Clara Driscoll & Laguna Gloria History

Note: The text below is an extract from Martha Anne Turner's biography, Clara Driscoll: An American Tradition, and the images are also from that book; see the end of this page for more details and links.

Clara Driscoll was born in south Texas on on April 2, 1881. She married Hal Sevier on July 31, 1906; the couple was divorced on July 7,1937, after which she had her name officially changed to Mrs. Clara Driscoll. She died on July 17, 1945.

The Laguna Gloria villa was completed in 1916; more information on the villa (including floor plans) is available as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey digitized by the Library of Congress.

Daughters of the Republic of Texas at Laguna Gloria in 1932.
Clara Driscoll is front row center, with a flower in her hair and a dress draped at the hips.

Laguna Gloria was truly a monument to love. The idea for it was conceived in 1906, when the Seviers were honeymooning in Europe. While they were enjoying picturesque Lake Como in Italy as an ideal retreat for lovers, Clara waxed ecstatic. She wished she might remain there forever — the place was so quiet and peaceful and beautiful, she told her husband.

Well aware of her predilection for Texas, Hal Sevier was amused at his wife's effusion. "You wouldn't be satisfied to live anywhere but in Texas," he told her. "But don't worry. I know of a place in Texas that has everything Lake Como has — the mountains, the water, the quiet beauty, peaceful and romantic atmosphere, and the advantage of being at home. I'll take you there when we get back."

When Mrs. Sevier first saw the exquisite Texas tract at the base of Mount Bonnell, five miles west of the capital city on Lake Austin, overlooking the Colorado River, she could hardly believe her eyes. She concurred with her husband that the scene was almost a replica of peaceful and romantic Lake Como. On August, 1915, the Seviers bought the 28-1/2 acre site from Roy H. and Ellen Collett for $4,750. Originally the land had been purchased on May 8, 1832 by Stephen F. Austin for a prospective home. A letter in which Austin authorized his agent, Samuel M. Williams, to purchase the property for him is extant. Although the purchase was consummated, Austin's death in 1836 prevented him from building on the site, and the property was left vacant for the remainder of the nineteenth century....

Shortly after obtaining the land, the Seviers engaged architect Harvey L. Page of San Antonio to design the residence of early twentieth-century Mediterranean style and contracted with builder Jack Johnson to erect it . The property extends southward to form a peninsula, bound by the Colorado River on the west and the lagoon to the south and east. The couple chose the name of Laguna Gloria, which translates roughly into "Heavenly Lagoon," for the lake — actually a sheltered inlet of the Colorado — and for one of the Driscoll ranches in Duval County. Mrs. Sevier's novel published during the year of the marriage had also carried Gloria in the title — The Girl of La Gloria....

A pair of wrought-iron gates attached to limestone posts marks the entrance to the property from Mount Bonnell Road. Mrs. Sevier was able to obtain at a public auction two pairs of these gates, which were once used on the state capitol grounds in the halcyon days when stock roamed free. Interestingly, she discovered the lovely old gates (which once stood at the south entrance to the capitol grounds and at the exit) in a pile of junk in the State-house basement. When she asked to be permitted to buy the gates, she was informed that they would be sold at auction by the state board of control and she would have to bid for them along with others. Fortunately, at the advertised public auction, the lady outbid dealers of old scrap iron and prevented the historic gates from the indignity of becoming dismantled as junk.

An enthusiastic gardener, Mrs. Sevier personally supervised the conversion of the hillside of rock and dense undergrowth into one of the most beautiful homesites of the city. Five acres were formally landscaped. Except for sodding, approximately thirteen acres were allowed to remain in their natural wooded state. Here centuries-old live oaks common to the area shaded the grounds. The landscape facing the Colorado River on the west side made the most of natural terraces and magnificent vistas. In conformity with the Mediterranean-style villa, the formal gardens were Italian in design. On the west side facing the river was a formal terraced patio embellished with a fountain and plantings in stone urns. Steps descended to a lower terrace where a balustrade accentuated an abrupt drop to the land at the river level.

Accents of the lovely landscaped grounds included a sculptured birdbath in the sunken garden, a Roman fountain centering the palm-lined circular drive, a sundial, an Italian wishing well imported from Tuscany, a mounted Spanish cannon and an antique mission bell from the Philippines, and statuary from Venice. The four figures of statuary were emblematic of the four seasons. The old mission bell suspended from a decorative arch, a special gift to Mrs. Sevier, was sounded regularly to announce the hours for meals at Laguna Gloria. To the southeast a balustraded footbridge led to a winding path along the ridge of the peninsula that ends at the juncture of the lagoon and the river. At the termination of the walkway stood the monumental "Temple of Love," a pagoda-shaped structure consisting of marble columns supporting a red-tiled roof. A few yards beyond it a second pair of the historic wrought-iron gates from the capitol grounds of yesteryear separated the garden area from the water's edge.

But the grounds of Laguna Gloria provided only the setting. The fifteen-room mansion itself, situated at the base of the 775-foot elevation of Mount Bonnell and overlooking the winding Colorado, was the real jewel of the extraordinary mounting. Located on the highest of the four terraces, the residence occupied a regal position and commanded magnificent views in several directions. Comprised of 4,500 square feet and with western exposure, the villa was of stuccoed masonry and concrete construction composed of rectilinear blocks grouped asymetrically.

The main unit of the structure, with the principal front and rear entrances, was in the shape of a three-story rectangle. On the west the apertures suggested two stories. On the ground level double doors, accented by fanlights at the second level, opened into a combination two-story ballroom and living room. Above the original entrance was a small square window. Surmounted above this elevation from the southeast corner and projecting slightly was a four-story square tower. The tower dominated this part of the villa and was the most visible feature from a distance. The flat roof of the three-story segment was encircled by a low parapet wall. The tower was identified by a hipped roof of tile with wide bracketed eaves.

On the third-floor pairs of windows, with bracketed grill, embellished the front and a single window identified the side. The fourth-floor level featured a grouping of three narrow windows in the center of the western and southern exposures, which were accentuated by handsome balustraded balconies supported by three brackets. On both the northern and eastern facades, window arrangements varied from coupled and single trabeated patterns with grills to the diminutive square aperture.

An interesting feature of the second entrance of the first floor, and a detail reflecting Mrs. Sevier's devotion to Texas history, was the sculptured limestone opening that was patterned after the legendary rose window of the San Jose mission in San Antonio. This decorative aperture allowed natural light for the main stairway originating from the entrance hall. It is of parenthetical interest here to note that the San Jose mission with its celebrated window inspired what is perhaps Clara Driscoll's most forceful short story — "The Red Rose of San Jose." Another detail of historic memorabilia relating to the interior of the mansion was a framed copy of Austin's letter and map directing his agent to buy the property — a memento that hung in the entrance hall.

A two-story rectangular wing projecting from the main section repeated the wide bracketed eaves of the tower. An end pavilion extended from the south-east corner of the western facade, and also from the ground level four arched double doors opened onto a patio. A stringcourse separated the two floors. The large square windows of the second floor channeled light and sunshine into a solarium. Intimates of the Seviers and friends who had visited them in New York were quick to note similarities of architectural features of the Laguna Gloria residence with the original love nest on Long Island.

Interior arrangements and furnishings consisted of treasures collected from various parts of the world, some of which were acquired during the Seviers' two-month wedding trip to Europe and on subsequent visits to foreign shores. Both were seasoned travelers and avid collectors. Their cherished possessions included an eclectic accumulation of everything from rare books and paintings to art objects of copper and brass from the Orient, along with porcelains, French china, crystal, and old Sheffield silver. Prized Oriental rugs covered some of the floors and elegant Elizabethan furniture graced some of the rooms. A desk, ornate with inlaid gold leaf decoration and enclosed in a heavy chest, was a treasured item Mrs. Sevier found in Florence. Other favorites included a splendid sterling vodka bottle and cups and a handsome samovar picked up in Russia and an assortment of cloisonne and Meissen, from various places, together with exquisite lamps from the Far East. Mrs. Sevier had a penchant for unusual lamps and even had a few made of novel vases and other objets d'art that had captured her fancy.

Across from the entrance to the ballroom was an alcove with the fireplace flanked by two rare carved benches. The wall panel above the fireplace consisted of a carving executed especially for Mrs. Sevier by Peter Mansbendel, an artist originally from Switzerland but living more recently in San Antonio. Still another memorial to Texas history, and one especially meaningful to Clara Driscoll Sevier, the carving depicted "The Battle of the Alamo" and was made from an original rafter of the shrine. A balcony above the fireplace, with entrance from the second floor, was a major architectural detail that completed the wall arrangement. Another balcony at the south end of the ballroom provided space for an orchestra. Some of the most popular name bands of the 1920s played for dances at Laguna Gloria. The Seviers were said to have been exceptionally graceful dancers and loved both popular and classical music.

From the south end of the ballroom an arched doorway led into a tearoom. Adjacent to the tearoom was the large formal dining room. Accessible from four arched doorways at the west, the two rooms were separated by an arcade complementing the arched design of the exterior doors. Convenient to these rooms, but privately removed, were the kitchen and butler's pantries.

Floors in the main rooms of the first story consisted of black tile, while an interesting pattern of black, white, and red tile was employed in some of the hallways. In addition to the solarium, the second floor accommodated a guest room. Four bedrooms comprised the third-floor arrangement, and the tower above the fourth story was devoted to a study. Mrs. Sevier set great store by the study and undoubtedly would have spent more time there had life not crowded in on her with time-consuming responsibilities. As one contemporary recalled, "The unrivaled sunsets of Austin, the craggy cliffs of hoary old Mount Bonnell are visible from Mrs. Sevier's study, and her clever word pictures of these poetic surroundings are the delight of her friends and associates."

Laguna Gloria became Austin's showplace and a mecca for international visitors. Inasmuch as the Seviers were fond of entertaining, their home was the scene of many social functions over the years. The two gained a reputation for their graciousness and their faculty for making their guests feel at ease in their luxurious home. What is more, whether the Seviers were hosts to dignitaries-of-state, celebrities of worldwide renown, or just relatives or small groups of intimate friends from one of the Driscoll ranches, they extended to all the same gracious courtesies. Moreover, they spared no expense in making their guests comfortable and happy at Laguna Gloria, regardless of the size of the party or prestige of the guests.

State and national organizations meeting in Austin or towns nearby were frequently entertained at the palatial estate. Even the Legislature had met at Laguna Gloria, as had important Democratic party leaders of both state and national level. One memorable social occasion was the time when the Federation of Women's Clubs of the United States observed its annual convention in San Antonio with a side trip to the state capital. As the climax of their visit, the delegates were invited to be dinner guests of the Seviers at a garden party at sunset on the spacious lawn sloping down to the Colorado. Several hundred people, including the elite of Austin, attended the dramatic affair held at the most beautiful time of day. Many still recall the graciousness of their host and hostess who had not only perfected the art of entertaining large numbers with amazing ease but were themselves a remarkably attractive couple....

Mrs. Clara Driscoll in the 1930s

The Seviers occupied Laguna Gloria from 1916, the year of its construction, until 1929. Even after that they frequently wintered there. Only World War I interrupted their residency at the idyllic estate when the couple spent two years in South America. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Sevier to head a United States contingent on public information to combat German propaganda in Argentina and Chile. Sevier's campaign against enemy propaganda was so effective that he was placed in control of the committee's work throughout the entire continent including all of the South American republics....

At the end of the war, after the Seviers returned to Austin, they reentered the mainstream of capital social and civic life, as indicated. One of Sevier's favorite projects at the time was the founding of the Austin Public Library Association, of which he was first president. He was also instrumental in building the library in Wooldridge Park. Mrs. Sevier became active in numerous organizations, essentially the Pan-American Round Table, which she founded in 1922 and served as director-general; the Austin Open Forum, and the Austin Garden Club, for both of which she served as president. She never relaxed her interest in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, for which she was president from 1927 to 1931 and would later serve from 1935 to 1937 and as honorary life president. Both husband and wife were interested in politics, and in 1928 Mrs. Sevier was elected as Democratic national committeewoman from Texas. These years — from 1918, when the war ended, to 1929 — were the feast years for Clara Driscoll and her husband, Hal Sevier. Friends who knew them intimately and were frequently guests at Laguna Gloria considered them an ideally happy couple who had everything: love, friends, wealth, fame....

The text is an excerpt from the book by Martha Anne Turner, Clara Driscoll: An American Tradition (Austin: Madrona Press, 1979), Chapter 6, "Laguna Gloria," pp. 56-63. This is still the only full biography of this remarkable Texan.

The portrait of Clara Driscoll is the frontispiece of the book; it is identified as hanging in the Driscoll Foundation headquarters in Corpus Christi. The photo of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas at Laguna Gloria is from the 12th page of the first group of unpaged photos in the book.

Additional Information on Clara Driscoll

Clara Driscoll's Garden at Laguna Gloria [article written by Clara Driscoll for an Austin magazine]
Clara Driscoll as Remembered by Mary Lasswell
Clara Driscoll as Presented by Nelda Patteson
Austin Pan American Round Table's Founder, Clara Driscoll Sevier
Clara Driscoll in Later Life as presented by Gale Hamilton Shiffrin

Laguna Gloria     Kay's Passions Page     Kay's Home Page

Disclaimer and Credits

Last modified on March 13, 2012 by Kay Keys (