100 years of art
With Laguna Gloria, Clara Driscoll laid foundation for art in Austin
Clara Driscoll might enjoy the 33-foot-tall elongated stainless steel figure that now stands outside the Italianate house she built 100 years ago in West Austin.
Leaders at the Contemporary Austin acquired the distinctly contemporary sculpture — Tom Friedman’s “Looking Up” — for its permanent collection last year, installing it on the formal oval lawn fronting the elegant 1916 villa perched above the shores of the Colorado River.
But it’s Driscoll’s legacy that blazed the path that a century later finds her home — and principally its surrounding gardens — a destination for a growing collection of sophisticated contemporary art, much of it site-specific, inspired by the very landscape that Driscoll thoughtfully designed.
Clara Driscoll in about 1900, about the time she returned to Texas after a decade of education and travel in New York and Europe.
Heiress to a South Texas cattle fortune, world-traveled and educated in Europe, a staunch and active Texas Democrat and a rare early advocate for historic preservation, Clara Driscoll (1881-1945) by all accounts poured her considerable energy into whatever she set her sights on.
In her early 20s, she purchased the Alamo to save it from destruction. She served 16 years as a Texas national committeewoman for the Democratic Party. She spoke Spanish and French fluently. She penned a pair of romantic fictions and a Broadway comic opera. Described as darkly auburn-haired in accounts during her lifetime and known for her always-elegant attire, she never relinquished the romance of her ranch heritage: “I tell them I am a cattlewoman,” she reportedly said whenasked.
In Gilded Age fashion, Driscoll used her European travels to buy a wishing well in Tuscany, a fountain and a pair of lion statues in Rome and, from Venice, statuettes of the four seasons — all of which she shipped home to place in the gardens surrounding her villa, a place she named Laguna Gloria.
An ardent student of landscape design, Driscoll strove, as she wrote in Austin’s Gossip magazine in 1926, “to give an Old World touch to an incomparably beautiful Texas landscape and to contribute a little dignity and formality to the riotous caprices of this violet-crowned vale.”
And yet Texas heritage proved paramount to her. At a government salvage auction, Driscoll purchased two wrought-iron gates once used to keep cattle off the Texas Capitol grounds. One of those original gates still greets visitors at the entrance of Laguna Gloria; a replica pair stands in place for the second elsewhere on the grounds.
Clara Driscoll included the classical structure she dubbed the Temple of Love as contrast to the rustic landscape of the lower peninsula of the Laguna Gloria grounds. The temple is seen through a pair of wrought-iron gates that were once on the grounds of the Texas Capitol.
Driscoll donated her home to the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1943, shortly before her death, so it might bring “pleasure in the appreciation of art to the people of Texas.”
Laguna Gloria is certainly still doing that.
Ignited by a $9 million donation from the Marcus Foundation three years ago to establish a sculpture park, the Contemporary is busy acquiring and commissioning art and two years ago launched a master plan for improving and reconceiving the entire property to leverage its natural features and improve its landscape.
Big changes to Laguna Gloria are several years out. So to celebrate the centennial of the Driscoll Villa, the Contemporary has commissioned Israeli artist Ronen Sharabani to create a digital video projection, “Matchbox,” that will be cast on two sides of the house. It screens, for free, May 15.
Sharabani is just the latest international artist to use Driscoll’s estate as creative inspiration.
“Matchbox: Driscoll Villa Projection”When: Gates open at 8 p.m., projection 9 to 11 p.m. May 15
Where: Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St.
Information: 512-458-8191, thecontemporaryaustin.org/event/ronen-sharabani
Born April 2, 1881, in a tiny South Texas coastal town no longer on the map, Clara Driscoll was the second child and only daughter of Robert Driscoll, a self-made wealthy cattleman, and Julia Fox Driscoll. Though she spent her early years near Corpus Christi on the family’s 83,000-acre ranch, by age 11 Clara left Texas to attend private school, first in New York and then in France.
The teenage Driscoll would spend three years abroad before returning to Texas. And though in her lifetime she would circle the globe three times and make 14 trips to Europe, it was that first exposure to what she called the Old World and its reverence for its own antiquity that forever shaped Driscoll’s passion for historic preservation.
If today the concept of protecting historic sites is considered civic common sense, it wasn’t so in a relatively young America at the turn of the previous century. An ambitious, frontier-conquering nation maintained little interest in venerating its architectural relics, let alone on spending resources to preserve them.
In 1901, the 19-year-old Driscoll — newly returned from Europe and bursting with then-radical ideas — found abhorrent the public’s indifference to the crumbling ruins of the Alamo, the very birthplace of Texas independence.
“There does not stand in the world today a building or monument which can recall such a deed of heroism and bravery,” she wrote in letter published by the San Antonio Express newspaper.
Driscoll galvanized her fellow members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to buy the former mission.
However, when nearly two years of fundraising faltered, in 1904 Driscoll wrote a personal check for $75,000 to cover the cost. That gesture garnered her the lifelong moniker Savior of the Alamo, and on her death in 1945, her body lay in state at the landmark.
During her campaign to save the Alamo, Driscoll met Henry Hulm “Hal” Sevier, an ambitious editor and politician serving his first term in the Texas Legislature. The couple married in 1906, but not before the energetic Driscoll tried her hand at a writing career. In short order, Driscoll penned and published two effusively romantic Texas ranch-themed tales as well as a comic opera, “Mexicana,” the production of which she financed for its short run on Broadway in 1906.
On their three-month European honeymoon, the couple became enamored with the villas and gardens of Italy, particularly those surrounding Lake Como near the Italian Alps. Driscoll kept written accounts and collected photographs of what inspired her, particularly formal Italian gardens, statuary and unusual entrances.
But before they would build Laguna Gloria, the Seviers settled in New York and built a home on Oyster Bay, Long Island, next door to Theodore Roosevelt. Though the Oyster Bay house is long gone, historic photographs reveal its remarkable similarity to Laguna Gloria, with its blend of Italian and Spanish classical architectural details set among formal gardens.
Such revival design dovetails with early-20th-century trends when America’s newly minted millionaire class typically favored architecture that embodied European tradition — an emblem of refinement of taste. Spanish revival and Italian revival architecture found particular favor in the 1910s and 1920s. About the same time as Driscoll built Laguna Gloria, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst built Hearst Castle in California, a pastiche of historic architectural styles that nevertheless used Spanish and Italian attributes in abundance.
After the death of Driscoll’s father in 1914, the couple returned to Texas and settled in Austin. In a venture subsidized in part by Driscoll’s money, Sevier founded a daily newspaper, the Austin American, a precursor to this newspaper. Sevier would sell the paper in 1919. Historical sources suggest Driscoll’s fortune funded much of the couple’s exuberant lifestyle.
In 1915 the couple purchased a spot overlooking the Colorado River. With a peninsula curving around a lagoon and the naturally terraced site offering dramatic views, the site reminded them of Lake Como. Driscoll promptly named it Laguna Gloria, combining references to her family’s South Texas ranch, La Gloria, and the lagoon.
The sunroom seen through the wrought-iron gate that separates it from the ballroom. The Driscoll Villa was built in 1916.
The Seviers weren’t the first to be smitten with the site. The earliest archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans visited the area at least 5,000 years ago. Records show Stephen F. Austin owned the land briefly from 1832 until his death in 1836, never realizing his plans to build a home there.
Though the Seviers hired San Antonio architect Harvey L. Page, there is plenty about the villa that suggests it was Driscoll who drove the majority of the design decisions.
Idiosyncrasies abound. From the east side, the windows suggest that the rectilinear house is three stories tall; the west side reads as two levels of windows. A tower protrudes out of the villa’s southwest corner — a tiny room Driscoll sometimes used as her study.
Inside, the villa is arranged as a rather hectic series of rooms on multiple levels. Some are just a few steps above or below neighboring rooms.
The ballroom/salon was the main social room of the 1916 Driscoll Villa. A musicians' balcony provided a perch for entertainers to perform.
And then there’s Driscoll’s fondness for unusual doorways. One slender glass door on the south wall of the sunroom opens to a metal balustrade blocking any practical exit. Between the ballroom and the kitchen, an archway covers part of the butler’s door, and three stairs complicate matters further. Anyone would have to duck to get through the door, tray in hand.
Texas history abounds, too.
A fireplace alcove features a mantel made from a rafter of the Alamo and carved with a scene depicting the battle there, given to Driscoll by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in appreciation for her efforts on behalf of the Texas landmark. At the front entrance of Laguna Gloria, Driscoll installed a replica of the Rose Window from San Antonio’s San Jose Mission.
Driscoll poured considerable thought into the garden design of Laguna Gloria. In sync with the landscape theories popular in her time, Driscoll created formal gardens immediately around the house that then transitioned to rustic landscaping.
Contrasting the beautiful with the rustic represented the ultimate in sophisticated landscape design in Driscoll’s age. “Beautiful” was embodied by balance, rationality and formality — smooth grass lawns and precisely situated classical statuary. “Rustic” was articulated by thicker and more varied plantings, areas of deep shade, curving and uneven paths and roughly-hewn stone stairways and walls.
Driscoll employed art to create moments in the landscape intended to spark emotion or contemplation. The four seasons statues stand in the formal gardens. Through a line of oaks, down a rambling rustic path, Driscoll placed a small pillared pavilion that she named the Temple of Love. But she didn’t intend it to offer shade. Rather, its classical form was meant to inspire lofty thoughts.
Clara Driscoll included the classical structure she called the "Temple of Love" as contrast to the rustic landscape of the lower peninsula of the Laguna Gloria grounds.
Important to the garden development was Nazario Galvan, whom Driscoll brought from her family ranch to Laguna Gloria. A talented gardener, Galvan and his family — which would grow to include eight children — lived in the gatehouse, and he remained as caretaker for the property after Driscoll left in 1929. When Driscoll deeded the property in 1943, she stipulated that Galvan remain caretaker until his death.
Driscoll and her husband lived at Laguna Gloria until once again a family death changed the course of her life. She moved to Corpus Christi in 1929 to take care of the family business after her brother died. Though she spent two years in the mid-1930s in Chile while her husband was ambassador, Driscoll returned to Corpus Christi, not Austin. The couple divorced in 1937, and Driscoll resumed her maiden name.
Only very occasionally did Driscoll return to Laguna Gloria after 1929. The Galvan family lived on the property, but the villa was shuttered.
But during the 1920s, Laguna Gloria prevailed as Austin’s high-society showplace, the destination for any visiting dignitary or celebrity and the site of many a large party or dinner dance. A thousand guests were invited to a 1921 reception for the Texas Legislature. Also, one historical record notes, Driscoll particularly enjoyed celebrating Texas holidays.
When she deeded Laguna Gloria to the Texas Fine Arts Association, Driscoll also donated $5,000 for repairs and maintenance. And she specifically left three possessions in the house: an Italian chandelier in the ballroom, the long dining room table and the Alamo rafter fireplace mantel.
“In the future,” Driscoll wrote of Laguna Gloria in 1943, “it will be used … to preserve the things that are beautiful in life.”
What’s in a name? Plenty of history
In 1943, Driscoll deeded Laguna Gloria to the Texas Fine Arts Association, stipulating that it be used as a museum.
Originally called the Clara Driscoll Art Gallery, in 1961 the Texas Fine Arts Association spun off on its own, and a new organization known as Laguna Gloria Art Museum was established.
By 1996, with its leaders in a decades-long effort to build a downtown location, Laguna Gloria Art Museum became the Austin Museum of Art.
Meanwhile, in 1995, the Texas Fine Arts Association purchased a building downtown at 700 Congress Ave. and in 2002 changed its name to Arthouse.
By 2011, both organizations had hit a rough patch. Arthouse failed to raise enough money for a major remodel to its building, and Austin Museum of Art failed to raise money for a downtown building. The trustees of both groups opted to merge. In 2013, the newly conjoined institution rebranded itself as the Contemporary Austin.
It was a moment of odd historic fate: The merger actually reunited two organizations born of one.
The Contemporary maintains two sites: the downtown Jones Center at 700 Congress Ave. and Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St.