JavaScript must be enabled to display this page properly.

Austin Treasures: Online Exhibits from the Austin History Center Austin History Center Home Austin Treasures Home

star border View of the Capitol from a distance Capitol Views View of the Capitol from a distance View of the Capitol from a distance star border
View of the Capitol from a distance View of the Capitol from a distance
Photograph of Granite Mountain in Marble Falls, Texas
The Texas Legislature instructed the supervising Capitol Board to construct the new state building of native materials which were readily accessible. Red granite from Burnet County's Granite Mountain (Marble Falls), was used for the exterior. [AR X.16 Caldwell H-5] enlarge image

Photograph showing quarry at Granite Mountain
Granite slabs were all channeled from the same area of Granite Mountain to ensure as consistent a color match as possible. A series of masts and booms, similar to those used at the Capitol site, were erected at the quarry to assist in loading the massive building blocks onto the waiting flatbed railcars. [PICA 06357] enlarge image

Photograph of convict labor loading granite onto railcars
In exchange for the Capitol Syndicate's willingness to switch from limestone to granite, the State agreed to provide up to 500 convicts from Texas prisons to work in the quarry. Flatbed railcars (visible to the right in this photo) transported the granite to the Capitol building site.[PICA 06358] enlarge image

Photo of Scottish granite cutters
When the Granite Cutters' International Union voted to boycott the Capitol project to protest the use of convict labor, contractor Gus Wilke imported sixty-two experienced granite cutters from Scotland. The Union successfully sued Wilke and fined him $64,000 plus court costs. Once the Capitol was completed the punishment was reduced to $8,000 plus costs. [C 00194] enlarge image

Photograph showing workers
Workers in the Dressing Yard near Granite Mountain. [PICA 06362] enlarge image

Photograph showing site of Capitol Building construction
The Capitol Building site in readiness. Landscaping and steps from the Old Stone Capitol are visible in the foreground, while the newly completed West Wing of the University of Texas' "Old Main" appears in the skyline. [C 00028] enlarge image

Photograph of Capitol Building construction site headquarters
This gingerbread cottage served as construction site headquarters for chief contractor Abner Taylor, a member of Taylor, Babcock and Company, the Chicago-based company that received the capitol contract. The firm was also known as the "Capitol Syndicate." [PICA 16647] enlarge image

Photograph of iron braces used in the Capitol Building's dome
Throughout the dome's construction, safety was a major concern. Three architects were hired to examine the work and several modifications were incorporated. Originally planned with a cast iron exterior and a brick lining, a system of iron braces was used to replace many of the bricks, and a wrought-iron framework was imported from Belgium with galvanized iron for the dome's outer shell. Although made completely of metal, the dome's exterior has been painted to match the building's granite facing. [PICA 27293] enlarge image

Design and Construction

A design for the Texas Capitol by Detroit architect Elijah Myers had been chosen through a nationwide competition in early 1881. The winning design was reminiscent of the nation's capitol. It also borrowed from the Michigan state capitol and the Denver, Colorado courthouse, both of which Myers also had recently designed. In addition to a $1,700 design prize, he was paid $12,000 to provide a complete set of architectural plans, detail drawings, and specifications by the end of the year.

Since cash was still in short supply and the state was determined to build a suitable monument, funding for constructing the new building had been arranged by the legislature through a trade: three million acres of "the Public Domain" in the Panhandle in return for the construction of a capitol. A Chicago syndicate with English financing obtained the contract. The syndicate received parcels of land as the Capitol was built, land which became the famed XIT Ranch, the largest ranch in the West. The value of the trade when the syndicate completed the new Capitol amounted to just over $1.00 an acre.

Groundbreaking took place on February 1, 1882, with total construction taking just over six years. At times as many as 1,000 workmen a day labored on the building. This included several hundred convicts from state prisons who laid rail lines and quarried stone. Sixty-two experienced stonemasons from Scotland were also brought in to dress the granite.

Local materials were specified to be used whenever possible and originally, limestone from nearby Oatmanville (now Oak Hill) was planned. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that upon exposure to air the limestone discolored and would not do for facing the Capitol. Red granite from nearby Burnet County was as close to home as could be agreed upon. So, in another trade negotiated by the Building Commission and the legislature, the state built a rail line to the new quarry site in return for all the granite required for the Capitol. Approximately 3,000 railroad cars (188,518 cubic feet) of granite were shipped to Austin over the next few years.

When finished, the Capitol was billed as the seventh largest building in the world. While this was certainly an overstatement, it did contribute to the grandeur of Texas' growing legend.

The building contained 393 rooms including a magnificent rotunda and dome that rose 311 feet high, seven feet higher than the nation's capitol in Washington. High ceilings, transoms, broad stairwells, clerestories, light wells, wooden shutters, and skylights provided the building with a fairly comfortable working environment, cooling and lighting the building by understanding and working with the Texas climate.

A variety of woods was used in the interior trim: Texas pine, as well as cherry, oak, cedar, walnut and mahogany. The floors were originally of ceramic tile, glass tile, or wood.

At the time of the building's design and construction, electricity was just beginning to be used and trusted as a reliable source of light and power. Although 3,200 gas jets were installed according to the plans, most were never connected. Temporary electrical wiring was installed for the dedication, but it was several years before the Legislature agreed that electricity would be worth the investment. They appropriated funding for permanent wiring one floor at a time.

The Goddess of Liberty (the "Old Lady") was raised to the top of the dome on February 25, 1888. The monumental statue had been cast section by section in the Capitol basement. She has overseen many changes to the landscaping of the grounds. Monuments have been erected, trees and bushes planted, and generations of squirrels well fed by picnickers. These enhance the building's setting and provide a popular park in the center of Austin. The original Goddess of Liberty is now on exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. A replica sits atop the Capitol dome.

Photograph of Capitol Building construction in progress
The granite work of the third floor is completed in this northeast view of the Capitol. Although the initial stages of construction attracted little notice, Abner Taylor found it necessary to erect a fence around the project once Austinites began to follow the building's progress more closely. [PICA 27292] enlarge image

Photograph of Capitol Building construction in progress
Construction workers supervise the placing of a column over the Capitol's north entrance. Ten derricks, with sixty-five-foot masts and fifty-foot booms, were erected at the building site. Each could carry up to ten tons from the railcars to any part of the outside walls. [PICA 06368] enlarge image

previous page next page

Exhibit Overview Early Austin Capitols Design and Construction Dedication Ceremonies The Capitol in Use The Capitol in Perspective