A Capitol Idea!

Nestled in the rolling Hill Country Region of Texas, in the city of Austin, sits the Texas state Capitol building. Today’s sunset red granite building is a far cry from the Republic of Texas’ 1839 log-cabin Capitol building. A key feature of this early national Capitol was an eight-foot high stockade fence offering protection during Indian raids.

By 1853, the State of Texas had joined the Union and constructed a limestone State Capitol. The boxy building (with a roundish dome stuck on top) was a functional improvement; however, one publication of the time called it an “architectural monstrosity.” Nonetheless, it served as the Texas seat of government for over twenty-five years.

Following the Civil War, a Texas representative from Comanche, Texas proposed the state set aside five million acres of public land to raise money for a new capitol building. Ultimately, the Constitution of 1876 authorized the allocation of 3,050,000 acres of land in the Texas Panhandle for the project. A team of surveyors was dispatched to survey and divide the land into Spanish leagues—the measurement commonly used at the time. The huge swath of land selected stretched more than 220 miles north-to-south along the border with New Mexico and the width measurement from, east-to-west, varied from 20 to 30 miles. This land, to be set aside for fund raising, covered all or part of ten Texas counties.

In 1880, Texas officials held a nation-wide design competition for the new Capitol building, offering a $1,700 prize. The winning architect was Elijah E. Myers of Detroit.

In 1881, as the plan for using the Panhandle land to finance a new building was being finalized, the old capitol burned to the ground, giving the need for a new building greater urgency. Luckily, the architect’s plans for new new capitol were rescued from the fire. While planning for a beautiful new capitol continued, an inexpensive, temporary capitol was built on Congress Avenue away from the Capitol grounds.

In early 1882, the legislature appointed a Capitol Board tasked with both finding a financier for the project and choosing a contractor. The winning bidder for the funding project was Mathias Schnell of Illinois. Schnell turned his interests in the project over to a Chicago firm, Taylor, Babcock, and Company which formed the Capitol Syndicate and purchased the land  for $3,224,593.45.

The new landowners quickly decided to use the land for cattle ranching until they could see the opportunity to break it into parcels for sale and proceeded to raise funds in England by selling bonds for the ranch’s development and to recoup the cost of the land. The resulting ranch was named the XIT—purportedly standing for Ten-in-Texas—the ten being the number of counties which make up the ranch. It was the largest fenced ranch in the world. The ranch’s cattle were branded with the letters XIT and B.H. “Barbeque” Campbell from Wichita, Kansas was hired as general manager.

Meanwhile, back in Austin, the building contractor, Gustav Wilke, a young Chicago builder, went to work. Construction of the foundation began using limestone from South Austin. But, construction was quickly halted when metallic particles in the stone caused it to discolor. Fortunately, the owners of Granite Mountain in Burnet county donated the required granite—188,518 cubic feet of Texas Sunset Red Granite delivered to the Austin building site from Burnett County’s rock quarries on a railroad constructed for the purpose.

A boycott by the International Association of Granite Cutters over the use of prison labor resulted in 62 granite cutters being imported from Scotland.

On March 2, 1885, about three years after construction began, a 12,000 pound cornerstone was laid during a city-wide celebration. Cut into the cornerstone was a niche to hold a zinc box containing mementoes selected by former Governor F.R. Lubbock, then serving as State Treasurer. (I’ve not found information on just what those mementoes were, but I’m sure curious to know.)

Problems with dome design resulted in a feud with architect Meyers—who was no longer on the project as of September, 1886. The sixteen-foot Goddess of Liberty statue was installed on the top of the dome in February of 1888 and the Capitol was dedicated during a week-long celebration that attracted more than 20,000 people the following May. The city built special streetcar lines to bring the crowds to the celebration which included military displays, band concerts, drill team competitions, and fireworks. However, the final construction details weren’t completed until December of 1888.

When finished, the new Texas Capitol was the 7th largest building in the world, it stood tall and proud and was more than fourteen feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. The newly completed structure contained 392 rooms, 924 windows, 404 doors, and 18 vaults. The building measures approximately 566 feet in length, 288 feet in width, and rises 302.64 feet to the top of the star on the Goddess of Liberty statue on the dome. It is still the largest of all domed state capitol buildings.

At the new Capitol’s dedication ceremony, Senator Temple Houston, son of Sam Houston, accepted the building on behalf of the state, saying “This building fires the heart . . .the architecture of a civilization is its most enduring feature, and by this structure shall Texas transmit herself to posterity.” Senator Houston was right. The state Capitol, twelve years in the making, has become an important symbol . . .the public face of Texas.

As a final note, The Texas Capitol building continues to be improved. In 1926, a new terrazzo floor was installed on the first level and in January of 1993, the state unveiled a new underground extension which connects to the Capitol and four other state buildings. Lit by skylights, the extension contains hearing and conference rooms, an auditorium, cafeteria and even a gift shop.

If you haven’t been to the Texas State Capitol, this historic building is worth visiting. Entering it is stepping into 134 years of Texas’ history.

Thanks for listening. This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with Texas Brave and Strong, the best little podcast in Texas. Subscribe for notification when a new twice-monthly podcast is posted.

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Laurie is the author of the historical, Texas-based novel GONE TO DALLAS, the Storekeeper 1856-1861.  Available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and Ingram Spark.