State Capitol

Originally published in , 1986, University of Texas Press

Across the lawn from the Governor’s Mansion the old Greek Revival capitol building of 1853 was badly gutted by fire in 1881 and, with little regret, demolished to make way for a much larger and grander capitol building at the terminus of Congress Avenue. The first capitol had always been too small and timid to live up to its focal location in the city plan. The state resolved in its second effort to create a suitable crown for the capitol hill around which Austin was, by then, rapidly developing.

A competition process had, in fact, already been set into motion a year before the old capitol building burned, in which plans and specifications were solicited for a new building. Although the competition had been publicized in major newspapers nationwide, its naive and demanding requirements resulted in only eleven entries. Aided by consulting architect Napoleon LeBrun of New York City, the Capitol Commission, sponsors of the competition, selected the entry by Elijah E. Myers of Detroit. Myers was immediately summoned to Austin, where, after agreeing to some modifications suggested by LeBrun, he was appointed design architect for the Texas State Capitol.

Myers was a fortuitous ‘ selection for the project. He was a prolific public building designer who built numerous courthouses and city halls in the Midwest, the Far West, and the South as well as state  capitols in Michigan, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Texas. Forty-eight years old at the time he received the Texas commission, Myers had risen from a modest beginning as a Philadelphia carpenter to become one of the leading architects of America’s Gilded Age.

Selection of a contractor for the project, like selection of the architect, was handled in an unconventional manner by the state’s Capitol Commission. Payment was to be made in land, so that the award was given to the contractor who required the smallest quantity of three million acres of state land in the Panhandle that had been set aside by the legislature for the project. The commission received only two bids in response to their unusual terms, the lower one coming from Mattheas Schnell of Illinois, whose interest was more in the land than in the construction contract. After some negotiation, Abner Taylor of Taylor, Babcock, and Company in Chicago was brought into the deal to act as contractor of record. The land transfer and development resulting from the Capitol contract provoked a series of events that are at least as intriguing as the story of the Capitol itself – events which eventually included the creation of the famous XIT Ranch.

The construction of the capitol building was not a smooth process. Shortly after work began in late 1883 the state’s superintendent on the project, R. L. Walker, complained that the local limestone that had been selected for the project was imbedded with pyrites (a pale yellow mineral commonly known as “fool’s gold”), which would disintegrate when exposed to air and streak the cream-colored stone. The contractor subsequently submitted a sample of similar, but clearer, limestone from a quarry in Bedford, Indiana. This, however, was deemed unsuitable by Governor John Ireland, who insisted that such a selection would be contrary to the state’s policy of using Texas materials wherever possible. The governor favored the use of Texas red granite, and popular sentiment supported his opinion.

The contractor estimated that use of the much harder and more difficult-to-work granite would cost an additional $613,865, or 20 percent more than the original bid for the building. No such funds being available, the legislature was called into special session but adjourned without making an additional appropriation. A compromise was finally reached when, in mid-July 1885, the contractor proposed to build the building of granite if the state would furnish a quarry free of cost and provide convict manpower to operate it. In addition he asked that three porticos be eliminated from the design and that detailing of the stone be simplified to reflect the change of material. The state agreed to the terms and Myers begrudgingly made the necessary design changes in early 1885, changing the orders of the building from the complex Corinthian to a simpler modified Doric.

The state and Myers, during the same period as the stone controversy, began to have a falling-out. The contractor complained in early 1885 that there were defects in the plans as drawn. Unpleasant accusations were exchanged between the state and its architect, which led to visits by Myers to the job site and eventual deviations from the original drawings. Additional complaints continued to surface, and in February 1886 the Capitol Commission charged Myers with a long list of defects, evasions, and questionable motives, listing nine items in his plans which were deemed to be “either impractical, insufficient, defective or unsafe.” The attorney-general was directed to place Myers’ bond in suit, and the architect’s involvement with the project was terminated.

Despite these and other problems, involving labor disputes, structural redesign of the dome, and complaints against the contractor on completion over roof leaks and basement drainage, the building was accepted by the state and dedicated on May 18, 1888. The result of seven years of strained relationships was a magnificent edifice which immediately became a great credit to its creators. The populace of the state received it warmly, charmed by its classic configuration, its elegant proportions, its massive, rusticated walls, and its dramatic balconied rotunda. Much to his Texas hosts’ satisfaction, magnate Jay Gould deemed it “the finest building in the world – certainly the finest I have ever seen” when he visited Austin shortly after its completion (Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 1955, p. 427).

Temple Houston, Sam Houston’s son, noted at the Capitol dedication that “the architecture of a civilization is its most enduring feature, and by this structure shall Texas transmit herself to posterity” (Texas Legislative Council, The Texas Capitol, Symbol of Accomplishment, 1967, p. 64). Judging by the building’s endurance as a potent symbol of the state for a full century, his prediction seems likely to prove true.

Thinking about Texas Architecture
Originally published in , 1986, University of Texas Press