Historic Hotel Hosts Humdinger of a Festival
Beautiful sunshine and moderate Texas temperatures in the 80’s greeted attendees at the opening of the 14th annual Austin Film Festival.
Many festival panels focus on up-to-the-moment topics like discussions on using the newest digital technology for storytelling and distribution over the Internet. Yet the festival is physically primarily centered at the Driskill Hotel, Austin’s oldest sleeping and meeting establishment.
When the ornate doors of the historic Brazos Street entrance to the Driskill are swept aside by pleasant doormen, visitors are surrounded by information about the Austin Film Festival. Registration is to the right, the main desk is straight ahead, and the lobby is filled with people with laptops and large, white Festival badges. Things have certainly changed since the hotel first opened in the late nineteenth century.
The Driskill was constructed in grand “Cattle Baron style”by an actual cattle baron, Colonel Jesse Driskill. The hotel boasts the kind of cow-centric decor that leaves no doubt that you’re in a gilded-era Texas palace. From the ornately painted ceilings and stained-glass to the cowhide sofas and the rooms like “The Cattle Baron’s Suite” and “The Chisolm Trail Room,” it isn’t like you could be anywhere else. Some of the hotel’s carpet designs even feature cattle brands.
When opened in 1886, the Driskill’s construction costs were listed at the then-astronomical sum of $400,000. Not surprising, with the hotel boasting up-to-date features like¦ steam heat and elevators! For guest comfort in those pre air-conditioning days, the hotel was built with walls 18-22 inches thick. That’s enough stone to keep out the brutal Texas sun.
The hotel was still swanky in 1934, when it hosted the most famous first date in Austin history. That’s when young politician Lyndon Johnson met his future wife Lady Bird for a fateful Driskill breakfast and proposed later that day! Afterwards, the space that’s now the Driskill’s “Victorian Room” housed a Johnson family radio station. The hotel is where Johnson awaited the results of the 1960 Presidential election, when he was the vice presidential candidate on John F. Kennedy’s ticket. During LBJ’s presidential term, a Driskill suite was always reserved for him.
Post-Johnson, the hotel became so shabby and down-at-the heels it was nearly demolished. Luckily, in 1970, the “Save the Driskill” community fundraising effort raised $700,000 to preserve the structure. Millions have since been spent restoring the hotel.
“It’s a beautiful old hotel. I’ve stayed in this hotel in the 70s, when it was really not great,” said Susan Wittjen, whose husband is an Austin Film Festival attendee.
As benefiting a grand hotel, the Driskill is rumored to have several ghosts. Later this month, the hotel is even offering a Halloween package, consisting of a night’s stay and a haunted-hotel tour. Yet, sometimes the ghosts don’t wait for Halloween to make themselves known.
Beverly Demaree,72, once had a client who had a ghostly encounter in the hotel back in the late 1980s.
“They just felt a being in their room during the night,” Demaree said, about her client’s experience. The door’s electronic record was checked, and there had been no activity during the night — of anything that needed to use a key. Then again, it might have just been a guest left over from the early 1900s.
According to the hotel’s historical brochure, then-popular pursuits for Driskill visitors included, “Relaxing in the healing “sulphuric waters [at the hotelâ€™s Ladies Hairdressing Parlor]…visiting psychic healers and purchasing elixirs from the medicine men who set up shop in the hotel.”
Anne Dilworth, who gives hotel tours in costume as”Mrs. Driskill” (wife of the Colonel) says that she had a ghostly encounter. She was on the 4th floor, not far from Ed Van de Vort, who dressed as Col. Driskill while giving guided tours, prior his death this summer.
“All of a sudden, I smell, nice Havana-type cigar smoke,” Dilworth said. She immediately told Van de Vort that they had to notify someone from the hotel about the smoking.
“Colonel always smoked a cigar,” Dilworth recounted Van de Vort saying with a smile.
“The only thing I figure, that the Colonel made himself known to me… I was going to be representing his wife, and Ed was going to be representing him.”
During the Festival, the large Driskill balconies are a popular place for Festival attendees to relax between the nearly 80 feature films, 98 shorts, and dozens of screenwriting panels. Doubtless few of them have little idea of the history of the facility where they are spending so much time.