design. The dome in the lobby was designed and constructed in just 90 days by Stanton Studios, an architectural glass, metal, and woodworking studio in Waco, during the hotel’s 1990s renovation. Stanton Studios is also behind the elaborate glasswork in Room 434, the LBJ Suite, which weaves Lady Bird Johnson’s love of bluebonnets with the one-of-a-kind style of the Driskill.
Adorning the Maximillian Room, a 1,500-square-foot event space, are eight opulent gold-leaf mirrors. The mirrors were a wedding gift from Maximillian, a Hapsburg born in Vienna who went on to become the only monarch of the Second Mexican Empire, to his bride, Carlotta, a Belgian princess once considered the most beautiful woman in Europe.
In 1863, the couple accepted the throne of Mexico, but their reign was short-lived as the country soon gained its independence. The mirrors were then brought to San Antonio where they were stored along with other royal affects.
While the history of the Driskill is long and filled with both triumph and tragedy, the hotel’s artwork gives visitors a glimpse into what life was really like back in the early days of Austin. So, the next time you're checking in, make sure to check it out.