“This is our Texas family plot,” said governor George W. Bush at the rededication ceremony for the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. It was a glorious March day, and invited guests gathered under a big tent, strolled around to pay their respects to departed friends and colleagues, and gazed at the transformation of the 146-year-old graveyard into a tranquil showplace with a visitors center, cascading ponds, a columbarium, and a memorial plaza.
The $4.7 million, two-and-a-half-year project had been initiated at the urging of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and completed with help from a variety of sources: State agencies pitched in and so did prison inmates and schoolchildren—the prisoners cleaned Confederate gravestones and the students researched the biographies of the distinguished dead.
On that day there was little hint that aspects of the renovation had been controversial. But in any family there are tiffs and tensions, and the cemetery project had to live through—so to speak—its share of dustups. “I never knew a cemetery could be so political,” says a member of the renovation team who’d prefer not to be named because of, well, politics. “Dealing with death and politics was quite a challenge,” agrees John Grable of Lake-Flato Architects, the San Antonio firm in charge of the project’s design. Lake-Flato has taken some heat for creating the starkly dramatic Plaza de los Recuerdos, the circular stone plaza at the south end of the cemetery, near Seventh Street, that inspired the nickname Stonehenge on Seventh. During the selection of names to be engraved on the huge stones, old Alamo resentments and the voice of Janis Joplin rose up like ghosts. Even the choice of grass—buffalo versus Saint Augustine—was the subject of a minor tussle, with buffalo the eventual winner.
It makes sense, really, that politics should come into play at the sixteen-acre cemetery, which is located in a mostly black neighborhood east of the Capitol: It is the final resting place of 1,860 Confederate and Republic of Texas veterans, eleven governors, and hundreds of judges, legislators, and the like. Only elected state officials or members of state commissions with at least twelve years tenure (and their spouses) are eligible to be buried in the cemetery, although exceptions can be made by governor’s proclamation or legislative decree, as in the cases of writer J. Frank Dobie and historian Walter Prescott Webb. (A bill introduced in the Legislature this session by Senator Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin would broaden the admission requirements.) Such exclusivity makes the cemetery some of the hottest real estate in town—and according to its superintendent, Harry Bradley, there has been even greater interest in reserving plots since the renovation was announced. Already the toniest section of the cemetery, Republic Hill, which is anchored at the top by the tomb of Stephen F. Austin, is booked solid.
Getting into the cemetery is sort of like getting into a good suburban subdivision: Prospective residents come by to browse and check out what’s available, although choices are limited—each section must be filled before another one opens. No one can be bumped from a plot, though spaces open up unexpectedly, as was the case when the wife of a prominent politician filed for divorce and then made a point of canceling her reservation. Some prospective residents, like former legislator and judge L. DeWitt Hale, have not only reserved their plots but have already had their tombstones carved—except, of course, for the final date. “I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t add anything to it after I was gone,” he says. Plots are even being reserved by young politicians like State Representative Dawnna Dukes of Austin: As it now stands, Dukes will be the second African American female elected official to be buried in the cemetery (Barbara Jordan was buried there last year, next to Confederate brigadier general Benjamin McCulloch).
The state cemetery wasn’t always such a desirable final destination. It underwent its first face lift back in 1936 for the Texas independence centennial, when the bodies of a number of famous Texans, including governors James Pinckney Henderson and Peter Hansborough Bell, were brought from elsewhere and reinterred. At the time, the director of the renovation, Louis Kemp, had one of the roads in the cemetery declared a highway—a fortuitous move for the current cemetery renovators, who were able to apply for federal funds through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which is reserved for improvements to highways.
By 1994, when the renovation project was begun at Bullock’s instigation, the cemetery was looking rather forlorn. As he explained at the dedication ceremony in March, “I was out here on many occasions when I left feeling a little incomplete.” The first part of the project to be completed was a 150-foot flagpole; Bullock insisted upon having flags that could be seen from Interstate 35, if not all the way from San Antonio. The twenty- by forty-foot flags, which must be replaced frequently because of heavy winds, are sewn by inmates at prisons around the state and fly over the visitors center, an understated stone building reminiscent of the Alamo’s long barracks.
Raising the flags was a breeze, however, compared with flaps over the Plaza de los Recuerdos. “First we had people go up in smoke over the Spanish nomenclature,” says Andrew Sansom, the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which served as general contractors for the project. And “people panicked,” Sansom says, when the huge stones, retrieved from an old quarry near actor Tommy Lee Jones’s ranch in San Saba, first started going up on the south end of the cemetery. “They thought we were going to be sacrificing young politicians,” says one of the project’s coordinators. Then there is the plan to inscribe the stones with the names of memorable Texans buried elsewhere, which has been put on hold because of objections raised by legislators. The 610 names, chosen by the Texas State Historical Association, include those of Janis Joplin and Colonel Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, who served as an aide to Santa Anna, but there are also pillars of Texas history, government, the arts, science, business, and farming and ranching, from Samuel Augustus Maverick to Gus Sessions Wortham. Without the names, says architect David Lake, the stones remain “mute.”
In any case, it appears the controversies may be dying down. Already the cemetery is drawing three times the number of visitors it used to, and the beauty of the place seems to be winning out. On a recent spring day a few wildflowers had begun to poke up amid the buffalo grass, and the antique rose bushes planted around the iron gate near the columbarium were beginning to bud. A number of sightseers were walking through the cemetery, clutching pamphlets from the visitors center. A group of women paid their respects to Barbara Jordan, while a man and his son were tracing the inscription on John Connally’s tombstone.
“This place will affect you greatly,” says Harry Bradley, who initially resisted some of the changes. “I’ve seen people who tried to beat up on each other for twenty years in the Legislature come out here and wind up shaking hands.”