This Day in Texas History: Ground Broken for New Capitol

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This Day in Texas History: Ground Broken for New Capitol

This Day in Texas History:
(from the Texas State Historical Association archives)

Ground Broken for New Capitol
February 01, 1882

On this date in 1882, building commissioners Nimrod Norton and Joseph Lee turned the first shovelful of dirt for the present Texas Capitol.

Construction was financed by the sale of three million acres of public land in the Panhandle, under the auspices of the XIT Ranch. The main building material is red granite from Marble Mountain, west of Austin.

The Renaissance Revival structure, for which the Capitol in Washington was the model, was dedicated in 1888. The total cost was $3.75 million. The cost of restoration in the 1990s was $200 million.

State Capitol Sunset

State Capitol Sunset

The present Capitol building is the fourth one in Austin. As a result of the need for a new Capitol, the Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres of land in the Panhandle to fund construction. In 1879 the Sixteenth Legislature provided for surveying the Capitol lands in ten counties of the Panhandle, and formed a Capitol Board as well as a building commission consisting of a “superintendent” architect and two building commissioners to oversee the project. After the completion and acceptance of the surveys in late 1880, the building commission announced a design competition for the new statehouse. Eight architects entered a total of eleven different designs in the competition. In May 1881 the Capitol Board approved the design entered by Elijah E. Myers of Detroit. The building commission then advertised for a contractor who would build the Capitol in exchange for the three million acres of public land. The state received only two bids: from Mathias Schnell of Rock Island, Illinois, and from Alfred Andrew Burck of Rockdale, Texas. Schnell received the contract but soon assigned three-fourths of it to Taylor, Babcock and Company, a Chicago firm that included Abner Taylor, Amos C. Babcock, Charles B. Farwell, and John V. Farwell. A few months later, Schnell signed over the rest of the contract to the same firm. Abner Taylor became the chief contractor but subcontracted the work to Gustav Wilke, a young Chicago builder.

The plans and specifications for the Capitol called for its construction of native limestone, but all of the limestone found near Austin contained discoloring iron particles. Abner Taylor proposed using limestone from Bedford, Indiana, but the Capitol Board and Governor John Ireland wished to use Texas stone, specifically red granite from Granite Mountain near the site of present-day Marble Falls in Burnet County. The owners of the mountain, George W. Lacy, William H. Westfall, and Nimrod L. Norton, offered to give the state enough granite for the building. Taylor initially refused to use the red granite because he believed the difficulty of working the stone would make it too expensive. In early 1885 subcontractor Wilke informed Taylor that it would cost much less to use donated red granite in a simplified style agreed upon by architect Myers than limestone with the extensive decorative carving originally agreed upon. However, Taylor kept this information a secret, and continued to assure state officials that he could not afford to use red granite because of its additional cost. Finally, on July 25, 1885, he signed a supplementary contract in which he agreed to use red granite for the Capitol if the state would supply it free of charge, share the “extra cost,” construct a narrow-gauge railroad from Burnet to Granite Mountain, and furnish convict labor to quarry the stone. Taylor also agreed to pay the state for the use of the convicts and to provide room and board for them.

After labor difficulties arose in 1886, stemming from the use of convict labor to quarry the granite, Wilke imported granite cutters from Scotland, in violation of the Contract Labor Act of 1885 (see CAPITOL BOYCOTT). In spite of such difficulties, work began on the Capitol dome in mid-1887 and the Goddess of Liberty was hoisted to the top of it in February 1888. The Capitol first was opened to the public on the evening of April 21, 1888, before its completion. The structure was dedicated during a week-long celebration lasting from May 14 to May 19, 1888, but the Capitol Board refused to accept the structure because its copper roof leaked and because of assorted other minor problems. After Wilke fixed the roof and corrected several other problems, the Capitol Board received the building on December 6, 1888. In 1882 the three million acres of land in the Capitol reservation was valued at $1.5 million. The total cost of the Capitol was $3,744,630.60, of which the state assumed about $500,000. A hundred years later, the lands exchanged for the Capitol had a tax evaluation of almost $7 billion.

The Texas Capitol is of Renaissance Revival design and was modeled after the national Capitol in Washington. At the time of its completion it contained 392 rooms, 18 vaults, 924 windows, and 404 doors. From the ground to the top of statue on the dome is 311 feet. In February 1983 a fire badly damaged the east wing of the Capitol and provided the impetus for a restoration of the building. A few weeks after the fire, the legislature formed the State Preservation Board. The first project of this board was to replace the figure of Liberty on the dome of the Capitol. In November 1985 the original Goddess of Liberty was removed by helicopter. A new statue, cast of aluminum in molds made from the original zinc statue, was placed on the dome in June 1986. The entire cost of more than $450,000 was raised from private donations. The original statue has been restored and is on exhibition on the Capitol grounds in a special structure built for it in 1995.

The Governor’s Public Reception Room, originally the most lavishly decorated space in the building, was restored in 1987. In 1988 work began on a masterplan to restore the Capitol and to build an underground annex north of the building. The legislature approved this plan in 1989, and work began in 1990. The extension was completed by January 1993. The restoration of the 1888 Capitol was finished in early 1995, and the structure was re-dedicated on April 21, 1995.



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