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 Texas : Architecture : Statues : Austin

The Capitol Goddess
Austin, Texas

or
What's a girl like you doing on a Capitol like this?



by Brewster Hudspeth

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Goddess of Liberty up close
The Goddess up close

Photo Courtesy TxDoT
The statue that sits atop the Capitol in Austin is something of a mystery. Her name, origin and even the material she's made of have been debated for years. No one can say with certainty if she is a Goddess of Wisdom, Justice, Victory - or even if she is a “Goddess” at all. No woman ever stepped forward to claim posing for the statue and when the statue is observed up close - it become very clear. The "strong" features were intentionally exaggerated to make her appear "normal" when viewed from below. She's quite startling when viewed up close.

Over the years there have been several men who have claimed that a female ancestor of theirs had the honor of posing. (No woman has made such a claim.)
Texas State Capitol and Goddess
Goddess of Liberty in front of the Texas State Capitol
Vintage Photo Courtesy Texas State Library And Archives
The Drunken Ride of Tom the Stonemason

While the Capitol was still under construction, a stonecutter named Tom Vorshardt claimed it was his wife's face that was cast. Tom was said to be related to the partners that had cast the statue; so it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Several controversies were swirling around the building during this time. Things like using free convict labor and the importing of skilled Scottish stonemasons. Tom wasn't a convict or Scottish. He would've, however, become a Scottish convict - if it meant a job. What Tom was - was unemployed. When he couldn't get hired he got mad and then set out to get even. One night, mounting his reluctant steed, Tom rode off to steal the statue. That would show them!

While he might have been a crackerjack stonemason, Tom wasn't very good with physics. He managed to tie a noose around the statue’s neck and then tie the other end of his rope to his saddle horn. He then rode off on a trip that lasted exactly as long as his rope. Tom was still spitting out Capitol lawn when the police arrived and arrested him for riding under the influence, attempting to steal a goddess and using vile language against convicts and Scots. Tom produced a photo of his wife to prove his claim. This didn’t explain why he tried to steal the statue or what he’d planned to do with it. Surely Austin pawnbrokers would be notified. A resemblance between his wife and the statue was noted and the police sympathized with him all the way to headquarters. One of the wags (who always seem to be on hand for incidents like this) stated "the goddess was prettier.”


A Very Tall Tale

Another Austin legend has it that one dark and stormy night the goddess somehow became dislodged. She lost her balance and was hanging on to the dome by one lone bolt – and a rusty one at that. This fanciful story has her being rescued by firemen, fraternity brothers from UT and just plain patriotic Austinites that just happened to be in the neighborhood. Republicans and Democrats were united in a common effort to save the damsel in distress. They climbed upward into the black night, fighting wind, lightning and golf balls the size of hailstones to secure the robed statue. Or should that be hailstones the size of golf balls? Anyway, there's not a lick of truth to it. Especially the part about Republicans and Democrats working together.

Her origin has been suggested as Belgium, France, Spain or Chicago. It seems a foreign birthplace might explain that face. Another legend says that an older sister lies in a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. This one, the legend says, is an insurance company replacement sent a year later. Who knows?


Some assembly required?

Some say that the statue was cast right there on the Capitol grounds, while others say she arrived in pieces and was assembled on site. Another source says she arrived in one piece on a specially built wagon - and there may be a photo proving that story.


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Goddess of Liberty replica
The only known miniature statue.

Courtesy Harold Bell and Family
The Late Harold Bell of Decatur, Texas was observant enough to recognize a miniature of the statue at a Wise County foundry a few years ago. He bought it and took it home - where it sits in a place of honor. Originally the miniature statues were to be mass produced and sold to patriotic Texans. There is little doubt that the 14-inch casting is related to the original, although on this one the facial features have been softened somewhat - so as not to frighten children.

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Intallation of Goddess of Liberty  on Texas State Capitol
The attempt at reinstallation in the mid 1980s).

Photo courtesy TxDoT
Bee-stung lips?

A restoration of the Capitol in the mid-1980s cleared up at least one point concerning the statue. It was finally determined that she was zinc. Other discoveries revealed her head had once held a hive of bees with her generous nostrils providing entrance and egress. Another discovery was a still-readable 1888 newspaper.

After sandblasting, primer and paint, the goddess was ready to ascend back to her beautiful perch - not an easy project. The National Guard Sikorsky Skycrane that had taken her down was supposed to put her back in place - but the last phase was much more difficult than the first. High winds extended the 20-minute operation to multiple tries over the next three days. Austinites held their breath and the drama saturated local news. Just ask any Austinite where they were "the day the goddess returned." Chances are, they'll answer: "Goddess? What Goddess?"

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Texas State Capitol building, Austin, Texas
Goddess of Liberty sits atop the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Photo by John Troesser 9-04
© John Troesser

Bibliography:

  • Article: The Capitol’s Lady by Audray Bateman, The Texas Folklore Society ed. By Francis Edward Abernethy, E-heart Press, 1981
  • Interview with Harold Bell, Decatur, Texas, January 2003
  • Texas Highways Magazine

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    This page last modified: February 7, 2011