BACK IN THE FIFTIES, WHEN TEXAS was still a Democratic state and the party’s conservative and liberal wings fought bitter battles over issues like segregation and labor unions, it was often said that the Capitol, with its high ceilings and tall columns, was “built for giants but inhabited by pygmies.” That witticism long ago passed into oblivion, but it’s worth resurrecting for its architectural rather than political significance. Erected in the 1880’s to inspire the people’s representatives to be worthy of their workplace, the Capitol is our grandest public building. Its pink-granite exterior is rough and uneven and unyielding, rather like Texas itself, and its interior was meticulously restored a decade ago to its early-twentieth-century appearance. Now in its 119th year of service, it still fulfills the prediction of Judge A. W. Terrell at the dedication ceremony in 1888: “Whenever, in all time, a son of Texas shall behold its vast proportions, pride will come around him like a mantle and crystallize devotion to his State.”
As the Texas Legislature meets in regular session for the eightieth time, tens of thousands of Texans will descend upon the Capitol to watch our lawmakers at work. Some will come as supplicants, some as tourists, and some, like me, as observers and chroniclers. Buses from every city and town will unload the schoolchildren who sit in the House or Senate gallery and wait to be recognized by their elected officials. A legislative session is a great spectacle in a great setting; whatever visitors might think of the lawmaking process—often described by legislators themselves as the making of sausage—they can at least appreciate the edifice where it takes place.
The best way to do this is to take the 45-minute guided tour that is offered from eight-thirty to four-thirty on weekdays, with abbreviated schedules on Saturdays and Sundays. The tour service is located in the old treasurer’s office, just inside the south entrance (the cell-like bars that once protected the state’s money are still in place). You will visit the entrance hall, the rotunda, and the House and Senate chambers and finish in the underground extension, which was added in the nineties.
But the tour is only the beginning. There is much more to see if you know what to look for, and I’m going to tell you precisely that. I’ve been roaming the halls for 42 years now—5 as a staffer, the rest as a reporter—and I’ve come to know the building as a home away from home. My intention is to give you a sense not only of what you see but also of what you don’t see.
WE’LL START THE TOUR OF MY FAVORITE PLACES at the point where the guided tour stops: in the extension. Before you is an open-air rotunda that rises up to ground level. The nickname for this spot is the “shark tank,” so called because cell phone reception is not reliable in the extension’s subsurface corridors, and during the session, while committee meetings are taking place nearby, this small rotunda is sought out by lobbyists trying to transact business with their clients.
Before the extension was built, all 150 House members officed in the Capitol. Larger rooms were chopped up into warrens of tiny offices with makeshift walls and low ceilings that fostered a sense of claustrophobia; in some cases, half a dozen or more legislators would be housed behind a single door on the main corridor. As cramped as these quarters were, they enabled a sense of camaraderie to develop, because lawmakers were always dropping in to chat with their colleagues. The unforeseen consequence of building the extension was the decline of that camaraderie. It was evident in the first session after the extension opened, in 1993. All House members had individual offices with space for several staffers. When they weren’t on the House floor or in committee, they were closeted in their offices on long hallways, not schmoozing with other members. The loss of visiting time is one of the factors that has contributed to the increasing partisan divide in the Legislature. Members simply don’t know one another as well as they used to.
Next stop: the Capitol basement. Before the restoration, the ceiling was a maze of pipes and the wide corridor was narrowed by stacks of boxes and random pieces of discarded or broken furniture in transit to their final resting place. Notice the open space in the middle of the building. Many visitors know that standing on the star in the center of the rotunda on the main floor and speaking in a soft tone of voice will produce an amplifying effect; surprisingly, the same result occurs here too, notwithstanding the Italianate terrazzo floor above.
Today’s visitors can dine in a cafeteria in the extension, but before the extension existed, the only sustenance in the Capitol, other than in vending machines, could be found at a cheerless snack bar near the stairway on the House side of this basement rotunda. In those days, lobbyists took favored lawmakers off the Capitol grounds to private clubs—the Austin Club, the Deck Club, the Citadel Club—during the lunch recess, while the rest of us had to endure microwaved hot dogs and canned soups at the snack bar, whose sardonic nickname, inspired by the flooring, was the Linoleum Club. Its Formica tables and plastic chairs are memorialized in a sketch that is in the possession of the head of the tour guide service.
On the walls of the basement are composite photographs of the members of successive legislative sessions, senators and House members each on their side of the building. I have spent hours here looking among the individual photos for familiar names from the past. In the 1919 composite, on the bottom row, third from the right, Lyndon Johnson stares out at you. Actually, it isn’t LBJ; it’s Sam Johnson, his father, but the features—those ears! that nose! that squinty look!—are unmistakably those of the future president’s. Across the hall, in the 1911 composite, is Lyndon’s mentor, Sam Rayburn,