happened too far apart both physically and in time for anyone to declare
a jinx, but Austin has a
bad record when it comes to government buildings destroyed or heavily
damaged by fire.
The latest loss occurred during the pre-dawn hours of Sunday June
8, when the 152-year-old Governor’s Mansion sustained heavy damage
in a four-alarm blaze. A passerby who saw flames shooting from the
front of the Greek Revival-style structure just across from the Capitol
reported the fire at 1:43 a.m.
Designed by noted architect Abner Cook, the two-story, ante-bellum
house with its distinctive 29-foot columns has been the residence
of 40 of Texas’ 47 chief executives. It is the fourth-oldest governor’s
mansion in the nation, and the oldest west of the Mississippi.
Fortunately for posterity, all the mansion’s historic furnishings,
including Stephen F. Austin’s writing desk and Sam Houston’s bed,
had been removed for a $10 million renovation started last fall.
The State Fire Marshal’s office and federal agents are looking for
a suspected arsonist, someone seen on the mansion grounds in surveillance
video. State officials and history-minded citizens also are worried
about how an intruder could have entered a building under 24-hour
protection by the Department of Public Safety.
string of destructive public property fires dates to the fading days
of the Republic of Texas, during the administration of President Anson
About 2 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1845, someone noticed flames licking from
the Office of the Treasurer. The Capital City had no organized fire
department, and the structure and contents were a total loss.
Despite its lofty title, the treasury was an unimposing wooden structure
located off lower Congress Avenue near the Colorado River. And despite
rumors to the contrary, no money or valuable financial documents were
destroyed. Still, papers that would be considered historically significant
today went up in smoke.
The fire was believed to have been the work of an arsonist but sketchy
newspaper accounts don’t report that authorities ever identified the
next fire to break out in a government building in Austin
– the headquarters of the Adjutant General – also was intentionally
While only a handful of historians have ever heard of it, the 1855
blaze that destroyed the Adjutant General’s Department building in
the 700 block of Congress Avenue had a devastating impact.
As former Texas Ranger and historian John Salmon “Rip” Ford later
wrote: “The reports of many military officers were lost, without the
possibility of reproduction. For that reason it is almost impossible
in many instances to give exact dates of military happenings.”
The old Indian fighter understated the situation. What Texas lost
was much of its early history.
By legislative act in 1846, according to the Texas State Library and
Archives, “The duties which fell to the Adjutant General included
the issuance of all military orders; the maintenance of records of
appointments, promotions, resignations, deaths, commissions, etc.;
the receipt of monthly and annual returns, and muster rolls from the
various military units; the keeping of the records of general courts
martial; recruitment and enrollment of Rangers and militiamen.”
Most of those documents, dating back to the days of the Texas Revolution,
were reduced to ashes.
“Early on Thursday morning last,” the weekly Austin Gazette reported
on Oct. 13, 1855, “the office of the adjutant general was discovered
to be on fire, and in a short time the whole building was enveloped
in flames. Gen. [James S.] Gillett was barely able to save a few clothes.
All the records of the office…are destroyed.”
The newspaper went on the report that the fire had been the work of
an “incendiary,” another word for arsonist.
“The window of the office was found open,” the newspaper continued,
“and the fire appeared to have been built on the floor.”
The only good news the Gazette could report, and it is slim consolation
for historians today, is that the fire did not spread to the adjacent
building – the office of the Gazette.
While arrests were made in connection with the setting of the fire,
the state did not succeed in getting any convictions against the suspects.
Not only did the fire destroy the department’s records from the 1830s
to early 1850s, with no papers and no building, the state simply abolished
the office for a time. When the Legislature took no action to rebuild
the headquarters or fund the agency, Gen. Gillett got a letter from
Gov. E.M. Pease on Feb. 4, 1856 that “there is…no longer any occasion
for the services of an Adjutant General.”
The Legislature did not bother to reinstitute the office until 1860.
By that time, the state had a new office building for the General
Land Office, a relatively fireproof structure that still stands and
for years held most of the state’s surviving historical documents.
next major loss of public property in Austin
happened on Nov. 9, 1881 when fire left the limestone capitol at the
head of Congress Avenue a charred hulk. While state workers and volunteers
managed to save some of the documents in the building, much Texas
history again went up in smoke.
The only positive side of the blaze was that it destroyed an ugly
and cheaply built statehouse one newspaper writer called “the old
sarcophagus” and cleared the way – literally – for the present granite
in an incident with some similarities to the Governor’s Mansion blaze,
a fire that started inside a television set in the lieutenant governor’s
apartment in the Capitol on Feb. 6, 1983 (also on an early Sunday
morning) raged out of control for a time. If the Austin Fire Department
had not finally knocked it down, the fire would have gutted the then
Like the Capitol fire in 1881, the 1983 fire resulted in something
good: It led to a major renovation of the building, with particular
emphasis to fire control.
Ironically, the now-interrupted remodeling project at the Governor’s
Mansion included installation of a sprinkler system.
© Mike Cox
June 12, 2008 column
Texas | Online
Magazine | Texas Towns | Features
Mike Cox's "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900,"
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