Texas History 101

The Capitol building's history is as colorful as its exterior.

July 2003By Comments

THE RED GRANITE CAPITOL THAT overlooks downtown Austin may seem today like the only place that could house Texas’ government, but it’s actually the fourth Capitol built in Austin—and Texas had thirteen capital cities before that.

In 1879 the Sixteenth Texas Legislature appropriated three million acres of land to finance a new state capitol building and appointed a Capitol Board (composed of the governor, comptroller, treasurer, attorney general, and land commissioner) to give the land to a contractor in exchange for building the Capitol. In 1881, after a fire destroyed the limestone Capitol, in Austin, which served the Republic from 1839 to 1842 and the state from 1845 to 1852, the state government pushed forward its plans to build a new Capitol. First, the Capitol Board hired architect Elijah E. Myers for $12,000 after he won the building commission’s design competition in 1881. Next, Mathias Schnell accepted the contract in return for the land. Schnell later transferred three-fourths interest to Taylor, Babcock, and Company of Chicago, which organized the Capitol Syndicate. The land that the syndicate was to receive as payment was in the unsettled Panhandle, so the syndicate established the XIT Ranch to make the most of the land until it could be sold.

Myers modeled the Texas Capitol after the National Capitol, using a Renaissance Revival design. His plans called for native limestone, but Myers agreed to use red granite donated by the owners of Granite Mountain instead. Because red granite is harder than limestone, Myers modified his plans and eliminated the original design’s elaborate carvings. Myers, however, suffered from psychosomatic illnesses, which made him so difficult to work with that he was fired in 1886.

Construction began in 1882, and eventually Gustav Wilke, a Chicago builder, took over the massive project. Because the red granite was so expensive to transport and work with, the state stepped in, constructing a railroad from Granite Mountain to Burnet and providing convict labor. In 1885 union laborers—angry about the use of convict labor and the low wages Wilke offered—boycotted, and Wilke sent a representative to Scotland to contract granite cutters. The U.S. government indicted Wilke in 1886 for violating the Alien Contract Labor Law and fined him $64,000, which equaled $1,000 for each laborer imported.

Leading our group through the Capitol on a recent summer day, the guide overlooks any scandals, boycotts, or violations of national labor laws. Rather, he mentions the glorious groundbreaking in 1882, the placement of the cornerstone in 1885, and the Capitol’s official completion in December 1888. A tour of the Capitol is enough to make every Texan stand a little taller—I know I did. After all, the Capitol, with 8.5 acres of floor space, is one of the nation’s largest state capitol buildings. The structure in Washington, D.C., may be larger, but the Capitol (thanks to the Goddess of Liberty, which stands atop the iron dome proudly holding a star) reaches 14.64 feet higher.

Visitors enter the impressive building at the south entrance foyer, which houses several paintings and sculptures of historical heroes. At the building’s center, the rotunda, tourists crane their necks up to gaze at the eight-foot star on the dome’s ceiling. The Seals of the Nations, a terrazzo design on the floor’s center, features the Seal of the Republic of Texas. Positioned between the five points of the Republic’s Lone Star, the five seals of the nations that once flew flags over Texas remind us of the state’s rich history. Portraits of the four former presidents of the Republic of Texas and of the former governors of Texas hang on the rotunda’s interior walls, but our tour guide admitted that the rotunda is running out of wall space (the folks at the Capitol have about 28 years to figure something out).

In the north wing, the Legislative Reference Library stores state legal documents, and the rooms that originally housed the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals now serve as legislative meeting rooms. The Senate chamber is in the east wing, and the west wing’s House of Representatives chamber is the largest room in the Capitol, home to the flag from the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto.

As we traipse through the building, we see just a fragment of the seven miles of wainscoting that line the walls, but we learn about the Capitol’s latest addition and restoration. After a fire damaged the east wing in 1983, the State Preservation Board was formed to head fundraising and plan all changes to the Capitol. In 1989 the Legislature approved plans to restore the Capitol to its turn-of-the-century form and to build the Capitol Extension. Completed in 1993, the Extension, an underground annex on the north side of the Capitol, has two levels of government offices, several committee hearing rooms, a pressroom, an auditorium, and a cafeteria. Large skylights let in natural light, and the open-air rotunda complements the Capitol’s original one. While the annex relieved overcrowding, it did not destroy the Capitol’s colorful atmosphere. During legislative sessions, tourists meander past the politicians who work for some of them, listening to their legislators discuss policy, learning about history.

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