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.
10. The Capitol’s design was selected through a national design competition
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
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
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
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
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.”
5. There’s a badass lady with a sword on top of the Capitol’s dome
The Goddess of Liberty statue, which was installed on top of the Capitol’s dome by helicopter, stands almost 16 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds. She carries a gigantic sword and a golden star, symbols of justice and Texas pride. The original statue was made entirely of iron and zinc, but after being damaged in the 1983 Capitol fire, it was replaced with an aluminum replica and put on permanent display at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
4. The Texas Capitol is taller than the U.S. Capitol building
You know the saying — everything is bigger (and better) in Texas. Well, the size of our Capitol is just further proof that the statement is accurate! Boasting a height of over 300 feet, the Texas Capitol is the 6th tallest state capitol building in the United States and it dwarfs the National Capitol in Washington D.C. by more than 15 feet. We’ve got everyone beat by gross square footage, too (2.25 acres).
“When the Capitol was finished, it measured over 310 feet in height, had 392 rooms, 924 windows and 404 doors,” wrote the State Preservation Board on their Capitol History webpage. “It took over 1,000 people, including engineers, contractors, laborers and craftsmen, seven years to build at a cost of $3,744,600.”
3. No secret is ever safe in The Capitol’s Rotunda
Located beneath the Capitol’s dome, the Rotunda is a circular room outfitted with a spiral staircase that provides access to all of the various wings of the building. Folks love to visit the Rotunda to admire its intricate terrazzo mosaic flooring, the Texas Star that traces state history in its ceiling, and the portraits of past Texas presidents and governors that line its walls. Due to its location, the Rotunda is also a “whispering gallery.” Thanks to the echoes created by being underneath the dome, people in other parts of the Rotunda will be able to hear everything you say, so be careful what you discuss…
2. Elisabet Ney Sculpted Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin for the South Foyer
In the Capitol’s South Foyer, you’ll find two stately sculptures (one of Stephen F. Austin, “The Father of Texas,” and one of Sam Houston, President of the Texas Republic and eventual Governor) honoring important folks for their contributions to Texas history. But it’s not who the statues depict that we want to draw your attention to — it’s who made them. In the 19th century, Austin was home to a talented female sculptor named Elisabet Ney, who gained respect in her craft long before women were widely accepted as artists. Throughout her career, she not only sculpted Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, but also many other legendary Texans and world figures. We currently run a museum in her honor.
1. The Texas State Capitol is Most definitely haunted
Regardless of whether you believe in ghosts, there are numerous reports of ghost sightings at the Capitol. Visitors have supposedly seen and even exchanged pleasantries with famous politicians like Sam Houston, Edmond Jackson Davis, and Andrew Hamilton throughout the Capitol, as well as mysterious figures like the Dome’s “lady in red.” Check out USA Today’s coverage of Capitol hauntings from 2008 if you’re feeling skeptical about this.
To learn a whole lot more about the Capitol and its history, we recommend visiting in person. The State Preservation Board maintains a busy schedule of guided tours, as well as the opportunity for folks to tour the grounds independently and even virtually through their website.
Historical facts taken from the Texas State History Association’s “Capitol” essay by William Elton Green in The Handbook of Texas (source) and the online archives of the State Preservation Board (source) and Texas Escapes Magazine (source).
Featured photo by Flickr user Stuart Seeger, Creative Commons licensed.