In 1934 a cultured young lady from Karnack who was visiting Austin caught the eye of a brash young congressional aide from Stonewall. He asked her to meet him for coffee the next morning at the Driskill Hotel, a few blocks from the Capitol. She had no intention of going. But, as any student of Texas history knows, Claudia Alta Taylor did—hesitatingly—wind up joining Lyndon Baines Johnson that morning, which led to a long drive, which turned into a short courtship, which became a storied marriage. LBJ, as we all found out, could be coercively charming, but you’ve got to credit the Driskill’s grandeur—if not the nascent city itself—with the romantic assist.
The Romanesque Revival lobby at the Driskill Hotel. (Photograph by Sarah Lim)
The Romanesque Revival hotel still seduces. Built in 1886 by a cattle baron who’d supplied the Confederate army and the Texas Rangers with beef, it’s done up in an indulgent Old Ranch World motif: tanned-leather couches, pressed-tin ceilings, cowhides (and heads) everywhere. It was meant to be an urbane retreat from the Wild West outside its doors, and it still is. Even though I’ve been a frequent visitor over the years—dancing at wedding receptions in its ballrooms, commandeering corners of the bar as my satellite office, small-talking my way through a first date of my own in the cafe—I had never checked in as an overnight guest until recently. Because the hotel’s more casual 1886 Café & Bakery was temporarily closed for some sprucing up, I got to have breakfast in the stately Driskill Grill. The first two meals of the day hadn’t been served in the formal dining room since circa 1974. This was being trumpeted on a sandwich board outside as a fleeting opportunity to relive a moment from the city’s glory days.
Austin may have been beginning its ascent when LBJ was parading around Congress Avenue in the thirties, but it wouldn’t hit its cultural zenith until the seventies. Willie Nelson had just taken up residence (though Janis Joplin had already come and gone). The Armadillo World Headquarters, a longhair honky-tonk that served more Lone Star beer than any venue aside from the Astrodome, was at full-tilt boogie. You could wolf down a Hobo Plate to “get through the New Age Depression” at the dive-y Taco Flats (which, incidentally, is being resurrected, in name at least, on Burnet Road’s trendy Restaurant Row). Or you could get friendly with old German families and UT professors over pitchers of beer at Scholz Garten. (The dowager Driskill, meanwhile, was continuing to celebrate her grand reopening after narrowly escaping the wrecking ball in 1969.) The golden age had arrived, and the “l-i-v-i-n” was easy, to steal a catchphrase from Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s 1993 homage to the way things were in Austin in the summer of 1976.
The interior of Scholz Garten, established in 1866. (Photograph by Sarah Lim)
If you believe everything you hear, the city was cooler, cheaper, and more enlightened back then, not to mention blissfully countercultural and traffic-free. But I got here far too late—a mere decade ago—to vouch for all that myself. I also missed the tech boom and bust of the eighties, as well as the heyday of loafers and Dellionaires that the nineties ushered in (luckily, Linklater had a cult flick—Slacker—to catch me up on that particular moment too).
In the years since I scurried down here after college, in 2005, Austin has become another word for South by Southwest, and it is stoking, once again, many a developer’s dreams, of both the web and construction varieties. A 1988 article in this magazine on the eighties’ “whirlwind” growth declared the building crane to be the municipal bird. With at least a couple dozen new buildings currently sprouting downtown, it won’t be landing on the endangered species list anytime soon. I’d rather live in a city on the upswing than one in decline, but lately it feels as if Austin’s essence is being boiled down to breakfast tacos, bewhiskered men, and festivals that require a badge, a wristband, an outrageous social media stunt, and/or hours spent in line for entry. This may be hipster heaven, but there are so many more Austins to explore.
The stage at the 99-year-old Paramount Theatre, with its original curtain from 1915. (Photography courtesy of the Paramount Theatre/Paul Bardagjy)
The Austin I love is timeless. Take the Paramount Theatre: at 99 years old, it has only grown more resplendent with age, the ideal setting in which to watch Giant on a Sunday afternoon or to hear President Barack Obama’s thoughts on the economy or to sing along at Billy Joe Shaver’s seventy-fifth birthday party. Also worth admiring are the fifteen moon towers, those mesmerizing 150-foot-tall streetlights, installed around town in 1895, which still flip on at dusk. I find myself drawn to the places that have been around so long that they served as the backdrop to LBJ and Lady Bird’s romance, like the Driskill and the 351-acre Zilker Park. Not to mention the Capitol: you needn’t be a political junkie for the imposing pink-granite statehouse to stir feelings of reverence every time you stroll toward it along the tree-lined Great Walk. Inside, the magnificent interior dome glows like a James Turrell Skyspace, slipping from gold to white to blue to aquamarine depending on the time of day and, seemingly, the mood of the building’s inhabitants.
Congress Avenue, Texas’s Main Street, is still the spine of downtown, just as Edwin Waller, Austin’s first mayor, envisioned it in his 1839 blueprint. And hints of a frontier town remain along the broad thoroughfare—if you know where to look. The oldest-known building on the street, 504 Congress, which went up around 1856, currently houses a real estate developer, a digital-marketing-strategy company, and a boutique hawking handmade dresses—so Austin. A small plaque on the facade reads, in part, “One-horse plows, wine, and whiskey sold here in 1860’s.” Swap the plows for raw denim and that store would still be in business today. The two-story 1883 building that houses the Latino art collective La Peña and the Congress Avenue Grocery, where I often pick up pumpkin empanadas and chorizo-and-egg tacos, used to be the Pearl House Saloon, where you could buy a train ticket and, allegedly, some female companionship.
But long before all that, before there was a Congress Avenue or a capitol building—or even an idea for a state called Texas or a place called Austin—there were the springs. The cold, crystalline waters that burble forth just south of downtown from the Edwards Aquifer, a porous shelf of limestone that runs deep underground, have been venerated for eons. Native American tribes gathered by their banks, Spanish friars built a mission nearby in 1730, and landowner Billy Barton christened the largest pool Parthenia, after one of his daughters, in 1830. But it’s pretty much always been known as Barton Springs, as evidenced by an 1887 article in the Austin Weekly Statesman recounting a business meeting and barbecue held there the previous day: “Along the whole line of [Congress] Avenue could be seen eager searchers for means of reaching Barton Springs, the place where the fatted ox had been slain and put upon the spit.” Now those were the days.