Joel Davis

Special Correspondent

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in downtown Austin, Texas, incorporates the use of Sunset Red Granite, which was used in construction of the Texas State Capitol during the 1880sThe day of Sunset Red Granite is still dawning in Texas. First used in construction of the Texas State Capitol in Austin back during the 1880s, the stone, quarried in nearby Marble Falls, has continued to be used through the present day as a signature material in important public projects such as the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.

A giant 35-foot-tall bronze star greets visitors at the entrance the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in AustinKevin M. Koch, AIA, an architect and project manager with the Texas State Preservation Board, said the building materials used in state projects are given a great deal of forethought.

“Stone is obviously a premier choice for building cladding, due to its durability, aesthetic interest, and range of options available,” he wrote in an email to the Slippery Rock Gazette. “On state buildings in particular, where we plan for a much longer useful life and extended ownership of a structure than in the private development world, durable materials are worth the extra initial cost compared to some other cladding options, and provide the taxpayer more value for their dollar in the long run.”

The rotunda of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum features a colorful terrazzo design that gives visitors a glimpse of the story of TexasThe Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum opened on April 21, 2001, at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and North Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. The project began in November 1998 and the state legislature authorized $80 million in bonds to pay for the construction. It was designed by E. Verner Johnson & Associates, Inc., whose previous projects included  the Boston Museum of Science, the Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. 

The use of building materials was carefully considered during the planning process, Koch wrote. “Given the scale of the museum and how it relates to neighboring spaces, granite was used primarily on the primary east (front), north, and south facades.”

“The recessed upper portions of the building and the rear service façade were treated with Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymer (GFRP) panels in custom colors to complement the stone, but still have some granite accents. Sunset Red Granite is the predominant material, and carnelian granite was used as an accent stone. A variety of finishes and a rusticated course on the lower levels were used to provide articulation to the façade.”

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum has three floors of exhibits with more than 700 artifacts on displayThe Sunset Red Granite used in construction of the museum was sourced in Marble Falls, Texas, and was provided by Cold Spring Granite. The Carnelian came from South Dakota but was also supplied by Cold Spring Granite.

According to the  Cold Spring Granite website, the museum project featured a combination of proprietary finishes for the stone: Polish, Diamond 8, Thermal, Diamond 10, and Rockface.

There is a long history of the use of Sunset Red Granite for state projects, which began with its use in the construction of the Texas Capitol, Koch wrote.

Finally completed in 1888, the Capitol’s architectural style is based on that of 15th-century Italy. It is characterized by symmetrical compositions, classical orders, and round arches. 

Sunset Red Granite was not the first choice of building material for the Capitol, however, Koch wrote. “The Capitol was originally designed to utilize local limestone, which was deemed to be too low-quality (and had) too many staining, iron-rich inclusions, (and) was later replaced with harder, more expensive granite, which was the next-closest available Texas building stone. The stone was offered free of charge, and a railroad spur was built to the quarry to access it, which opened up these once-isolated stone resources for future use.”

According to the Texas State Preservation Board, extended debate about the best building material took up almost two years before the decision was finally made. The state originally provided the service of 1,000 convicts to quarry the stone at a location just 50 miles from the Capitol, but in response to a boycott by the granite cutter’s union, the contractor eventually brought in Scottish stonecutters.

Despite this debate, once the use of Sunset Red Granite became established, the granite became commonly used in succeeding construction.

“Since the construction of the Capitol, architects of downtown buildings, and the Capitol Complex in particular, have chosen to complement the crown jewel of our city with the application of Sunset Red Granite in a variety of building styles, including the stoic classicism of the 1930s Lorenzo de Zavala Library and Archives Building, the modern Sam Houston Building (among several other great modernist examples), and the contemporary Robert E. Johnson building,” Koch wrote. “Personally, I think the stone looks amazing in the light of our glowing red Texas sunsets. It also doesn’t stain as easily as limestone can, with our humid climate, rich humus soils, and lots of leafy trees with all their tannins.”

Great attention was given to the quality of the architectural details of the museum project. “The milling of the curved arches as true curves, rather than facets, adds to the sculptural quality of the façade, as well as interior elements,” Koch wrote. “The same scheme of sunset red and carnelian accents is carried through to the interior lobby and exhibit spaces, including a spiral stair in the rotunda in Sunset Red and a large scale map of Texas on the floor out of Radiant Red. There are also granite accent pavers and walls on the plaza at the museum entrance.”

Koch served as assistant project manager for the museum. “It was an honor to be able to participate in the design and construction of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum,” he wrote. “Texas has many great museums, but given its outsized and unique history, it was a travesty that Texas was so far behind other states in that it did not have a central museum to tell the whole story of Texas.

“Bob Bullock had the vision to establish the museum as a non-collecting institution that leverages the wealth of historical resources in the state while promoting historical tourism throughout Texas’ many regions. I think the business plan behind the self-supporting institution was a visionary idea, to be able to promote other historic sites without competing for precious state funding. The quality of construction, of which durable, low-maintenance Sunset Red Granite cladding and interior finishes is a major part, ensures both the physical and fiscal strength so that the facility will endure for many decades to come.”