“Austin Askew”–Chapter XVI– Known for its Deeds: The Old Land Office

I would not even venture to guess how many times I’ve gotten lost in the Capitol complex downtown because frankly, one generic pink granite box looks pretty much like the next. I’ve been able to break those State office buildings down by period of construction– the stone boxes are from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the stone-and-glass boxes are from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and anything with rugged pink granite veneer has been built in the ‘90s or ‘00s–not that any of this helps much.

And going by the names doesn’t make matters any easier. If, for instance, you have business with the Texas Department of Insurance, whatever you do don’t go to the State Insurance Building, because that’s where the Governor’s staff works. The TDI is located way over on the other side of downtown in the Hobby Building on Fourth.

And even if you find the right building, because of our new obsession with security, you’ll probably have to walk around it a couple times before you find which one of the eight entrances is actually unlocked and admitting tax-payers.

The General Land Office, or GLO, (not to be confused with G.L.O.W., Jackie Stallone’s foray into sports entertainment: the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”), is naturally located somewhere other than the General Land Office Building, but the old Land Office is, fortunately, one of the most distinctive and recognizable State buildings downtown, and while it no longer serves its original purpose, it functions both as the Capitol Visitor Center and as a hands-on museum illustrating the complicated history of the GLO.

Land grants were originally awarded in Texas by the Spanish crown or the colonial government, for the development of missions, military garrisons or presidios, and settlement. Properties in South Texas were carefully measured and distributed to the owners based on their seniority, while land in other parts of Texas was sometimes passed along via oral contracts. Eventually, Spain started offering land grants, citizenship, and other benefits to foreigners in order to encourage settlement, and when Mexico got its independence from Spain it continued to offer similar sweetheart deals to settlers.

If you were an American expatriate who wanted to take a chance at a new life, your land grant would likely be handled by an empresario, a hellish hybrid of real estate huckster and rent-a-cop, who drummed up settlers and made sure Mexican laws were enforced. Stephen F. Austin was the most famous of these fellows. The upside of this system was that empresarios couldn’t call and bother you during dinner, offering you a Universal-Orlando vacation in exchange for hearing a time-share pitch.

When the Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico the new government agreed to honor the old Spanish and Mexican grants. Land was also awarded to new settlers and to veterans of the Texas Revolution. There were so many millions of acres of lands to administer and so many claims being made that the Congress of the Republic established the General Land Office less than a year after the Republic itself came into being in 1836.

During the days of the Republic, the capital was moved around to different cities. Obviously, whenever Sam Houston was in power he wanted the capital to be in the city that bore his name, but by 1839 the GLO was headquartered out of Austin.

In 1842 the Mexican army invaded Texas and President Houston ordered that the government be moved out of Austin and back to the city of Houston. He sent a group of rangers to fetch all the state papers and land documents, and these men had just managed to get out of town when local inn-keeper Angelina Eberly fired off a cannon, which encouraged the slow-reacting Austinites to rise from their bongs and go get the papers back. This incident was given the rather inflated name of the “Archives War.” So if you ever wondered who that beefy, muumuu-clad woman was depicted in that statue at 600 Congress, that’s Angie Eberly.

Texas was annexed by the US in 1845 and to this day is the only state to retain total control of its public lands.

By the 1850s the GLO had occupied a variety of buildings, but the Legislature finally decided the GLO needed a secure and fireproof home of its own. Christoph Conrad Stremme, the German-born architect of the Administration Building of the Austin State Hospital and a GLO draftsman, was put to work on the design in 1854. (Most of the GLO staff throughout the nineteenth century were Germans. I guess Austinites liked to do offshore outsourcing even then.) The building was constructed between 1856 and 1857, and along with the Governor’s Mansion and Austin State Hospital Administration Building, is one of the three oldest State buildings still in use in Texas, and of the three is in the best condition, having been renovated in the 1990s.

The Old Land Office measures 50 by 90 feet, and consists of two main stories, a basement, and attic. It was constructed of stucco-covered stone and brick, and the doors and shutters were encased in iron to discourage robbery and fire. Though the roof beams were made of wood, the attic floor was covered with cement and dirt to further aid in the fire-proofing. The building’s thick walls succeeded in making it cool during the nine-and-a-half-month-long Austin summers, but failed to keep it warm during the short winters–in fact, not even wood-burning stoves were able to warm the building up.

Because of the solid, sturdy appearance of the building and the crenelations along the roof, a romantic rumor arose that Stremme has designed the structure to resemble a castle from the Rhineland, possibly even his birthplace, but there seems to be no evidence to support this.  Stremme’s background is interesting in that he originally worked as an architecture professor in Hanover, Germany, then served in the court of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Apparently all that glamor was just too much for him, and he came to Texas in 1849 to work as a surveyor, before the attraction of working for the Texas State government became irresistible.

The Old Land Office is designed in a modified Romanesque style, and while the windows carry the designs of five-pointed stars, there were at least twenty-four other unique design features that Stremme had specified for the building that the slap-dash State Contractor failed to implement. Stremme’s letter complaining about this is still on display in the building.

There were two entrances, on the west and the south. The southern entrance, facing 11th Street, opened onto a stair hall with a wooden staircase (later replaced by one of cast-iron), flanked on the right by the Land Commissioner’s Office and on the left by a room for Spanish Land Grants, which contained two shallow vaults. Down the corridor to the right was a large room for Book Records, while to the left was the Watchman’s room, the west entry hall, a tiny stair hall, and a Blueprint room. At the end of the corridor the School Lands room ran the width of the building. Upstairs was a Translation room to the left and a Transcript room to the right. The center of the second floor was dominated by the Chief Clerk’s office, with a Record room and File room opening off it to the left. At the far end of the building was the densely-packed Drafting room.

The most unique feature of the building was a secret circular staircase that ran from basement to attic, and was located just off the Blueprint room. It was made in the Medieval manner, of fitted, wedge-shaped stones, but after stairs were put up in the south end of the building, it fell into disuse. Supposedly though, the Texas Rangers utilized this secret staircase once when nabbing some forgers and land thieves who had somehow gotten into the building at night.

According to one source, there was also a tunnel that connected the Old Stone Capitol (1853-1881) with the Land Office. It was designed as a shelter in case of Indian raids, but for some reason it was only a few feet tall, suitable for crawling only. What happened to this tunnel? Was it filled in? Was it abandoned when the Old Capitol burned? Is it still there?

Short story writer William Sydney Porter (aka O. Henry) is to Austin what Elvis was to Memphis–it’s hard to find a house, a building, a street corner that he didn’t have some connection to during his time in town. And so it should come as no surprise that he worked for the GLO from 1887 to 1891. He set at least two of his stories, “Bexar Scrip No. 2692″ and “Georgia’s Ruling” in the Old Land Office. They are entertaining enough stories, though they do tend to bog down here and there if you’re not well-versed in nineteenth century land and title office terminology. According to Count Charles P. Scrivener, an American draftsman with English parents and a French title, Porter (whom he referred to in an interview as “O’Henry,” as if he’d been an Irishman) was fond of practical jokes, particularly at the expense of the titled and well-educated Germans and Swedes in the office.

The GLO was a hopping place in those days. Detailed maps had to be drawn and distances calculated by means of math books and calculation tables. Bounties, grants, head-rights, pre-emptions, patents, surveys, mineral rights, school lands, transportation right-of-ways, and all sorts of other matters had to be attended to.

Many early surveys had been conducted on horseback–the surveyor figuring that if his horse walked at a certain speed he would cover x number of acres in a day, so then it would follow that if he galloped on said horse he could cover more territory and claim in actuality more land that he’d actually been granted. These discrepancies between the actual and purported size of land holdings made for a lot of trouble for the GLO over the years.

The GLO finally outgrew the Old Land Office in 1918, and the building for most of the twentieth century housed the museums of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Daughters of the Confederacy. The Old Land Office was given, as I said, a major renovation in the 1990s, and now houses the Capitol Visitor’s Center, among other things.

I went by the old place a few weeks ago. The Blueprint room is now home to an O. Henry display, an extensive gift shop occupies the School Lands office, while the Book Records room includes a Texas travel planning center and a detailed architectural model of the Capitol dome which should not be missed.

The State of Texas paid a contracting firm for the current Capitol building not with money but with three million acres of State land. This property covered ten counties in the Panhandle and was known as the XIT Ranch, the XIT being an acronym for “(The Roman numeral) Ten in Texas.” The second floor of the Old Land Office now has an XIT display area.

Also on the second floor is an orientation theatre where they show a short film that takes you to all the hidden (and dangerous) nooks and crannies in the Capitol you don’t get to see on the tours. There’s also three huge star-shaped kiosks that offer interesting interactive displays on Texas and Capitol history.

The old Drafting room has been turned into a hands-on exhibit that breaks down for children and adults in a clear, understandable way what used to go on in the Old Land Office. You pick a famous Texan, then go through a number of steps before finally locating the site of his land grant. The process will definitely give a child a sense of achievement.

There are also temporary exhibitions at the Old Land Office. When I was there they had a display about famed Texas athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias. In addition to the usual panels of text and photos, they’d set up a putting green on one side of the room. Naturally, I couldn’t resist taking a go at this. Or two. Or three.

A word of advice to you museum-going duffers, though: the secret staircase is a dogleg left.

—November 24, 2005

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