CAPITOL TOUR GUIDES By Devin Greaney, April, 2003. Not Published
The Texas State Capitol Tour Guides bring a little bit of history, government, architecture and fun facts to the visitors of Texas’ 115-year-old State House. You can identify the guides in their white shirts, blue ties with Texas flags, khaki pants or skirt, plus a lot of knowledge and the ability to work with people.
The State preservation Board has overseen the tours for the last four years. The 25 to 30 tour guides are part time employees many of whom are college students and also give tours of the Governor’s Mansion across the street. In the office right by the front doors, tours are given every few minutes and groups can call in advance to arrange them. The information that is given to the guides is edited by the State Preservation Board to be sure they are giving facts rather than spreading rumor and legend. Richard Poland, Director of the Capitol Tour Guides, said a big part of a tour guides training is taking tours with other guides so a mistake one guide makes will not be spread around to tourists.
There is not much need for rumor and legend when the truth can be more interesting. Texas, the second most populous state, has a part time legislature that takes off for 18 months when many smaller states are used to full time legislatures. Some find it interesting the governor and lieutenant governor do not run together and have been of different parties. Poland says many people are suprised that the building was completed in six years using 1882 technology. It was built by selling land in the Panhandle, not with money or bonds.
In more modern times the building was getting cramped and unsafe. A fire in 1983 illustrated something needed to be done and was the impetus for the founding of the State Preservation Board. On top of the safety concerns, changes took place over the years in the building that were not true to the original design. Wood paneling in the offices, desks and newspaper racks were in the hallways and the basement had exposed pies, wires and offices that were put up as needed. Painstaking studies of photographs began a plan to turn the Capitol to a 1915 appearance, but modern realties mean the state needed office space. A challenge indeed The ensuing project took about as long as the original construction project.
In May of 1990 a sixty-five-foot-deep hole was dug north of the Capitol and the underground section was opened in January of 1993. “They dug up the grass and dug a hole and put in a four story building,” Karen Elliston, Visitor Services Manager, said. A facelift improved the exterior and from August,1992 to January, 1995, the interior was remodeled including a time when the Capitol was closed for over a year to visitors. The grounds were finished in 1996.
On top of the Capitol, The Goddess of Liberty holds the Lone Star above Austin. Original statue was 2,000 pounds and now is on display in the Story of Texas museum. The new one was 1,100 pounds and had been up there since 1986.
The Capitol Complex, according to DPS Capitol Services that encompasses some 46 square blocks and 28 State buildings. About 40,000 people occupy the area during a weekday. That is more than the population of San Marcos.
The state has been giving tours of the Capitol to school children, tourists and even an occasional Austinite since September of 1966.
One early guide was Betty King, who gave tours from 1969 to 1970. She was looking for work and her aunt told her about the position. “At that time I had an insatiable sense of Texas history,” she said. “I enjoyed speaking to the people. I was much more out going then,” she said. The guides also gave grounds tours showing off the trees on the grounds. She also remembers fondly the comradare of the tour guides,” she said. One day sticks in her mind. She said it looked like the entire population of Austin marched on the Capitol in protest of the Viet Nam war. Many guides were sympathetic with the protesters, she said. Supervisors told the guides “we can’t keep you from marching, but if you do please don’t wear your uniforms,” she said. “We decided it was probably time to shut down the tour guide desk because we didn’t think anyone would be taking a tour that day, she said.
Some questions come from both observation and the rumor mill. A small white snarling dog appears in Henry McArdle’s painting, “Dawn at the Alamo” hanging in the Senate chamber. Many visitors ask if that was put there as symbolism or if it was a dog from history. Elliston and Poland are not aware of any significance of the animal, other than it seems to catch people’s eye. Another story says the Goddess of Liberty on top of the Capitol faces south because resentment of the North was still high twenty years after the Civil War. Poland and Elliston believe it had more to do with the city being south of the Capitol at the time and was done for aesthetics and not to turn her back on Yankee country. Many tourists ask if there is a tunnel connecting the Governor’s Mansion to the Capitol. No. Rick Perry deals with the Austin heat like the rest of the city. “The crack in the rotunda floor is not from someone falling. It’s land settling,” Poland said but he added two people have fallen from the upper floors in the rotunda. The old treasury which is now the tour guide’s office, was never a jail despite bars around the desks. And Governor Jim Hogg had a daughter named Ima Hogg, but he did not have another girl named Ura.
Monica Trevino took Malvin and Valerie Drakley, a couple visiting from Abington, England, on her 10:15 am tour. Two marble statues on pedestals stared at the visitors entering the main door. The Sam Houston and Stephen Austin statues were made life size, she said. Houston was 6’ 4” and Austin was 5’ 3”. “The star is eight feet across and the letters are two feet,” pointing up to the top of the rotunda. Texas’s Capitol is taller than the one in Washington but shorter than the ones in Illinois and Louisiana. Despite a visual impairment, she has been showing off the centerpiece of her hometown for the last sixteen months with the help of her white and orange cane. Heading downstairs it was a visit to the underground section. Since the legislature was in session the house and senate galleries were open to the public viewing, but the tours would not be going through. She invited the couple to watch the house or senate in session. “It’s pretty interesting,” Trevino said. She pointed to doors to the auditorium that was built for government accountability. “In Texas we do not let them (government) conduct business behind closed doors” Trevino said.
The guides get some unusual questions. “They will look at a flight of stairs and say ‘do these go up?” Elliston said. Tour guide Julie Smith told her group of third graders the Capitol always had electricity. “So they had electricity before it was invented?” a student asked. Elliston remembered someone asked how many stars were in the Texas Capitol. No one has really counted, but looking at the fence surrounding the building and all the artwork in the Capitol, someone could probably get a Ph.D. history, architecture and mathematics by counting them all.
There are little things that one notices showing off the state house. Elliston is fascinated by the blue oculus windows over the library area that sometimes filters the sunlight and puts a blue glow in a small area of the building.
Austinite Katie Petermann was visiting the grounds with her friends at night (the building closes at 10 PM) and says this is her favorite time. “It’s a palette of twenty different colors at night,” she said. Meredith Frazier and Alicia Dietrich who both work at the information desk at the Capitol Visitor’s Center, mentioned the San Jacinto battle flag in the house chamber. “It’s the only surviving flag from the battle of San Jacinto, Frazier said. “The original is up when the House of Representatives in session and a replica when not in session to preserve the colors,” Dietrich added.
“There’s a Lieutenant Governor’s chamber behind the senate,” said Stephen Robertson, assistant sergeant at arms, said. The room off the beaten path is used for receptions. “I think some people miss the ground floor,” said Rheanne Garcia, Trooper II of the DPS Capitol Services. “They have pictures names and dates of war veterans killed who were from Texas.”
A monument to the past, a celebration of the Texas of the present, a place where elected officials work on laws for the future. All three descriptions equally describe the Texas State Capitol. In the old treasury office right by the front doors, walk up tours are given every few minutes Monday to Friday 8:30 to 4:30, Saturday 9:30 to 3:30 and Sunday noon to 3:30. Groups can call in advance to arrange group tours or tours sign language or foreign languages. Tours of the Governor’s residence are offered every 20 minutes Monday through Thursday with tours starting at 10 am to 11:40.