Texas State Capitol

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Capital History of Austin/Texas State Capitol
Austin History Center
Written By Austin History Center

The Austin History Center's mission is to procure, preserve, present and provide the historical records that make up Austin's unique story.

This impressive structure, designed by Elijah E. Meyers, has been home to the Texas Legislature and Office of the Governor since it was built in 1888. It replaced the previous State Capitol building, which was built on the same site in 1853.

The story of how Austin became the capital of Texas goes back to 1837, when Texas, having recently won independence from Mexico, was a republic of its own. During a buffalo hunting trip, Mirabeau J. Lamar, a hero of the War of Texas Independence and Texas' first vice president, visited the area known as Waterloo on the north bank of the Colorado River. 

Lamar asked Edwin Waller, another leader in the Texas Revolution, to survey the area and draw up a plan for Austin. That plan included streets laid out in a grid and a wide boulevard (now known as Congress Avenue) leading to the Capitol building. The Legislature bartered for the land, granting the owners a huge parcel in the Texas panhandle area that would later become the XIT Ranch, the world’s largest cattle ranch. 

 In 1839, after Lamar became the second president of Texas, the Texas Congress established a commission to choose a site for a new capital, to be named after Stephen F. Austin. Austin, who is often called the “Father of Texas,” led the largest migration of English-speaking settlers to Texas in 1825, won critical battles as a leader in the War for Independence, and served as the republic’s first Secretary of State. At Lamar’s urging, the commission chose Waterloo, which was renamed Austin. 

The original capitol building on this site was completed in 1853 but damaged by a major fire in 1881. The job of designing a new, larger capitol went to Detroit-based architect Elijah E. Meyers, who had previously designed the Michigan State Capitol and would later design the Colorado State Capitol. (Along with Charles Bulfinch of Boston, he is one of two architects with three state capitols on their resumes.) However, Meyers was known for being difficult to work with and was involved in several litigations related to his work. In 1886, the Texas board overseeing the Capitol fired Meyers and hired Chicago-based architect Gustav Wilke to complete the project. 

The original plan was to build the Texas Capitol from native limestone, like many other famous Texas buildings, but the limestone in the Austin area contained discoloring impurities. Texas Governor John Ireland suggested using red granite from Granite Mountain in Marble Falls, TX. The owners of the mountain offered to donate the stone, but cutting and moving it would be expensive. When the state agreed to use convicts to do the work, they drew anger from labor organizations. This eventually led to a boycott, after which stonecutters from Scotland were recruited for the job. After this, Wilke was charged with violating federal laws regarding importing foreign labor according to testimonies from the stonecutters claiming they were misled about the wages and working conditions. Wilke pled guilty to the charge.

The building is considered an example of the Renaissance Revival style that was popular in the late 19th century. It is reminiscent of the US Capitol with its large rotunda, though the Texas Capitol is slightly taller. This rotunda is made of cast iron and sheet metal and topped with a statue representing the Goddess of Liberty.

Cover photo: heirferrer via Instagram.

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Capital History of Austin

Texas State Capitol

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