Approaching the awe-inspiring Texas Capitol, I always feel a little small—but in a good way.
Walking up the steps of the massive edifice of Sunset Red granite quarried in Marble Falls, I feel part of something greater than myself. I feel keenly that as a citizen and voter, I am a significant, albeit tiny, cog in the great wheel of government that affects our lives on a daily basis.
The feeling can be a little overwhelming, frankly, especially once you step inside the 1888 building and begin to see its historic treasures and the breathtaking rotunda that seemingly ascends into the near heavens. Fortunately, a knowledgeable corps of tour guides stands ready to lead visitors through the 125-year-old Italian Renaissance Revival statehouse, sharing information both fundamental and arcane.
For insight into the Capitol and its collection, I recently joined one of the free 40-minute tours offered throughout the day. We met in the Capitol’s southern foyer, where our guide introduced us to dramatic artworks on the walls and floor. One monumental painting by William Henry Huddle portrays Alamo volunteer David Crockett, and another Huddle work, measuring about 8-by-11 feet, depicts a captive Santa Anna brought before General Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto. Our guide pointed out the Cherokee blanket on which the wounded Houston reclined, noting that Houston lived with the Cherokee for a time as a young man and later advocated for Native American rights.
Passing from the foyer to the rotunda, we walked past life-size Italian-marble statues of Houston and Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” both sculpted by Elisabet Ney, a German artist who immigrated to Texas in 1872.
In the magnificent rotunda, we crane our necks to see a lone star on the ceiling of the dome, 218 feet above. Our guide used the “seals of Texas” on the floor to illustrate a thumbnail sketch of the state’s history. Installed on the rotunda floor during the Texas Centennial in 1936, the terrazzo seals represent the six sovereign nations whose flags have flown over the vast landmass north of the Rio Grande.
Our guide started with the Spanish seal, explaining that Spaniards first set foot in Texas in 1519, followed by the French, whose expedition arrived in 1685 under the leadership of explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. France, however, had not near the influence on Texas as Spain. Ultimately, the population of New Spain rebelled against the motherland in 1821, birthing the Republic of Mexico. With an eagle clutching a rattlesnake and perched on a prickly pear cactus, the Mexican seal illustrates an Aztec legend of the founding of Mexico’s capital.
The seal of Texas, the new republic that formed in 1836 after the Texians revolted against Mexico, contains a live-oak branch and an olive branch. Rounding out the six, the United States seal stands for Texas’ admittance to the Union as the 28th state in 1845, and the Confederate States seal, which sports a portrait of George Washington, represents the state’s rebellious hiatus from the United States from 1861 to 1866.
Around the rotunda’s circular walls, and climbing up a couple of ringed floors, portraits of former Texas governors and Republic of Texas presidents gaze silently upon the energized crowd milling about. Two of the state’s chief executives have been women—Miriam “Ma” Ferguson and Ann Richards. Ferguson was elected in 1924, not long after women gained the right to vote, and again in 1932. Governing was a Ferguson family tradition, as “Ma” followed her husband, Governor James “Pa” Ferguson, into the office after “Pa” was impeached for misappropriation of public funds. When Miriam ran for office, her campaign slogan was, “Two Governors for the Price of One.”
Up a grand cast-iron staircase, we entered the Senate Chamber. Original 1888 walnut desks sit in the chamber, microphones inserted in their former inkwells. Our guide explained that Texas has 31 senators who serve four-year terms. Each senator represents 820,000 Texans, and the lieutenant governor presides over the body. Senators vote by hand—one finger for yes, two for no, and three for “present not voting.”
Portraits in the chamber include a painting of Stephen F. Austin, one of only a few he ever posed for. Another painting captures the stern visage of Mirabeau B. Lamar, second president of the Republic of Texas, who moved the capital from Houston to Austin. Other portraits present the inspiring images of Barbara Jordan, the first African-American female Texas senator and later U.S. congresswoman, and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the only president born, raised, and formally educated
Dawn at the Alamo, a dramatic painting by Henry Arthur McArdle, also hangs in the Senate chamber, along with his Battle of San Jacinto. An Irishman born in 1836, McArdle spent decades researching his subjects after arriving in Texas. His Alamo painting, which is about 15 feet across and nine feet tall, depicts a frantic battle scene, including the ghostly figure of James Bowie waving his famous blade.
Our guide then led us across the building to the House of Representatives Chamber. The largest room in the Capitol, the chamber accommodates 150 representatives elected for two-year terms. The representatives’ original 1888 oak desks include an electric voting system that was installed in 1922. Behind the Speaker’s dais hangs the actual battle flag, depicting the lady of liberty, from the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, where Texas achieved its independence from Mexico. Portraits in the chamber include one of Sam Houston and his ubiquitous Cherokee blanket; an 1820s likeness of James Bowie, the oldest portrait on exhibit in the Capitol; and a portrait of Hunt County native Audie Murphy, the most decorated veteran of World War II. Murphy later became a movie star and portrayed himself in the 1955 autobiographical film, To Hell and Back.
Pointing out the chamber’s 1890 and 1891 chandeliers, our guide explained that the Capitol is believed to be among the first buildings in Austin to be electrified. Before descending a flight of stairs to the Capitol’s underground extension, we paused to admire the fine oak carving throughout the statehouse, and the brass handles and door hinges outfitted with lone stars and the state seal. Our guide also filled us in on the Capitol’s origins, recounting how Texas traded three million acres in the Panhandle to a syndicate of Chicago developers to build the Capitol—a $3.7 million construction project that took seven years. The Panhandle land became the world’s largest fenced cattle ranch of its time, the XIT.
The four-story extension is a marvel unto itself, considering it’s completely underground. At 666,955 square feet, the extension is twice the size of the Capitol building. The lower two floors hold parking, and the upper two provide office space for two-thirds of the state’s legislators, along with conference and committee rooms, an auditorium, a gift shop, and a café that’s open to the public. Completed in 1993, the extension features some of the same design elements as the original Capitol, including Sunset Red granite interiors and terrazzo flooring.
As the tour drew to a close, the group paused beside a sunken rotunda, open to the sky, that echoes the 1888 rotunda. We turned to gaze upward, looking through a skylight to see the northern face of the 300-foot-tall Capitol dome, topped by the 16-foot-tall Goddess of Liberty. Beholding the sight, the tour group’s oohs and aahs recalled the words spoken by Temple Houston, Sam Houston’s son, at the Capitol dedication in 1888:
“This building fires the heart and excites reflection in the minds of all. … It would seem that here glitters a structure that shall stand as a sentinel of eternity. … Texas stands peerless amid the mighty and her brow is crowned with bewildering magnificence!”