Hotel renovations are not generally news. Lobbies and other high-traffic areas become worn and are renovated; fabrics and furnishings go in and out of style; guests come and go. But when a hotel has been around as long as the Driskill in downtown Austin, each renovation serves as a time capsule, a way to check in every few decades to see how the city and its hospitality offerings have changed. A recent update of the Driskill — a suite renovation by Clayton Korte of Austin with interiors by Rottet Studio of Houston — is the latest reimagining of a building that has always reflected both the grand aspirations and the stranger-than-fiction truths of Austin.
Conceived and funded by Jesse Driskill and designed by Austin architect J.N. Preston, the Richardsonian Romanesque hotel was under construction at the same time as the Texas Capitol. A newspaper article from 1886 describes the original furnishings: “The carpet is … heavy moquette of Gobelin tapestry pattern and the furniture is walnut, upholstered with hair, and covered with plain, mottled, embossed and crushed plush.” Women of the time were wearing skirts so wide that the hotel’s corridors were widened to accommodate them. If all that sounds hot, consider that the four-story hotel was passively cooled: A skylit shaft at the center of the hotel pulled breezes from the large balconies at each end of the hotel’s axes, and the ballrooms offered large windows and skylights. No surprise, then, that the hotel initially marketed itself (and Austin) as a “winter and health resort.” A 1930 renovation added a 12-story tower, along with the famed Driskill Bar and “circulated ice-water cooling.” A modern air conditioning system was added in 1950. The skylit shaft that originally cooled the building was enclosed in 2003, and lobby visitors today see a Tiffany-style glass dome where the opening once was.
The hotel has been a center of Texas cultural and political life since its opening. Louis Armstrong played a three-night run there in 1931. LBJ had his first date with Lady Bird at the Driskill and watched the 1964 election results roll in from what is now the Jim Hogg Parlor. Ann Richards and most other Texas governors held their inaugural balls at the hotel. But the hotel’s ownership has never been steady. A year after opening, the Driskill had to close after the Beach Hotel in Galveston poached most of its staff. The hotel recovered, but then a drought killed off Jesse Driskill’s cattle and fortune. He sold the hotel to his brother-in-law, who then traded the hotel to a California actor in exchange for a vineyard. For the next several decades, the building was transferred from owner to owner. In 1969, after a failed effort to replace the 1930 addition with a 19-story tower, the once-great Driskill was slated for demolition.
Luckily, that never came to pass. A group led by architect Max Brooks created the Driskill Hotel Corporation, which offered $10 shares in the hotel. They raised almost enough to buy the building but still needed a last-minute emergency bake sale (or so the story goes) to pay for the rest. The hotel reopened in 1973 with a grand party, with Texas Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong and his wife attending in turn-of-the-century bathing suits.
The sale of the hotel to the Hyatt Corporation in 2013 marked a new era of stability for the Driskill. “The way it’s operated behind the scenes has definitely changed, but everything you see — the name, the personality of the hotel — stays the same,” says Driskill Marketing Manager Alessandra Lenardon. “Hyatt wants to keep the spaces intact because they know that people want to see the history.” For Clayton Korte, a firm behind many other Austin hospitality projects, this meant making judicious decisions about what to keep and what to discard. As partner Paul Clayton, AIA, puts it, they “like to leverage history and grit into a sense of place.” According to project architect George Wilcox, AIA: “There’s no telling how many people have passed through the doors with their luggage. We didn’t want to scrape them down to brand new. We just cleaned them up and refinished them.” The uber-Texan furnishings of the previous iteration — picture a semi-canopied leather headboard embossed with a lone star, heavy gold drapery, and a significant number of tassels — are now gone. The new rooms, says Lenardon, are “light and airy, designed for the modern traveler.” While the 1886 Café and Bakery (reimagined several years ago by Rottet Studio) incorporates existing archways and columns into a quirky place to have breakfast, clean surfaces and light finishes predominate in the guest suites, shifting attention to original details like the stained-glass windows and steel columns, as well as retro fixtures like the clawfoot tubs.
This latest renovation marks an inflection point between the old version of Austin, still rooted in its past, and the new, more transitory version of Austin, which is more about its as-yet-undefined future. If current growth trends continue, by the time of the next major renovation (perhaps sometime around 2040), Austin will look more like today’s Houston in both size and demographics, with a population of around 3.6 million. By then, the oil and cattle industries will like both be part of the state’s past. And Austin will be hotter. According to the 2018 federal National Climate Assessment, the average number of triple-digit days in Austin is set to almost double between 2041 and 2070.
Perhaps that future renovation will include yet another, more advanced system to keep hotel guests cool. But if the past is any indication, the Driskill will continue to innovate to remain a hub of Austin culture and tourism. We’ll check back in 20 years.
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.