Few of the approximately one million people who visit the state Capitol each year know that the landmark represents not only the seat of state government, but also a residence. Tucked behind the chambers where the Texas House of Representatives meets, on the western end of the Capitol’s second floor, lay the Speaker’s apartment. The Texas House Speaker is the only presiding officers of a state Legislative body in the United States to have an official residence on the Capitol grounds, in this case a compact apartment that in 2004 contained an office, a reception area, a kitchen, a living room and upstairs library, three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
The story of that residence provides an excellent metaphor for the growing empire called the Texas speakership. For more than half a century, House members claimed their right to also reside in the Capitol, or attempted evicting speakers from what was seen as a royal perch. Through it all, the apartment expanded, modernized and acquired sophistication. In this way, the speaker apartment parallels the development of the speakership itself in the twentieth century.
Starting in the 1980s, the speaker could no longer be considered simply a steward among his peers in the House, but was on the way to becoming primus inter pares when paired with the governor and lieutenant governor. By the time Tom Craddick became speaker in 2002, the apartment served as the symbolic locus of power within state government.
The speaker’s apartment dates back to completion of Texas' Capitol. Following a fire that destroyed its predecessor, construction of the new Capitol lasted from 1881 to 1888. The Capitol's original architect Elijah E. Myers set aside two rooms each for the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor on opposite ends of the second floor. Myers designed an open corridor of geometric clay tile running perpendicular to the second floor hallway behind the House Chamber. The room to the south of the open hallway was to be the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives with an adjacent "private room" that included a water closet.
It was unclear under Texas laws regulating public property drafted in 1884 whether it was legal for the speaker or the lieutenant governor to live in these “private rooms.” An act of 1884 allowed judges of the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals to take up residence within rooms on the third and fourth floor of the state capitol. The same law, however, said that, with the exception of the judges, "no room, apartment or office in [the Capitol]” could be used “by any person as a bed room or for any private purpose whatever."
It seems that early on the area was used for informal meetings and late night naps, but there is no official record indicating when speakers started using the private rooms as an apartment. No furniture was initially provided by the Legislature. Already by 1891, however, the Austin Daily Statesman complained about the Capitol being turned into a “cheap lodging house,” the same newspaper lamenting about Capitol visitors seeing “red blankets and soiled sheets aired in the windows.” The newspapers complained that members living in the Capitol not only compromised the dignity of the place, but also exploited the taxpayers and fellow legislators.
”The fact is these members who lodge in the capitol are taking advantage of all other members in grabbing state lodging rooms free,” the paper noted. “If there is not room enough in the capitol building for all of them we protest against a few of them taking this advantage of all the others.” In 1897, the Statesman noted that two years earlier “eighty odd beds” filled space in the Capitol, but that the building superintendent had begun enforcing the 1884 law and for the 1897 session began turning away members’ “trunks and other equipment . . . and politely refused to receive their baggage.”
This ban on living in the Capitol still did not apply to speakers or lieutenant governors. In 1899, the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds reported that the "Speaker's Room" contained, among other items, a desk, couch, dresser, wardrobe, four tables, sixteen chairs, two beds, three mattresses and various linens. Presumably, the private room was used as a bedroom so work could be conducted in the outer office. Whether these items were bought by speakers themselves or with state funds is not clear.
No one is sure when the speakers’ rooms became a fulltime residence. Authors Mike Fowler and Jack McGuire in a 1988 book, The Capitol Story: The Statehouse in Texas, suggest that Sam Rayburn in 1911-1913 became the first speaker to use the speaker rooms full time. Considerable evidence, however, suggests that the House speaker began living in the Capitol at least a decade sooner. The year 1903 marked the beginning of Pat Neff’s speakership. That same year, a "foot tub" had been installed in the speaker's apartment as well as bath and face towels. This suggests that the speaker rooms were already considered a private space used for personal hygiene and relaxation. Neff is the earliest speaker to have indicated that he lived in the “private rooms.”
In 1938 a researcher asked Neff if he knew which speaker started the custom of living in the Capitol apartment. “ . . . I occupied an apartment there when I was speaker in 1903,” Neff responded. “I think I am safe in saying that it has been successively occupied by the Speaker. I do not know if it was occupied during the two years prior to my speakership.” No kitchen had been installed in the apartment yet, forcing the Neffs to find meals elsewhere.
As previously mentioned, a scandal erupted over Speaker Austin Milton Kennedy and his wife’s furnishing of the apartment. Testimony before the House suggested that the Kennedys spent a great deal of time in the apartment, as did Lieutenant Governor Asbury Davidson in the apartment at the opposite end of the Capitol. In spite of the controversy, the tradition of a live-in speaker survived.
Improvements continued at the speaker’s apartment even as its existence faced repeated legal challenges. A floor plan from about 1916 showed that the speaker’s rooms by then consisted of an office and a private room that included a bathtub and a water closet. Nevertheless, in 1925, the Texas Legislature reaffirmed the statute prohibiting the use of any room in the Capitol for private use by anybody except judges of the state Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.
Finally, by 1943, the Legislature provided legal cover to both apartments, formally recognizing the second story apartments as the official residences of the House speaker and the lieutenant governor. Yet, challenges continued. Voters rejected an amendment constitutionally sanctioning the speaker and lieutenant governors’ residences in the late 1950s. This prompted one state senator from East Texas, Joe Hill, in 1957 to file a series of lawsuits aimed at forcing House Speaker Waggoner Carr and Lt. Gov. Ben Ramsey to vacate the premises.
The Texas press dubbed this legal struggle "the battle of the bedroom." Hill asked a district judge to block Carr and Ramsey from paying the maids, cooks and other staffers who worked at the apartments. Other suits sought to block state funds from being used to pay bills for furniture in the apartments. Hill argued that the living quarters provided a form of financial compensation beyond what was allowed by the Texas Constitution. A court rejected Hill's suit in April 1957 before it went to trial.
One last challenge to the legality of the apartments came in February 1974, in the aftermath of Sharpstown, when Senator Bill Moore made a proposal to amend the state Constitution to prohibit living quarters in the Capitol. Moore's efforts, however, also failed. Complaints, however, continued. Rep. Bill Heatly, angered when Speaker Daniel stopped the state from reimbursing him for charter flights between Austin and his home base of Paducah, raised a protest during the 1974 state Constitutional Convention because a previously approved appropriations bill supposedly permitted Daniel to “hire two cooks, a babysitter, and a $9,500 a year bartender who serves whiskey in the state Capitol.”
Heatly apparently was referring to the staff at the speaker’s apartment. Heatly also attacked Daniel for not reporting “free rent” on his financial disclosure forms and argued that nothing in the state Constitution allowed Daniel to live in the state Capitol. Nevertheless, the speaker’s apartments became permanently established as the modern speakership evolved in the post World War II era.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, life inside the apartment could be uncomfortable and noisy. In a 1947 interview, Mrs. W.O. Reed noted that the apartment sat next to a corridor filled with 30 Legislative stenographers busy typing away from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jean Houston Daniel, descendent of Sam Houston and wife of Price Daniel, Sr., speaker from 1943 to 1945, also recalled the many inconveniences posed by that secretarial pool. “There was no back elevator and I had to choose between climbing up and down the long back stairs and or going through the House Chamber with children and groceries,” she later recalled.
Walls inside the apartment were either “super-stout or non-existent,” according to a 1949 Austin American story. At that point, the newspaper reported, an unattractive “eight-foot high temporary partition” separated the dining room, bathroom and kitchen, compromising privacy in a space with 30-foot high ceilings. Living conditions at the apartment remained surprisingly sparse. For instance, there was no garbage collection service. According to one news account, the maid who cleaned the apartment had to carry the garbage down a flight of stairs, and, if she were lucky she would find a porter who would carry the garbage to some uncertain destination outside. The apartment was also not air-conditioned, which made the quarters incredibly stuffy in Austin’s often overheated summers, when temperatures hit more than 90 degrees about 80 percent of the time.
In 1948, the Legislature provided funds to modernize the lieutenant governor's apartment. The next year, the Legislature authorized renovation of the speaker's apartment, the first major remodeling of the apartment since the Capitol opened in 1888. Architects reconfigured the apartment that had consisted of a living room, a small dinette, a bath, a kitchenette and two bedrooms. The new layout included a living room, three bedrooms, two baths, a dining room and a modern kitchen. Workers removed an estimated 20 to 30 coats of varnish from the walls, added new doors and replaced the paper-thin partitions with two-foot thick walls.
Furniture purchased for the apartment during Speaker Durwood Manford’s term remained in use by the mid-1960s. Workers also installed a 5,000-ton air conditioning unit. Manford balked, however, at furnishing a new room added under W.O. Reed and at spending $400 (about $3,200 today) for drapes to hang over the apartment’s 21-foot windows. “. . . Durwood doesn’t want to spend the House’s money,” Joyce Manford told the Dallas Morning News.
Even following the redecoration, the aging Capitol sometimes proved a dangerous place to live. “While we were moving into the Speakers’ Apartment, some plaster fell off the back bedroom and almost killed my parents,” David Carr, the son of Speaker Waggoner Carr, remembered. “ . . . The ceiling caved in . . . [and the debris] landed a foot from the tops of their heads.”
Not yet available for public tours, the apartment often changed design as each new speaker’s family moved in, an aspect that underscored the still relatively short tenures of speakers until the late twentieth century. Under Jim and Moja Lindsey, “18th century or late Georgian décor” marked the residence. Green silk brocade curtains with interlaced triple swags and ball fringe trim draped the apartment’s massive windows. Handcarved wooden doors with large, heavy brass hinges stamped with the words “Texas Capitol” marked entryways to rooms decorated with 18th century mahogany and damask upholstered furniture. By 1963, under Byron Tunnell, the capitol staff painted the apartment walls in Magnolia, described in a Capitol report as a “lovely off-white color,” even as a like-hued nylon carpet in a sculptured design replaced the apartment’s fraying fabric carpets.
As speakers began to routinely serve more than one term, they were increasingly acknowledged as power brokers. Simultaneously, the speakers’ apartment came to symbolize the office’s rising importance. The contrast between the ever-more comfortable official residence and working conditions in the rest of the Capitol could not escape the attention of rank-and-file members. Originally designed to house all state government, including the state Supreme Court, the treasurer, the comptroller and various agencies in addition to the chambers of the House and Senate, the Capitol became nosier and more ramshackle as the size of government expanded. The mushrooming population, new communications technology and growth in state services created a maze of offices in a Capitol constructed to meet the needs of a citizenry in the horse and buggy days of the late 19th century.
Only House leaders had offices and senators had to share space. Secretaries and other staffers made phone calls and typed in a crowded corridor near the speaker’s apartment or in a big room in the Capitol basement. Secretaries fought for space on the House floor, where they elbowed for room with state representatives, pages, reporters and special guests. House members lacked desk phones, so Capitol switchboard operators directed calls to a bank of phone booths in the hallway behind the chamber, adding to the incessant noise, which at times rose to a barely decipherable din.
Jimmy Turman said he did very little to redecorate the speaker’s apartment when he rose to House leadership in 1961. Turman said that he placed greater emphasis on improving working conditions for House members and their small staffs and upgrading the House chamber’s appearance and comfort. Joe R. Greenhill, a former chief justice, remembered the Capitol as “just a granite barn” in those days, a place “as hot as hell in the summer and cold as hell in the winter.” Summer heat forced Texas justices to not wear traditional black robes while in session in the sauna-like Capitol. By the 1960s, however, the Legislature had authorized construction of new buildings for the Supreme Court and other state agencies and these departments began to move out. As space opened, Turman convinced the Legislature to acquire it for House member offices, making life more bearable inside the Capitol.
“So we took those old . . . huge . . . tall offices. And we double-decked them, and started making individual members’ offices,” Turman said. “ . . . I had about 97 of them completed by the time my speakership ended.” Space remained severely cramped, with two members sharing space little larger than a closet. State Representative Chet Brooks, who represented Pasadena in the House from 1963 to 1967 and in the Senate from 1967 to 1993, said later that when constituents came to visit his office mate, “I’d get up and go outside so they could all get in there and talk to him. When people came to see me, he’d do the same thing.”
Under Turman the House Chamber gained air conditioning and underwent redecoration. “ . . . I spent a half million dollars air-conditioning that,” Turman said. “. . . [A]nd I put our new carpet down, a new gold carpet. They’re back now to what it was a hundred years ago and I like that idea . . . So I decorated the chamber for the members and for people.“
Nevertheless, quality office space remained at a premium. Seniority generally bought members the choicest offices. Such was the case with Richard Slack of Pecos, who had reached the number one post in seniority by 1980. That year, however, Slack suffered an upset loss to Republican Jerry Cockerham during the Ronald Reagan Republican landslide in the November general election. Bill Heatly of Paducah called House Speaker Billy Clayton to mourn Slack’s loss. “Mr. Speaker, I can’t believe they beat my old friend Dick Slack,” Heatly reportedly said. “I know better. I know that the people of West Texas want him to represent them. I think he should demand a recount. And I think he should sue if he loses the recount.”
“But Mr. Speaker,” Heatly continued, “if Dick Slack loses that recount, I want that office with the bathroom.”
As trivial as such matters seem to the outside world, offices and parking spaces represented the grammar of power under the Capitol dome. Freshmen and other junior members of the House entered as bottom feeders, consigned to the legislative Siberia of the Capitol basement, once home to the secretarial pool. “The basement stinks,” said former legislative staffer Sara Speights in the late 1980s. “It’s mildewed and the ceilings are low. And outside your windows you have to look at dead crickets.” The contrast` between such a setting and the speaker’s apartment, even with all its flaws, could not be more sharply drawn.
Billy Clayton, who became speaker in 1975, presented a paradox. The most powerful speaker to date, Clayton nevertheless eschewed the trappings of an imperial speakership. Clayton refused to live in the speaker’s apartment and converted most of the space back to offices. “I felt like I needed the [office] space, and I didn’t feel like Texas owed me a place to live,” Clayton said. His stance had a pragmatic ground. Clayton had the largest staff to date, a measure of the office’s growing full-time bureaucratic responsibilities. There were few other places to put the extra personnel. Clayton said that it was a relief to leave the Capitol and return to his home in Northeast Austin each night. He arrived at his office at 8 each morning and usually called it a day by 11 p.m. Clayton probably was no less a workaholic than Ben Barnes, but he wanted to return to the days when a speaker could have a private life amid public duties.
That division was impossible to maintain and it disappeared during the administration of Gibson D. “Gib” Lewis from 1983 to 1993. A disastrous fire that struck the Capitol in 1983 transformed the official residence while accidentally adding to the speakership’s prestige. On the morning of February 6, 1983, a short in a television set in the lieutenant governor’s apartment in the Capitol’s east wing sparked a fire. “For what seemed an eternity, the flames climbed elusively inside the plaster walls and through a maze of false ceilings, the result of years of makeshift remodelings,” Michael Ward wrote in his history of the Capitol. “But thanks to modern equipment and some old-fashioned luck, firefighters were able to stop the fiery advance before the attic was engulfed.” The boyfriend of Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby’s daughter died in the fire. In addition, 11 firefighters and police officers suffered injuries and damages to the Capitol topped $2.5 million.
Sadly, the death and injuries could have been prevented. As early as 1931, state Senator George C. Purl said, “That the Capitol in Austin is a firetrap is obvious to any casual observer. I have several times during the last eight years made a sincere effort to make this structure as nearly fireproof as is possible to do so, but must confess that I have never been to get through the necessary appropriation.” Later, a committee recommended fire safety improvements to the building, subsequently rejected by the Legislature as too expensive. “Should this building be destroyed by fire, priceless archives, records and data would be destroyed, and the members of the Legislature would stand convicted of negligence for failing to recognize the conditions that surround them,” one committee report warned.
Lewis remembered that he had also worried about the possibility of a major fire before the February 1983 tragedy. “We would find live wires just coming out of the wall [in the Capitol] that were still hot and it was a tinder box,” Lewis said in 2004, “ . . . [T]he next morning [after the fire], I said, ‘[W]e need to do a major, major renovation of this whole Capitol and get it done.’”
Shortly after the fire, Lewis persuaded the Legislature to create the State Preservation Board. The board’s first major project became replacement of the Goddess of Liberty statute on the Capitol Dome. A new statue, made of aluminum and shaped by molds from the original zinc statue, was placed, after numerous unsuccessful tries, on the dome in June 1986. The new Goddess of Liberty cost about $450,000 raised in private donations.
By 1988, work commenced on a masterplan for Capitol restoration and construction of an underground office annex north of the building. Even Lewis’ critics concede the speaker took the lead in a successful Capitol restoration. He proposed the innovative solution of building an underground office annex that would relieve crowding in the Capitol, which before the fire had reached critical proportions. By the early 1980s, the Capitol on a normal day included about 1,300 workers even though the building had been designed with fewer than 350 in mind.
Funding renovations proved to be a difficult task, especially as the early 1980s oil boom began to collapse in the second half of the decade. As Michael Ward notes, “The state’s boom times had gone bust, and the budget was drenched in red ink. Taxpayer money for a complete overhaul was out of the question, and private fundraising could not collect enough for all the work that was needed to be done.”
Renovations began under Democratic Gov. Mark White, who had defeated Republican Gov. Bill Clements’ bid for reelection during the recession in 1982. By 1986, fortunes had reversed and Clements, eager for political payback, again won the Republican nomination and defeated his nemesis. Clements saw successful completion of White’s restoration project as a way to complete his political vengeance and made it a top priority.
The leadership team of Bill Hobby, Gib Lewis and Clements worked together to persuade the Legislature to spend what was necessary to restore the Capitol to its 1888 glory. They recruited the aid of Allen McCree, a University of Texas system architect, who began taking Legislators on “deficiency tours,” enthusiastically treating reluctant lawmakers to sights of the Capitol’s leaky pipes, exposed asbestos insulation, and patchwork wiring. The Legislature approved a master plan in 1989.
Restoration began in 1990 and construction crews completed the extension by January 1993. The restoration of the Capitol ended two years later. Costs of the extension and restoration reached $200 million. Crews also restored and improved the speaker’s apartment. Lewis asked the architects and crews to return the apartment to its appearance “when Sam Rayburn slept here.” Lewis said the lowered ceilings were removed, woodwork was cleaned, and the apartment was decorated with paintings featuring Texas scenery done by Texas artists. Lewis also added a second-story Texana library, accessed by a spiral staircase, to the den.
With patchwork repairs and renovations cleared away, an unprecedented elegance graced the quarters. Lewis’ leadership in the restoration confirmed the rising stature of the speaker, a fact underscored when Hobby insisted that the lieutenant governor’s apartment not be rebuilt but be replaced with a reception area. The result was that the speaker now joined the governor as the only two officials in Austin still holding official state residences. When first Pete Laney, speaker from 1993 to 2003, and then his successor Tom Craddick, opened the apartment to tours, the speaker’s apartment began its career as a state icon, granting the speakership even more visibility.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.