Behind the scenes: A day at The Driskill


by REBEKAH HOOD / and photojournalist NICK BLACKHALL and editor JAYSON OAKS

Posted on October 4, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Updated Monday, Dec 16 at 2:48 PM

AUSTIN -- The Driskill Hotel, arguably one of Austin’s most recognizable landmarks, turns 125-years-old this year. You've probably passed by the hotel or been inside for a nice stay or a drink at the bar, but do you know all of its secrets? KVUE got a behind-the-scenes look at things the public rarely gets to see.

Colonel Jesse Lincoln Driskill, a wealthy cattle baron and businessman, purchased the land the future Driskill Hotel would be built on for $7,500 in 1884. Two years later, The Driskill was born.

In 1895, five years after Colonel Driskill’s death, another cattle baron and banker bought the hotel. Inside the hotel lobby, he opened American National Bank, part of which remains today.

“The vault was the actual bank vault, so it’s been here since 1895," said KVUE's tour guide, Laura Heathcott. She is the director of social media and reputation management for The Driskill. "We still have the original door on it; it’s heavy. If guests want to store things in there now, we will, but lots of people just like to go check it out, and take a picture, and imagine what it was like in Wild West Austin.”

The bank vault features the original flooring and bricks, as well as double doors.

"So it is not a place that you want to mess with,” Heathcott said.

Another famous feature of the lobby is the ornate stained-glass skylight.

“This skylight was installed in the 1950s. Prior to the 50s when there was no air conditioning, this was an open rotunda extending to the fourth floor with a domed skylight up there at the top,” Heathcott said.

The grand staircase leading from the lobby up to the mezzanine carries one of the hotel’s most mysterious stories. 

"Driskill legend tells that around the turn of the century, there was a political event happening up on the mezzanine level, and a politician’s four-year-old daughter was playing with her ball up on the mezzanine. The ball fell down the grand staircase, to which she chased the ball and tragically fell to her death,” Heathcott said.

That little girl is believed to be the subject of a painting on the fifth floor of the hotel.

“Over the years, we’ve had various accounts, both from employees here at the hotel and guests, that they’ve heard balls bouncing and giggles from little girls coming from various parts of the hotel. We’ve had several accounts over the years of friendly ghost encounters…We like to think of it as friendly, friendly ghosts,” Heathcott said.

Once on the hotel’s mezzanine level, KVUE toured the magnificent Maximilian Room that contains eight mirrors alluding to a sorrowful story.

“These mirrors were commissioned for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico...There is a bust with the likeness of his beautiful wife, Carlota’s, face on each and every one of these mirrors,” Heathcott said.

Maximilian and his wife left Europe to rule Mexico in 1864, but soon encountered resistance from the Mexican people. When Napoleon III decided to pull his troops out of the country, Maximilian and Carlota found themselves stranded. Carlota journeyed to Europe in the hopes of getting assistance, but while there, her husband was executed in Mexico in 1867. Carlota is said to have been declared mentally insane, and she died in confinement in 1927.

Carlota's memory is now forever ingrained into each of the gold-leafed mirrors in the Maximilian Room that often houses joyous weddings, in spite of Emperor Maximilian and his wife’s tragic demise. 

Upstairs, The Driskill offers several luxurious suites that contain antique furniture and boast a comfortable, yet sophisticated feel.

KVUE first toured the Brazos Suite.

“First thing I’d like to point out is the high ceilings and the floor-to-ceiling windows on the walls," said Heathcott. "We’ve got French doors leading to an outdoor terrace that overlooks Brazos Street…The great thing about this terrace is you can see 6th Street, but you’re overlooking Brazos, so you get the great ambiance of street-side view without the noise that comes with the busy nightlife on 6th Street…It’s got ambiance and a little bit of history coupled in with the soft blue colors, it’s a very relaxing suite.”

The Brazos Suite also displays some old maps of Texas, as well as a mini bar for entertaining which holds antique silver bar ware. 

Next was the Yellow Rose bridal suite.

"Brides love getting ready in here. It’s the perfect light for that,” Heathcott said once inside the cheery room.

Brides can also make use of the suite’s full-length mirrors, canopy bed draped with elegant imported fabric and antique vanity.

Much of the furniture in The Driskill is antique.

“A lot of these pieces are very dated, beautiful treasures here at The Driskill Hotel...The vanity in the bathroom (of the Yellow Rose suite) has a signature ‘D’ carved into the top of it. Lots of furniture in The Driskill does," Heathcott said.

Those D's are a simple mark symbolizing the enormous legacy of a Texas treasure.