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Destination Texas: Exploring the State Capitol grounds

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — One trip to the Texas Capitol will leave the gigantic structure and sweeping grounds burned into your memory, and the next time you visit, you’ll still find something new you hadn’t noticed the last time.

It’s an iconic landmark — and Texans like to boast it’s taller than the U.S. Capitol — but beyond the big building, the Texas Capitol grounds make up more than 20 acres in central Austin.

“The Capitol grounds are a wonderful gathering place for not only the people of Austin, but really the people of Texas,” said Ali James, the Capitol’s curator.

James also serves as director of visitor services for the State Preservation Board, which is the agency tasked with preserving, restoring and maintaining the Capitol complex.

ali james 2 texas capitol curator
Ali James, the Texas Capitol Curator and director of visitor services for the State Preservation Board, stands on the Great Walk south of the statehouse on May 15, 2020. The grounds feature more than two-dozen monuments. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“The grounds are really something that provide much more of a 24/7 chance to visit the Texas Capitol,” she said. “As you can imagine, the Capitol is not always open to the public, and so the public can come to the grounds and you’ll see a lot of folks having a chance to picnic here, having a chance to run around and play games, really a nice place for families and for friends to gather and just take in kind of the beautiful trees and all of the kind of flora and fauna that you see here.”

More than 180 native trees grace the grounds. The first monument erected at the Capitol is the Heroes of the Alamo Monument, paying tribute to those who fought and died at the 13-day siege during the Texas Revolution. It has stood since 1891. The newest monument was erected in 2018 and recognizes the sacrifice families of fallen veterans make, particularly since the Global War on Terror started in 2001. That memorial is called Price of Liberty.

Nearly half of the monuments honor soldiers and veterans, including those who took part in the Vietnam War, Korean War, World War I, World War II, the Spanish American War and the Civil War.

texas pioneer woman monument
A monument outside the Texas Capitol depicting a young pioneer mother with a baby on her arm commemorates the pioneering women of early Texas. (Nexstar Photo/Andrew Choat)

Others pay tribute to the state’s different cultures and contributions. Two built in 1998 commemorate the pioneering women of early Texas and celebrates the youth of Texas. The Tejano Monument was erected in 2012 and the African American History Memorial was finished in 2016. Others recognize the state’s first-responders, including peace officers.

James has a soft spot for the cowboy monument.

“I do love this monument for a lot of reasons,” James said. “Not only is it a female artist working in Texas in 1925, I think that the Texas cowboy monument really is a nice embodiment of kind of what Texas has been and what Texas will always be.”

Some come with controversy. The Ten Commandments Monument survived a court battle over the separation of church and state. Others acknowledge Confederate soldiers.

“Texas has had six different flags that have flown over it, so you certainly have a lot of different standpoints, different points of view.”

“We built a Capitol in the mid 1880s. It was dedicated 1987, and right before it was dedicated, they realized sort of whoops, we forgot something. And what they forgot was to do anything at all with the landscaping around the building. They had this beautiful towering red granite building that at that time, was the seventh largest government building anywhere in the world. But they hadn’t done anything with the land around it. So they hired a civil engineer out of Dallas and he came in after the dedicated and put the big carriage way, we would now call a driveway, up to the front of the Capitol and also circled the the Capitol with a roadway, put up the metal fencing that’s still there today. Initially the gates had to be closed because stray cows from town would get inside on the Capitol grounds and graze down there and leave piles of manure. I won’t even go to any comparisons there.”

Mike Cox, Texas author

The Capitol holds special places in Texans’ heart for different reasons. Mike Cox’s great-grandfather helped build it. Cox, once a reporter and then a spokesperson for a state agency, wrote a book about the historic building, called “Legends & Lore of the Texas Capitol.”

“I can look in every direction in that building and remember a story,” he said.

mike cox capitol child
Mike Cox, approximately age 4, smiles at the Texas Capitol Grounds in May 1952 in an image taken by his grandfather, L.A. Wilke. (Photo Courtesy Mike Cox)

Mike remembers getting lost in the building as a child when he visited with his grandfather to check his grandfather’s post office box, which was located at the Capitol at the time. Years later, his daughter got lost at the Texas Book Festival which was held adjacent to the grounds.

“There’d been about a 45 year interval there between the time that I got lost and she got lost, but it was a little bit easier to find her than it was me,” he chuckled.

On the legacy of the historic building, Cox said it’s a symbol of endurance.

“It’s kind of a place to go maybe to get some sort of re-assurance of, you know, things survive, things endure,” he said.

Did you know there was an old-fashioned drinking fountain on the sprawling grounds of the Texas State Capitol? It’s located where an artesian well once sat.

The Capitol’s grounds are always open to the public, and free guided tours of the Capitol’s interior are available during business hours when not closed because of coronavirus. The team tasked with preservation and upkeep is also growing into the digital space.

“We’re also hopeful to really build up those opportunities to engage digitally,” James said. “We’ve seen … a huge rise in social media and how the public likes to connect with those sites that are important to them.”

Download printable maps, as well as brochures and visitor guides at the State Preservation Board website while you plan your visit. The board has a digital map of each of the monuments on its website, too.

Andrew Choat, Tim Holcomb and Chris Davis contributed to this report.

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