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.
Completed in 1888 as the winning design from a national competition, the Capitol's style is Renaissance Revival, based on the architecture of 15th-century Italy and characterized by classical orders, round arches and symmetrical composition. The structural exterior is "sunset red" granite, quarried just 50 miles from the site. Additional structural support is provided by masonry walls and cast iron columns and beams. The foundation is limestone. Texas paid for the construction not in dollars, but in land: some three million acres in the Texas Panhandle that would later become the famous XIT Ranch.
An extraordinary edifice by any measure, the 1888 Texas Capitol is the largest in gross square footage of all state capitols and is second in total size only to the National Capitol in Washington, D.C. Like several other state capitols, the 1888 Texas Capitol surpasses the National Capitol in height, rising almost 15 feet above its Washington counterpart.
The Texas Capitol is an extraordinary example of late 19th century public architecture and is widely recognized as one of the nation's most distinguished state capitols. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 for its "significant contribution to American history."
CAPITALS. Valladolid, the administrative center of Spain before Madrid became capital in 1551, and Madrid and Paris could be considered capitals of Texas under the competing claims of Spain and France. Mexico City could also be considered the first capital of Texas, since at the beginning of Spanish Texasqv there was no intermediate provincial capital of the area. Ysleta, said to be the first settlement in Texas, had Santa Fe, New Mexico, as its capital. Monclova, Coahuila, Mexico,qv became the first provincial capital of Texas in 1686. In 1721 the Marqués de Aguayoqv established headquarters at Los Adaesqv (present Robeline, Louisiana), which remained the capital of Texas for half a century. From 1772 until 1824 San Antonio was the seat of government, although Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamanteqv made his headquarters in 1806 in the Old Stone Fortqv at Nacogdoches; in 1810 Manuel María de Salcedoqv had his headquarters there for three months.
After the Mexican War of Independence,qv Texas was united with Coahuila, with Saltilloqv as the provincial capital. On March 9, 1833, Monclova was made capital of Coahuila and Texas.qv The Department of Texas had become a subdistrict of the province, and San Felipe de Austin was named the capital of the colony of Texas in 1824. Therefore the conventions of 1832 and 1833qqv met at San Felipe, as did the Consultationqv of 1835, which organized a provisional governmentqv for Texas as a separate Mexican state. Mexico did not recognize the separation. The Convention of 1836,qv which declared Texas independent, met at Washington-on-the-Brazos. Harrisburg and Galveston were both occupied by President David G. Burnetqv as temporary capitals, and after the battle of San Jacinto,qv Burnet and the cabinet met at Sam Houston'sqv headquarters near the battlefield. The government then returned briefly to Galveston before moving to Velasco, which served as the seat of government through the end of September 1836.
In October 1836 Columbia (now West Columbia) became the first capital of an elected government of the Republic of Texas.qv Columbia remained capital for three months. Houston was then selected as a temporary capital, and President Sam Houston ordered the government to move there on December 15, 1836. Houston was capital from April 19, 1837, until 1839. A capital-site commission selected a site near La Grange, Fayette County, in 1838 and Congress passed a bill to build the capital there, but Houston vetoed it. Waterloo, soon renamed Austin, was approved as the capital on January 19, 1839. President Mirabeau B. Lamarqv and his cabinet arrived in Austin on October 17, 1839.
Fearing an attack on Austin by the Mexicans, President Houston ordered the government to return to Houston on March 13, 1842. Washington-on-the-Brazos became capital by executive order in September of that year, and the order spawned the Archive Warqv when President Houston attempted to move the archives from Austin. The Constitution of 1845qv provided that Austin be capital until 1850, when a vote was required to choose the permanent capital. Austin received 7,674 votes, a majority. Another election was scheduled for twenty years later and held in 1872. Austin won with 63,297 votes, compared to Houston's 35,188 and Waco's 12,776.
And that’s just the way it is.