You drive by the State Capitol Building every day on your way to work in downtown Austin, and you’ve admired it a million times while exploring Central Austin, but how much do you really know about Texas’ governmental seat?

If your honest answer is, “Not much,” then don’t worry — that’s where we come in. These 10 facts can’t replace an in-person tour of the Capitol and its grounds, but they’ll definitely help to bring you up to speed.

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10.) THE CAPITOL’s Design was Selected Through a national design competition

texas state capitol building elijah meyers architect national design competition contest blueprints plans 1881 Elijah E. Meyers’ original Capitol blueprints. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When state officials aimed to build a bigger and better Capitol building in 1881, they figured the best way to choose an architect was to hold a national design competition. Eight U.S. architects entered the contest, but in the end, Detroit-based Elijah E. Meyers came out on top with his “Renaissance Revival” design, which he modeled after the National Capitol and 15th century Italian architecture.

9.) The Capitol is built of Hill Country limestone and granite

texas state library archives commission red granite hill country marble falls limestone Texas red granite. Photo: Texas State Library & Archives Commission, CC licensed

The Capitol’s original plans called for it to be built from native Texas Hill Country limestone, but all of the limestone that the builders could find contained high amounts of iron, which caused it to streak unbecomingly when exposed to air. Luckily, the owners of Granite Mountain Stone Design (now Coldspring) in Marble Falls were willing to donate enough “Sunset Red” granite to complete the outer walls, so the streaked limestone was used in the foundation.

8.) Texas paid the Capitol’s contractors in 3 million acres of public land

billy hathorn channing texas XIT Ranch Museum historic building ranchhouse headquarters HQ house farm cowboy cattle cows XIT Ranch’s old HQ in Channing, Texas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons user Billy Hathorn, CC licensed

Instead of forking over 3 million dollars to have the Capitol built, the State offered John and Charles Farwell, the project’s lead contractors, a 3 million-acre tract of public land in the Texas Panhandle. The range stretched across 10 counties from Lubbock to the Oklahoma Panhandle in a 30-mile-wide strip and soon became XIT Ranch, the largest cattle ranch in the world. In 1912, the last of XIT’s cows and land were sold, but memories of the ranch are preserved at the XIT Museum in Dalhart, Texas and at the ranch’s old headquarters in Channing, Texas.

7.) The cAPITOL HAS A PENCHANT FOR CATCHING ON FIRE

great capitol fire 1881 burned down The Great Capitol Fire of 1881. Photo: YouTube user Texas Capitol Visitors Center

Believe it or not, two of Austin’s three Capitol buildings have been scarred by devastating fires. We outgrew our first digs quickly — a tiny little thing built with Bastrop lumber — and so a larger Capitol was built in 1853 only to burn down in The Great Capitol Fire of 1881. By 1888, Elijah Myers’ masterpiece was completed, and for nearly a century, it stood strong… until an electrical fire in 1983 did some serious damage to the living quarters and official chambers.

This prompted an elaborate 10-year restoration and renovation project that included building the $75 million Capitol Extension (because what the heck) and replacing the 3,000-pound statue on top of the Dome by helicopter.

6.) When Our Current Capitol opened, Austin had a week-long party

texas state capitol dedication party week 1888 parade temple houston governor price daniel Austin’s 1888 parade to honor the Capitol’s completion. Photo: YouTube user Texas Capitol VC

On April 21, 1888, Texas pulled out all the stops to celebrate the completion of the Capitol and its opening to the public — parades, drill team competitions, military displays, band concerts, fireworks, and a multitude of ceremonies and speeches. Temple Houston, son of Sam Houston (who if you remember was not happy that Austin was selected as the state capital and even once tried to steal the State Archives away to Houston) accepted the building at the dedication ceremony.

“This building fires the heart and excites reflections in the minds of all,” said Houston. “The architecture of a civilization is its most enduring feature, and by this structure shall Texas transmit herself to posterity.”
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