The Texas State Capitol (1100 Congress Ave.) is the nucleus of Austin, both historically and visually. When you see the massive statehouse on the skyline, consider that it almost never was. Over a hundred years ago a tug of war between the cities Houston and Waterloo (Austin was initially named Waterloo) went on for years, and every so often the seat of the state capitol would shift between the cities. Austin eventually won the title of state capital, and this decision has since shaped the city’s development.
When the capitol building was first erected back in 1888 it was believed to be the seventh-tallest building in the world. Today it supposedly stands taller than the U.S. Capitol, a detail Texans are proud to point out. The interior of the capitol exudes a hushed dignity. Each component, from the grand marble pillars down to the door hinges, is an example of the fine craftsmanship of a bygone era. Old battle flags, sculptures, and portraits of historical figures and significant events in Texas history grace the entryways, walls, and legislative chambers, leaving visitors with strong visual images of Texas’s story. A large, colorful marble terrazzo covers the floor of the capitol rotunda, depicting the six sovereign flags that have flown over Texas and 12 battles significant in the history of the state. The rotunda is also home to portraits of all the Texas governors.
During the 20th century, as the state of Texas grew, so did its government, and the capitol became increasingly hard-pressed for space. Over the years quick fixes were made to accommodate the demands placed on the century-old building. Successive additions of new technologies like telephones, air conditioners, and computers, and the need for more offices, led to a maze of false walls and generations of wiring. No one was surprised when a fire broke out in 1983. The event highlighted the need for renovation and expansion. After 10 years of bureaucracy, funding woes, and architectural debate, excavation and construction finally started. In 1993, the underground expansion of the capitol was dedicated. The results of this project are truly a sight to behold. To build the 620,000-square-foot subterranean extension, nearly 700,000 tons of rock had to be removed, and a 130-foot-long, 32-foot-deep trench had to be dug through solid limestone to connect the original building to the new extension without harming the original foundation or structure.
Today, the opulent capitol and the beautiful surrounding 22-acre grounds are well worth a visit. The capitol is free and open to the public 7am-10pm weekdays, 9am-8pm weekends. Free guided tours are offered 8:30am-4:30pm Monday-Friday, 9:30am-3:30pm Saturday, and noon-3:30pm Sunday.
Capitol Visitors Center
If you’re itching for more information on the capitol, walk over to the Capitol Visitors Center (112 E. 11th St., 512/305-8400, 9am-5pm Mon.-Sat., noon-5pm Sun., free), at the southeast corner of the capitol grounds. Here you’ll find exhibits, a video presentation on the secret rooms and spaces in the capitol, and a salute to O. Henry.
Old State Capitol Building Ruins
Directly across from the capitol, at Congress and 11th, are the remains of Austin’s first state house, the Old State Capitol Building Ruins. There’s not much there but the original crumbling foundation and a cistern. It’s also where University of Texas classes were held back in the late 1800s.
Not too far from the capitol is the Governor’s Mansion (1010 Colorado St., 512/305-8524, 10am-noon Tues.-Thurs., free by reservation only). This Greek Revival-style house has been the home for every governor since it was designed and constructed back in 1856. Built with Austin-made bricks and timbers from Bastrop, this fine architectural work has survived years of politics, stuffy decor, and renovations. Today the mansion is the oldest standing public building in downtown, and is the fourth-oldest governor’s mansion continuously occupied in the United States. Over the years paranormal activity has been reported, and in plain English that means some have seen “dead people.” Some think it’s the ghost of Sam Houston, while others think it’s the ghost of a lovesick 19-year-old who shot himself in the guest room. The mansion suffered extensive damage from a fire in 2008 but reopened to visitors in 2013.