one consequence of traveling with college friends who also studied political science is that when one visits a city with a Presidential Library, that Presidential Library comes up as a tour prospect. it also means you have much greater, more interesting context for the LBJ presidential years than what the library presents to you, which is a little exhilarating.
the library and museum are administered by the National Archives and include more than 45 million items, primarily from LBJ but also from close associates. the Library, situated adjacent to the LBJ School of Public Affairs on the University of Texas – Austin campus, was dedicated in 1971 with Johnson and Nixon in attendance. the core of the building is a remarkable four-story, glass-encased view of the archive’s holdings. quite a different presentation than the one I got to see first hand in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives – impressively illuminated and with each archival box featuring the Presidential Seal.
the top floor features is a 7/8th replica of the Oval Office as it appeared during Johnson’s presidency, including a cabinet with enough televisions installed to show all major networks simultaneously (you know, the 4 or 5 of them). in the corner of the building of that same floor, overlooking the football stadium, is Lady Bird Johnson’s office, preserved as she used it until her death in 2007.
sucker that I am for buildings with interesting historical backgrounds, one of the sites I found most interesting on our amphibious tour of Austin was the Buford Tower on West Chavez Street. our driver, an admitted former firefighter, pointed out the building in passing – something the force used previously for training purposes – but I was curious to learn more.
built in 1930, it was used for practice for nearly five decades before being replaced by another structure elsewhere in town. it stood disused for several years until the widow of the man who designed the tower donated money to have it refurbished and to have the upper floors converted for use as a carillon tower. it’s name honors James Buford, a captain who drowned attempting to rescue a 15-year-old from flood waters in Shoal Creek. now, it’s an interesting, incongruous site against the modern structures of downtown Austin.
each year when my friends and I get together, we try to do quirky things in the city we visit, in addition to more traditionally touristy stuff. I’m not sure where on the spectrum visiting the Congress Avenue bat colony falls … quirky for sure, but also very popular! the colony consists of between 750,000 and a million and a half Mexican free-tailed bats; they summer in Austin and migrate to Mexico for the winter.
for all appearances, the bridge doesn’t seem terribly special; three lanes in each direction over Lady Bird Lake in a spot that has hosted a bridge since the early 1870s (a pontoon toll bridge). the City of Austin assumed complete responsibility over the (newer, iron) bridge in the late 1880s, which they were forced to repair several times over the subsequent two decades. by 1908, increase in traffic demanded the construction of a newer, wider bridge and a proposal for the current concrete span bridge were drawn up. at 910 feet it includes six spans which rise to 45 feet above ground; it opened on April 4, 1910.
the bats came to live under the bridge following refurbishment that occurred in 1980. there are fifteen crevices beneath the roadbed, each about 17 inches deep, which appealed to the bats and offered about 14,000 feet of potential habitat. the bats emerge from their roosts each dusk to search for food, swarming out towards the east for 10 or 20 minutes. tourists congregate on the bridge’s sidewalks, in the parking lot of the Austin-American Statesman, and on boats in Lady Bird Lake. we opted to stand on the sidewalk (near a family with two young boys calling out to the bats “hey, bats, come out so we can see you!”), but saw a fair few people out on water bikes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, paddle boats, canoes, and one paddling swan. we ended up waiting about an hour before the bats emerged, but in the interim the sunset off to the west provided a remarkable diversion .
some of the fleeing Mexican troops stumbled into tidal marsh land and drowned. there’s been significant subsidence of the marsh land over the last hundred years as exploitation of oil has increased and changes have been made to the San Jacinto River, Houston waterway, and the surrounding bays. there’s a nature trail through the area now — coastal prairie, tidal marsh, and bottomland forest. less than 1% of the original prairie remains, though at the time of the battle the area was covered with prairie grasses, much of which stood as high as the bellies of horses.
just beyond the prairie and battlefield are tidal marshes, which spread down to the Galveston Bay. the marsh here was completely converted to open water — some 100 acres — towards the end of the twentieth century but was restored in the 90s by pumping clean sand and sediment into the marsh from the San Jacinto River (or Houston Shipping Channel). there’s a boardwalk over the marshes, with a platform from which you can see nearly the whole way to the Galveston Bay.
on our walk, we saw several types of bird prints, some snake prints, a group of young kids and their parents on a nature hike, lots of kinds of scat, and a dead possum. the kids were most interested in the scat and possum.
the Battleship Texas is moored in the Houston Shipping Channel, over the road from the San Jacinto monument and part of the State Park. it was the only U.S. battleship to serve in both World Wars. brand new at the outbreak of the first one, it helped launch troops for storming of the beaches at Normandy on D-Day. arrived in Texas in April 1948 with the expressed intent of serving as a memorial. struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 21 April 1948, anniversary of the Texan victory at San Jacinto. it first battleship memorial museum in the U.S. apparently the hull is not faring so well in the Channel and there is talk of building a dry dock to house it. we didn’t want to pay the $15 to get over the bridge and onto the ship. after several trips to the USS Midway, the USS Texas just didn’t quite compare.
Texas seems to have a thing for symbols. it has flown under six different flags since first settled by Europeans, though without a doubt the one representing the Republic of Texas is the most important. the seals for all six were incorporated into the terrazzo floors of the rotunda after a remodel in the 1930s–Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America. (prior to the terrazzo floors, the floor was glass bricks laid out in an octagonal pattern; the original concept is preserved on the ceiling of the ground floor immediately below the rotunda. must say the new floor is much more impressive.)
the hinges of the doors — again, originals — make sure you know where you are. and the knobs have the state seal imprinted on them as well.
arriving into Houston late on Friday night, we headed to bed early for a full day of exploring on Saturday. first stop, the San Jacinto State Park, battle site where Texas won independence from Mexico in April of 1836. (Texas formally declared independence 174 years ago yesterday.)
San Jacinto was the last in a series of battles/sieges/massacres that also included that famous one in San Antonio, as well as less famous one in Goliad. (Goliad’s population in the 2000 census: 1,975.) the Mexican forces were commanded by President Antonio-Lopez de Santa Anna and Sam Houston led the Texans. the battle proper lasted 18 minutes, but, amped up and interested in meting out some vengeance for Alamo and Goliad, the Texan forces kept going for another hour. in the end, some 800 Mexicans were wounded or killed (many, many of those once the confrontation was “concluded”), while 39 Texans were killed and wounded.
Santa Anna was captured and held as a prisoner of war (a fact mentioned on the inscription on the outside of the monument — Santa Anna was granted a reprieve that he did not grant Texans at the Alamo or Goliad). during his captivity, Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco, in which he agreed to remove troops from Texan soil.
the star at the top of the capitol dome in Austin is 8 feet across and is 218 feet up. on the other side (on the top of the dome), there is a statue known as the Goddess of Liberty. the original was made of iron and was raised to the top by hand (the guide did not specify what, precisely “by hand” might mean); it is now in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum up the street and a replacement of aluminium stands in her stead. she holds a five-pointed star, the symbol of Texas.
the rotunda is also, apparently, a whispering gallery, though we didn’t test this out. the portraits of all the presidents and governors of Texas line the walls of the rotunda, shifting one to the right with each new office-holder. on the first floor there is a bust of the first female governor of the state — Ma Ferguson — who served twice, from 1925-27 and 1933-35. (it took nearly sixty years for another woman to reach the post — Ann Richards served 1991-95.)
an interesting characteristic of Houston is the city’s lack of zoning laws. rather, city officials of yesteryear thought it better to let the market decide. on Sunday, while Laura was at work, I walked up Heights Blvd to a coffee shop called Waldo’s. it’s located in a bungalow and, without the sign and cars parked out front, it looks like any of the other quaint, historic-looking nestled houses between apartment buildings along the tree-lined boulevard. the counter is located at the back of the house, near the original kitchen, and when you first walk in there are an array of tables, an alcove with a couch, and a stage for live performances. stepping from the overcast, humid outdoors into the cafe, the tables were filled with students and their laptops, textbooks, notebooks, all manner of study materials. rather than disturb them, or take my tea outside where it was still a little chilly and a little misty, I nestled into a fold-out loveseat in the front room.
during the course of the day I was joined by a family eating breakfast whose pre-verbal son was still a little unsteady on his feet; a woman studying spatial relationships (architecture perhaps?); several woman looking for a room in which they could gossip, but who left after a few minutes just as the young girl with them got settled into an awesome high-backed chair with matching ottoman; a young woman typing up notes on her laptop.
after an hour and a half, once the sun peeked out and the threat of precipitation dissipated, I went out to the porch for awhile. unfortunately, after about ten minutes a pair of guys came out to smoke while drinking their coffee. they had a lengthy and embarrassingly cliched conversation about cars and the relative merits of Audis and Volkswagons (one, who was wearing cowboy boots and, in spite of them, sounded rather like a walking stereotype of east coast ego and privilege, had recently purchased an Audi). but, after about an hour, another smoker wandered out onto the porch and I decided that, while I very much liked being outside in the sunshine, I much preferred the non-toxic, air conditioned sitting room, once again acknowledging how great we have it in Madison and Dane County.
designed at the end of the 19th century, Myers incorporated electricity into the design of the Austin capitol. he argued that, as a technology, electricity was here to stay. others disagreed, skeptical that anything they might build would “last for generations” and warrant incorporating this new technology. also, they were understandably nervous about the prospect of electrifying the statehouse when the previous one had burned to the ground. as a compromise, Myers was convinced to add natural gas fixtures to his design as well.
as a result, the light fixtures in both the Assembly and Senate chambers are original. in more ways than one.
the Texas Legislature only meets for 140 days, beginning the second Tuesday of January every other year. this year is not a year they are meeting, so the capitol was very quiet. apparently committees still meet during the interim, and if you want to get legislation passed, you have to make damn sure it’s ready to go the second your peers return to work.