Sunday, June 3, 2012

Texas' Capitol

I've loved this building since I was a small child.  I still love it.  I last visited it about 10 years ago with my brother. I remember being welcomed by a remarkably kind and very chatty state trooper standing guard at the entrance.  When we went in, we found that we had free reign of the entire building.  I couldn't help but contrast the friendliness and openness of Texas' capitol building with New York City's City Hall; a building still off-limits to the general public.  For all of Texas' abiding malfunctions, how delightful that its state government still takes that idea of "The People's House" so very seriously, unlike New York City.

The state capitol in Austin is an embodiment of everything that is so wonderful and so awful about Texas.  It's an exuberant monument  to all those people who suffered and died to make Texas built by convict labor, a terrible scandal then and now.

It is the masterpiece of eccentric Chicago architect Elijah Myers, the second of three state capitols he designed and built (Michigan 1872, Texas 1881, and Colorado 1885).  Myers is the only architect to design 3 state capitols, and the one he built for Texas is his largest and finest.
It is built in an allegedly Neo-Classical style, but in fact, it's a very eccentric and even downright crazy design in some respects.  It is a very eclectic Victorian interpretation of the US Capitol in Washington DC with a lot of extra little spikes, struts, and flanges that make no Classical sense, but are marvelous architectural fantasies in their own right.

The idea of combining a triumphal arch with a columned pediment goes all the way back to the Florentine architect Alberti in the 15th century.  But the discontinuities in Myers' design would horrify Alberti.  As crazy as this is, it works.  It's a grand entrance that transitions easily into the tall dome above.

The rotunda is very grand and impressive with its soaring interior, but has the confined feeling of standing at the bottom of a well.  A gilded star of Texas tops a coffered cast iron dome.  In fact, most of what we see toward the top is cast iron.

The present capitol was built to replace an earlier capitol building destroyed by fire in 1881.

The "Old Stone Capitol" in Austin photographed sometime in the 1870s.  At the time, it was never a very well loved building.  One local writer in Austin compared its dome to a corn crib topped by  a pumpkin.  I personally rather like it.  It was no Taj Mahal, but it was a nice Greek Revival design.

Fire destroyed this capitol on November 9, 1881.

The present capitol is built of native red granite from quarries near Marble Falls, Texas.  And it was in these quarries that the trouble started, enough trouble to delay the commencement of construction until 1885.

The trouble began with the decision to build the capitol out of this very fine, but very hard, native stone.  Governor John Ireland insisted on building the capitol from native Texas stone, and the red granite from Granite Mountain near Marble Falls was the best available.  Most of the rest of the central and eastern parts of the state sit on a bed of very friable limestone not suited for large scale building.  The cost of shaping hard granite would be so much more expensive than softer limestone.  The contractors, together with the Texas legislature, decided to save money by using convict labor, seen in the photograph above at the quarry opened near Marble Falls for the capitol construction.
With that decision, every stone cutter, and stone cutter's union and trade association in the country boycotted the capitol construction.  The contractor could find no skilled stone cutters anywhere willing to work on the capitol.  The contractors went to Aberdeen, Scotland to hire skilled stone cutters with the false promise of high wages and compensation for travel expenses.  Eighty six Scottish stone cutters crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York to find union representatives waiting for them who told them about the convict labor and the boycott.  Twenty four Scottish stone cutters promptly returned to Scotland, but 64 journeyed on to Texas.  They found very low wages and harsh working conditions, plus the contractor deducted the expense of their travel from their wages.  By 1887, only 15 Scottish stone cutters remained on the construction site.
The Capitol of the State of Texas was built with what could be described as slave labor in the quarries (significantly almost all of that labor was African American), and scab foreign labor hired under false pretenses.

Construction finally began with the formal laying of the cornerstone on March 2, 1885, Texas Independence Day.

Here are some photographs of the capitol's construction, the biggest construction project ever in the state at that time.

The last touch, the hollow zinc Goddess of Liberty photographed shortly before she was hoisted to the top of the dome in sections in 1888.  Maybe it's best that we see her from a far distance these days, because she is no masterpiece.

The Goddess of Liberty is not the only work of art in the building.  None of these are masterpieces, but some of these meant a lot to me when I was a kid.

Elizabet Ney's idealized statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin flank the entrance to the rotunda.  That a woman sculptor like Elizabeth Ney could have a flourishing career says something for the state.

Here is Elizabet Ney in her studio in Austin in 1875.  Texas, like New York, is a place where people come to make a new start in life.  She was an immigrant from Germany.  She, like most of the people who built Texas (and New York City), was from someplace else.  I've always argued that Texas is a much more complicated place than most people assume, including most Texans.  While Anglo-Texan culture dominates the state, it is far from the only show in town.  There is a large German population in the state, a large French population, towns settled entirely by Swedes, Dutch, and Czechs.  There is a very old Jewish Texas, and an even older and very distinct Black Texas.  There is a relatively new, but thriving Vietnamese Texas.  In a poignant irony of history, the first European settlers in what would become Dallas were a group of socialist utopians from France, Switzerland, and Belgium, followers of the writings of Francois Fourier.  They founded a settlement that they called La Reunion .
Mexican Americans form the second largest, and the second oldest population in the state (after the indigenous peoples destroyed or displaced in the 19th century).  The native Tejanos of San Antonio fought first against Spanish rule, and then later against the Mexican government.  The Tejanos were deeply committed to a Republic of Texas (perhaps more so than the Anglos who probably always had unification with the USA in mind).

The history of the state is summed up briefly in the terrazzo floor added to the rotunda in 1936, on the centennial of the Texas Revolution.  It shows the Lone Star with six emblems of the empires and regimes that ruled Texas since the 16th century.  Texas began as a very remote outpost of the Spanish Empire (and I suspect a hardship post for Catholic clergy and Spanish officers).  The French tried with some success in east Texas and along to coast to expand their claims from the Louisiana Territory into Texas at the expense of the Spanish.  Texas became part of Mexico when it won independence from Spain.  With the 1836 Revolution, Texas became an independent republic recognized by no one except France.  After losing Quebec and selling Louisiana, the French under King Louis Phillipe had imperial designs on Mexico, and Texas was a potential opportunity to return to North America.  Texas became part of the United States in 1845, a very bitter pill for the Tejanos to swallow; many would lose their lands and assets after the annexation.  This annexation and the tension it caused with Mexico created the opportunity for the United States to begin a war of conquest, the Mexican War.  Over the strenuous objections of then Governor Sam Houston, the state legislature voted to join the Confederacy in 1861 and secede from the United States.  Houston refused to sign the Articles of Secession and was removed from office to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.  Texas returned to the United States in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy.  It was under military rule until 1876.  Texas was a remote and poor state for much of the late 19th century embroiled in a very bloody war with the Comanches beginning with aggressive settlement of Comanche lands and broken treaties during the years of the Republic.  Texas became a major center of the cattle industry, and then later began its present life as an oil producer with the discovery of oil at the Spindletop Well in 1901.

These 2 very large paintings hang in the State Senate Chamber.  They are depictions of the Battle of the Alamo  (top) and the Battle of San Jacinto (bottom) by Henry Arthur (Harry) McArdle, another immigrant artist, from Belfast born to Irish and French parents.  These are the 2 formative battles out of which the Republic of Texas, and eventually the State of Texas, would emerge.  These paintings are in no way masterpieces, but us kids in Texas loved these pictures.  They are full of action, melodrama, and gore (sorta).
They are also racist as all get out.  Even us little suburban brats could see that back in the 1960s.  The Mexican soldiers look subhuman.  I've heard that Mexican American groups recently complained about the pictures, I think legitimately.  They proposed that the paintings be altered to make them less offensive.  I think a better idea would be to retire McArdle's paintings to a museum and commission new ones.  There's no shortage of artists out there who could make better, fairer, and more accurate pictures than these.  I think new paintings that don't piss off 44% percent of the Texas electorate is a much more productive solution than the standard Texas GOP tactic of keeping the large Mexican American population in the state divided and apathetic.

One final painting from the State Capitol is William Henry Huddle's 1886 painting of a rare act of decency in Texas' very violent history.  Again, this painting is no masterpiece, and everyone here is stiff and a little too well-dressed and scrubbed for the aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto. Sam Houston, lying on a saddle blanket with a bullet wound in the leg, receives the captured President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana of Mexico, dressed as a private in an attempt to escape.  To the right, "Deaf Smith" overacts his nickname.  In the face of angry demands to lynch the captured Mexican President, Sam Houston received the President respectfully, put him in custody (probably for his own protection), negotiated terms of surrender, and then ordered that he be given safe passage back to Mexico in exchange for the withdrawal of the Mexican military in the Treaty of Velasco.  Santa Ana's government fell while he was in captivity, and instead, he was sent to Washington DC.  He finally returned to Mexico in 1837.

Restorers removed the Goddess of Liberty in 1986 during an extensive renovation of the capitol.  The Texas National Guard used a big Chinook helicopter to try to airlift the statue to the top of the dome.  They gave up after 3 failed attempts.  Finally, they asked the Mississippi National Guard to assist with a suitable construction helicopter seen here.  The effort was successful, and the Goddess of Liberty raises her Lone Star once more above Austin.  Satirists, including Molly Ivins, had a Roman holiday with this episode of pride and humiliation.

An old postcard showing the Capitol dominating the town of Austin as I remember it when I was a kid.  I remember seeing the dome for miles before we entered the city on the Interstate.  Now, Austin is a good size city whose sprawl spreads housing developments and shopping malls over what was once the surrounding countryside, and tall office buildings now obscure the still formidable dome of the state capitol.


Gerrit reminded me of a certain opening scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which the State of Texas unknowingly re-enacted in 1986 with the Goddess of Liberty and a Mississippi National Guard helicopter.

As in art, then so in life.


JCF said...

Coming from a State Capital myself, I know how these things (State Capitols) help form one's sense-of-place, and imagination.* So, it's w/ my California bias that I say that the scale of Texas's looks all wrong to me. Too much of that "See how BIG!!1!1! we are!!!" Texas thang.

* Plus, my mom used to volunteer there as a docent, in period (1906, the Time of the Great SF Earthquake) dress. So now, when I think of the California Capitol, I also think of my history-lovin' mom.

Counterlight said...

I wonder if you read this. I don't recall discussing its size or its prodigality anywhere.

I did discuss the scandal of its construction extensively. Nowhere do I make any extravagant claims for superlatives for this building.

Counterlight said...

In terms of both size and hubris, the state capitol of Texas is but a match box compared to the average Manhattan skyscraper.

JCF said...

Geez, Doug, bad day?

You start by saying you love it. In comparison to the California Capitol, it doesn't do anything for me.

That's all I was saying. I certainly wasn't in any way questioning or putting down your historical scholarship (which is very interesting, per always). I enjoyed this post, and am glad I read it (this SHOULD be assumed, when I comment on your blog).

Hope tomorrow's a better (mood) day for you.

Gerrit Tijink said...

Heh. If Austin ever decides to create a Texan version of Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita', the opening sequence is there for the taking, I guess.

Greetings from Nijmegen

Counterlight said...

The opening scene of La Dolce Vita indeed. I'm sure there's a film out there of that Mississippi National Guard helicopter flying over Austin with the Goddess of Liberty set to that very sound track.