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Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Our first full day in Texas has Rob and me heading from Killeen to Austin, Texas' capital and a city with a reputation for great music, a swinging, modern culture, and an acceptance of individuality. A lot of its fame began when PBS channels began broadcasting Austin City Limits, and the music explosion began. Today it is a busy metropolis--somewhat high-tech and yuppie--causing complaints by artists forced to vacate their neighborhoods because of burgeoning rents.

We won't have time to plumb the music depths of the city this visit, but we'll be back. We are in Austin to learn about Texas.

In less than an hour's drive from Killeen we're in Austin at the State Capitol. This building is designated a National Historic Landmark, and it is an impressive example of Renaissance Revival style. Its Visitor Center was built in 1856 as the General Land Office, the oldest state office building in Texas. Unlike most Visitor Centers, this is also a wonderful museum--very hands on and diverse enough to offer an excellent and interesting history of Texas and some of its famous people.

Rob and I begin with a video about the 3 million acre XIT Ranch up in the Texas Panhandle, land sold by Texas’ government to finance the building of the Capitol. It says much about Texas evolution. In the screening room, we sit in rockers. The walls are lined with quilts, and it's a thoroughly relaxing and interesting atmosphere. The video runs 15 minutes, but there isn't anything that doesn't spark the imagination which is just the way it is in Texas—people with imagination doing remarkably big things. We immediately get the feeling that Texas sees itself as unique, and we're not sure Texans (born or adopted) aren’t right!

You can’t make this up: The Capital Lands that became the XIT Ranch were bought sight unseen by two brothers from Chicago. They developed it into a major cattle ranch, made money, paid back Texas, thereby financing the building of the Capitol building, and the XIT eventually was sold piecemeal to developers for homes, smaller farms and ranches, etc. The brothers, motivated by their imaginations, made great things happen. Leaving the screening room we've been drawn into the world of Texas possibilities.

Much of Texas’ land was distributed in huge grants to reward service during the war for Texas Independence. In one section of the museum are plats of these grants given to famous Texans--like Sam Houston, Juan Seguin, and William B. Travis. In a hands-on exhibit, we choose the name of one of these men and find and measure the tremendous acreage he received--many square miles of land. We take our visitor's certificate and imprint Texas' seal on it. Looking closely at the evolution of the state is very informative. It doesn’t take much to see where power lay.

Another exhibit—The O. Henry room--examines O. Henry, or William Sydney Porter, the short story writer famous for the classic Christmas tale of giving with love, The Gift of the Magi. O. Henry spent some time in prison for embezzlement. Working here in the Capitol, he committed his crime. He spent five years in prison and never returned to Texas! He ended up in NYC. Rob and I used to go to Pete's Tavern and sit in the very booth where he wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” In addition to this room, there is an O. Henry Museum in Austin, one in San Antonio where he also lived, and in New York you can visit the mews where he lived and had a view of the wall that inspired his story, “The Last Leaf.” Great short story writer was he, and a good traveler too.

Not part of the permanent exhibit was a display of the Texas-inspired water colors of painter Frank Reaugh. These beautiful pastels, pencils and paintings record hues and views uniquely Texas--the pinks of sunset on stone, the canyons and rivers, the majesty of the longhorn cattle at their watering holes. Very different from the boldness of Remington and other Western painters, these watercolors have a gentleness that exude the love Reaugh felt for his Texas Hill country, a subject he felt was ignored by other artists. Reaugh was also a diarist, writing about the source of his inspiration. He was a talented writer, and his reasons for choosing particular scenes to memorialize are beautiful to read. I was moved enough by his art and his writing to purchase some reproductions of his work for our home.

The State Flower is the Texas Bluebonnet. Of course we remember Lady Bird Johnson's movement to spread wildflowers across the country, but believe me, the Texas Bluebonnet is spread across Texas, and serendipitously, they are in bloom during our visit. Gorgeous. In the Visitor Center is a display of the Wildflower Movement, and there, as everywhere else we visit during our stay, envelopes of wildflowers are for sale. Leslie has spread them in her garden; down near Fredericksburg, TX, there is a Wildflower Festival the first weekend in May, and on RT 281 we pass a huge Wildflower Garden Center. We drive along roads rimmed by banks of color--not only the bluebonnets but also flowers in yellows, vibrant reds and maroons. Colors poking up through the green grass just put smiles on our faces. We’ll also see them in front of Lady Bird Johnson’s house—the Texas White House.

Finally we leave the Visitor Center and head up to the Capitol past the ancient cypress trees with their beautiful vertical bark and spreading branches. Because the number of people waiting for the tour inside the Capitol, we use the self-guided brochure we picked up in the Visitor Center. (BTW, there are self-guided tours of the areas around the spacious Capitol grounds but as it turns out, we run out of time to fully explore because we think visiting the LBJ Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus is an absolute must).

The Texas State Capitol is second only in size to the United States Capitol. But the most impressive part of the Capitol Building is the dome which is seven feet higher than the U.S. Capitol’s. The distance from point to point between the stars at the apex of the dome is eight feet. Texas big. On the floor directly beneath the dome is the seal, and if you stand in the center of the seal, your voice produces an echo. If you and another person stand on opposite sides of the seal, one can whisper or speak in a low voice, and the other person hears it clearly. It's pretty amazing. One of the guards comes over to demonstrate both feats. Very cool. On the walls are impressive paintings of former Texas governors, many of whom are very recognizable by name or reputation. Government is in session, and the atmosphere is bustling.

We decide to hurry on so we can take our time through the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, but we are really glad we spent as much time as we had in the Capitol Building. BTW, parking if free in a visitor's lot less than a block away and everything is handicap accessible.

It's probably safe to say that Capitol buildings should always be on a visitor's hit list as a way of getting a good feel for a place, but in keeping with Texas pride, this Capitol and its Visitor Center is one where the wealth of information gleaned makes it a definite stop as a destination.

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