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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Texas State Capitol No. 1

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The story of a civil engineer from San Antonio who earned less than the value of a good mule for designing a new capitol for Texas and whose efforts came to nothing shows that cheaper is not always best, at least when it comes to constructing public buildings.

Since statehood, the Legislature had continued to meet in the original wooden Capitol built by the late Republic, but lawmakers realized they needed a new building badly. On November 11, 1851, the Senate adopted a resolution asking that Governor Peter Hansbrough Bell "obtain from some competent architect or master builder, a plan of a building for a State Capitol." The state house, the resolution stipulated, should be constructed of brick or stone "on as cheap a plan as practicable."

Three days later, Francois P. Giraud, a civil engineer in San Antonio, received a letter from the Governor's office asking if he might be interested in the project. Interested indeed, Giraud left for Austin almost immediately. Meeting with the Governor, he later recalled, he "was told...to make a plan for something [in the way of a statehouse] which would be a credit to the State."

Giraud stayed in Austin about a week, "getting the necessary information respecting quarries &c," then returned to San Antonio and began drawing plans for "a fire proof building...with an iron dome...estimated to cost $355,000."

The engineer apparently stayed so busy that he neglected to keep the Governor up to date on his progress. On December 20, Executive Department secretary Charles A. Harrison wrote Giraud that "Some of our Honorable Senators are becoming fidgetty [sic] about the plan and estimate for the State Capitol. I therefore told His Excellency that I would write to you by this Evening's Mail on the subject." Harrison, who must have met Giraud's family when he came to Austin to talk with the Governor, added, "I hope Mrs. Giraud and family as well as yourself enjoy good health. I request you to present my best remembrances."

Five days into the new year, on January 5, 1852, Harrison wrote Giraud somewhat less cordially that "the Senate are [sic] very anxious to obtain as soon as possible the plan and Estimates for the Erection of the State Capitol. Please answer this by return mail and oblige."

Giraud delivered his drawings three days later, but the "fidgetty" Senate soon decided it did not like Giraud's vision of a new Capitol. And Giraud definitely did not like the Senate's reaction to his $350 bill for services rendered. The body appropriated only $100 in payment. A year later, in a petition arguing for payment of the rest of his fee, he wrote, "The Senate appropriated...$100 for my plan of a building costing $355,000 and then voted $500 for the plan of a building which was to cost only $100,000." Giraud's claim went to the Senate Finance Committee, which forwarded it to the Select Committee, which…declined to pay the bill.

The San Antonio engineer and the State of Texas both would have been better off if the Senate had opted for Giraud's plan. As Giraud pointed out in his defense, Texas ended up spending five times as much money to buy plans for a cheaper building. Those drawings were made by John Brandon, a carpenter. Even Brandon later said he was paid $500 for a $60 plan.

As construction proceeded, Brandon's plan, which had taken him only three days and three nights to complete, was modified as corners were cut. Allegations later arose that some of the money saved in the construction of the Capitol did not make it back to the state treasury, but nothing ever came of a legislative investigation.

A young man named Wende, a recent immigrant from Germany, was a journeyman bricklayer and stonemason paid $50 a month by the contractor building the new Capitol.

"The building started in the Spring of last year and, with the auxiliary buildings, which are also of stone, will take until Easter of this year," Wende's wife Agnes wrote her cousin in 1854. "Much is spent on it because it is meant to be the same as in Berlin the 'Session' Building....I believe Austin will become, in time, a Posen and Berlin."

But when it was completed at a final cost of $150,000, the Texas Capitol stood not as a monument to the state but as an example of what can come out of a committee: a Greek Revival structure lacking any classical grace. One writer later said the Capitol--with a dome too small for the three-story building it sat on--looked like "a corn-crib with the half of a large watermelon on top of it."
Texas State Capitol First Building - Austin Texas old photo
First Texas State Capitol Building
Vintage Photo Courtesy Texas State Library And Archives
© Mike Cox - April 12 , 2007 column
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