A Stately House: A Photographic Portrait

On the one-hundredth anniversary of the Texas Capitol, five of Texas’ best photographs offer a birthday portrait.

It was supposed to be built with white limestone and have a square cupola instead of a dome. It cost twice the $1.75 million that was budgeted, and the roof leaked so badly that state officials threatened to reject the building. At its dedication in 1888, Sam Houston’s youngest son predicted that the government it housed would exhibit “a perpetuity of public virtue.”

Obviously the Capitol did not work out exactly as planned. Its legends too fall short of reality. The crack in the star at the center of the rotunda was caused not, as folklore has it, by a worker falling to his death but by temperature extremes. (It’s true that in 1922 a worker painting the interior of the dome was killed in a fall, but that was fourteen years before the terrazzo floor was installed.) A claim at the dedication that the Capitol was then the seventh-largest building in the world has never been verified.

Yet, as a building, the Capitol is an unqualified success. Had it been built of limestone, it would have looked like an overgrown county courthouse, which it in fact was—unknown to Texas officials, the Michigan architect hired to design the Capitol merely extended the plans he had used for a courthouse in Denver. But the native granite and the dome give the Capitol distinctly Texan virtues. Like the state of Texas itself, the appeal of the Capitol lies not in its beauty but in its ruggedness, mass, and size. (The dome—not by accident—is higher than the U.S. Capitol’s). And though the roof still leaks and what goes on inside has never quite amounted to public virtue, the Capitol remains a daily reminder to those who work there that the Texans of long ago expected them to be worthy of such a monument.

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