Towering over the city street, among the glass and neon that marks the modern world, stands a gothic masterpiece. With its regal air and broad verandas, marble floors and beautiful chandeliers, one might assume the building to be a Texas castle, built by royalty of the Texas hill country. While the notion does fit, and the builder was considered southern royalty, it is in fact the grandest of the old hotels in Austin, and, as one could expect from such a lavish palace, some guests just don’t seem to want to leave.
The Driskill has long been referred to as the most haunted hotel in the state, with decisions split between it and San Antonio’s Menger Hotel. Its history is so entwined with the city’s that it seems that, as the city became, so did it. As with any structure of its age, the walls and hallways of the Driskill have seen their share of tragedy, and the echoes of those events still resonate, startling guests and employees alike.
When cattle baron Jesse Lincoln Driskill bought an entire city block for $7,500, many thought him mad. His idea to build the grandest hostelry seemed to fit with the city plan, but even so, it was a large parcel of land and a great deal of money. However, when the structure opened to the public on December 20, 1886, none could deny his vision. Though the structure’s price came in at a whopping $400,000, it was evident the money was well spent. Designed by Austin’s own Jasper N. Preston and Sons, the hotel became the centerpiece to the streets on which it stood, inspiring awe in any who saw it. Driskill was so proud of his “frontier queen” that he had busts of himself and his two sons, Tobe and Bud, installed around the top of every entrance, making certain that anyone who crossed the threshold knew whose hotel it was.
Over the years, the old building has borne witness to many historical events and played host to some of the most important figures in Texas and American history. U. S. Senators, presidents, and captains of industry have stayed in its lavish suites. The year 1898 saw the first long distance telephone call in Austin placed from the Driskill’s lobby, and years later, President Lyndon Banes Johnson watched election returns while relaxing in comfort.
When Driskill died, he left behind a remarkable landmark and a legacy of extravagance that continues to this day. The hotel, however, was unable to avoid tragedy for long.
Several deaths have occurred at the Driskill over the years. The first was the four-year-old daughter of a U. S. Senator. The little girl was bright and bubbly, reportedly a delight to any who met her. On one particular afternoon, however, the child slipped while playing with a ball at the top of the grand staircase. She fell to the marble floor where she died.
The Driskill played host to functions of celebration, both public and private. It was during one such celebration that tragedy once again visited the hotel. A wedding, meant to take place in the hotel, was canceled the night before by the groom. Heartbroken, the young bride fled to her room where she took her own life by hanging.
As the years went by, the Driskill, mirroring the state of the city around it, fell into disrepair. However, in the early 1990’s, renovations began to restore it to its former glory. It was during this time that a woman from Houston checked into room 29 with a hauntingly familiar story. She’d come to Austin to rest her nerves after her fiancé cancelled their marriage at the last minute, and spent all of her first day in town on an extravagant shopping spree, using her fiancé’s credit cards. She was last seen coming out of the elevator, headed to room 29, her arms overflowing with packages. When she did not reappear after three days, worry set in. The housekeepers opened the room and discovered her lifeless body, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the stomach. According to police reports, the woman muffled the sound of the pistol with one of the hotel pillows.
There are far too many restless souls in the Driskill to identify. Some estimations place the number at just under a dozen while others soar into the twenties or even thirties. Even though the apparitions are as varied and diverse as the people who lodge there, there are at least six permanent guests that are reported with alarming frequency.
Perhaps the most innocuous spirit is one that most only see at a glance. Believed to be Peter J. Lawless, he follows the same pattern day after day. Lawless actually lived in the hotel for thirty years, from 1886 to 1916, even when the hotel was closed to guests. Guests report seeing a man in old fashioned clothing standing outside the elevator, checking his watch. When the guest looks back, the man is no longer there.
One spirit whose identity is of no doubt to anyone is that of Colonel Driskill himself. Most often, it is the heavy scent of cigar smoke that betrays his presence as he continues to inspect the building that bears his name. On the top floor, however, the Colonel is most often blamed for bathroom lights in guests’ rooms flipping on and off unaided.
Walking down the grand staircase, one feels a chill as the third restless soul makes her presence known. Many have heard the plucky four-year-old bouncing her ball and giggling, only to turn and find the staircase empty.
The first bride to take her own life in the hotel, it seems, never left, and is one of the more active souls. She is most commonly seen on the fourth floor, still wearing her wedding gown. She also appears to those guests attending a wedding themselves, and has made her presence known at many a bachelorette party. Though her presence is steeped in tragedy, it is supposed to be good luck for the bride-to-be to see her.
Not every spirit that haunts the hotel came an untimely demise. One apparition, referred to as Mrs. Bridges, worked the front desk at the Driskill for many years. After her death, many reported that she still fussed over flower arrangements that were no longer there, and waited patiently behind the desk until someone came to relieve her from duty.
Perhaps the most famous case is that of the so-called “Houston Bride.” Most often spotted on the elevator, the lovely young woman is still seen carrying her parcels to room 29 before retiring for eternity. Many who see her are often unaware that the person they’ve just been talking to is not, in fact, flesh and bone. One pair of witnesses saw her while the building was being renovated. They watched as she stepped off on the fourth floor, which was draped in plastic, produced a key, and entered her room. Curious, the two went up to the room the next day and found that not even the furniture had yet been placed in the room.
The Driskill Hotel has become a haven for luxury travelers. The hotel itself instills a sense of grandeur to any who pass though its doors, and awe to those who see it from the street. Apparitions are still seen, and quite frequently, though many of the hotel staff refuse to speak of their spectral guests.
No matter the time of year, the Driskill Hotel treats its guests to a luxurious stay. Reports of sightings occur year-round, with curious events occurring on nearly every level of the mammoth structure. Springtime, however, may just be the best time to stay, as the annual South-by-Southwest music festival happens all along Sixth Street, and is within easy walking distance of the hotel.
See you next time!
—Scott A. Johnson