It is remarkable to have an enormous, beautiful building surrounded by more than twenty acres of green space located in the heart of a city. When you may enjoy both the grounds and the structure absolutely free it is better yet. We all know everything is bigger in Texas, and their Capitol in Austin is no exception. This is the largest State Capitol in the United States, and even though the Capitol in Washington D.C. is larger in terms of square feet, Texas towers over all, a full nineteen feet higher than even the Federal building.
Everything is enclosed within an elegant wrought iron fence resting on granite foundations. The iron is painted black with “lone stars” (the symbol of Texas) topping most posts. I was amused to learn the fence was originally constructed in 1890 to keep wandering livestock off of the grounds! Having recently moved back to Ohio, another interesting fact was learning the fence had been manufactured in my home state – at the bottom of many posts you see the “Buckeye” brand name imprinted.
A fair amount of folks recognize Buckeye as a nickname for Ohio residents in general and specifically as the mascot for our largest institute of higher learning, Ohio State University. Beyond that there are not many who know what a buckeye is. A buckeye is a tree from the same family as chestnuts, named because the nut resembles the eye of a deer. In my opinion the nuts are not particularly tasty and you need to roast them before eating to burn off the poisonous tannic acid they contain. Yes, I digress, but that is part of travel’s allure: our world is wonderfully interconnected and rambling about the planet allows you to appreciate this richness by constantly stumbling upon links in a very long chain.
Back at the Texas State Capitol, let us pass through one of the entrance gates and begin exploring. Simply strolling the grounds is a delicious way to start. Accommodated by spacious paved walkways, it is pleasant to relish this pastoral setting smack dab in the middle of a thriving city – somewhat reminiscent of Central Park in the Big Apple. The ramble here is enhanced by an astonishing array of monuments sprinkled throughout, paying tribute to many state heroes. There should be no surprise the first commemoration was raised in 1891 to honor the defenders of the Alamo. Unfortunately the obsession with murderous conflict seemed a major theme and I confess being taken back a bit by the numerous memorials to Confederate troops and personalities, although I do not believe any were added after 1915. The most recent addition is possibly the most wonderful: both for the artistry and the accolade. The Tejano Monument is a magnificent 275 ton granite and bronze memorial of Hispanic contributions to Texas. Unveiled in March, 2012, I found it refreshing to see homage paid to human beings who were not Anglo for a change.
In the southeast corner of the grounds there is a Visitor’s Center which apparently houses some nifty interactive exhibits (and a gift shop). Unfortunately I dropped in on a Saturday afternoon and this was closed by the time I discovered it. Unlike the Capitol, which you may tour until 10PM weeknights and 8PM on weekends, the Visitor’s Center buttons up at 5PM daily.
All that remained was touring the main attraction, but I had to walk past many more statues along the way to the Capitol building. In fact, I began to wonder whether I was the only person who had been a resident of Texas that had not been immortalized here in bronze!
There are three spots where you may get inside: the main entrance facing south and at the end of either wing extending east and west. You will need to be screened, which means passing through a metal detector, but since there is no need to queue up and purchase an admission ticket it moves quickly. Better yet, I found the security agents quite congenial and welcoming. Guided tours lasting 45 minutes are free, offered 8:30A – 4:30P weekdays, 9:30A – 3:30P Saturday and noon – 3P Sunday. While this would not be an option for me, I found the complimentary brochures highlighting self-guided tours provided intelligent direction as well as a wealth of quality information.
Though I entered via the west wing, the logical starting point is the South Foyer by the main entrance. Here a grand lobby formally welcomes you, beginning with a parade of Texas giants – life size statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston stand guard over canvases of Davy Crockett and the Surrender of Santa Anna at San Jacinto. From here you proceed to the rotunda and look up at the glorious vault – 218 feet over your head with a splendid eight foot Lone Star stretching across the dome. Gazing up the four levels you can see each floor is ringed with portraits: every past Governor (and the handful of Republic Presidents before statehood) is presented here and it is a pleasing accent to the interior panorama.
You are permitted to amble about all four floors and explore (an elevator is available in the lobby, but there are multiple grand stairways about). I recommend climbing up a bit to get a closer look at the Lone Star above (I did not notice TEXAS was spelled out between the points of the star from the ground floor) and down to the floor as well. At the bottom is a terrazzo mosaic displaying the seal of the Republic of Texas surrounded by flags of every nation which flew over the state (Mexico / France / Spain / USA / Confederate States of America).
I soon discovered I had not only forfeited the chance at a guided tour, but there was nothing open and so I basically trudged down very long hallways gazing upon pictures and portraits of lesser elected officials until my eyes glazed over. Eventually I chatted with a security guard who educated me there was a sizable underground complex. Once again the charm of travel reinforced how getting up close & personal lends insight – without this interaction I never would have known a tragic fire struck in 1983 and almost razed the entire building. Extensive damage resulted and subsequent diagnosis was the conflagration raged due to lack of space (i.e., a lot of paper crammed into small spaces). Over the next ten years the structure was restored and square footage almost doubled by building several stories below the surface.
It took me a while to find a stairwell that led down (did not seem to be any in the central part and I had to go to the very end of one wing to find one descending below ground level). Another monstrously huge collection of hallways with more pictures galore and unlike above, utterly abandoned. In the center were a few interesting displays of artifacts uncovered while excavating for the subterranean additions as well as exhibits honoring Texas citizens (rather than elected officials, lol). A bit haunting because it was so vast and empty of human beings beyond myself.
After I emerged with awareness of the massive underground complex I trudged to the point where I glimpsed daylight in the caverns and was rewarded with the view of a lovely atrium dropping down two stories. Very nice to know the employees who labor as moles can still gain easy access to daylight.
It is rare to be presented with the opportunity to tour such a splendid installation for no cost. Definitely pencil this onto your list when visiting Austin.