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Seven wonders of Texas architecture tell the story of the state and its people

The thought of noteworthy buildings brings to mind places like Paris, Monaco or New York — usually not Texas. But Larry Speck, dean of the UT School of Architecture, begs to differ with that notion.

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AUSTIN, Texas—The thought of noteworthy buildings brings to mind places like Paris, Monaco or New York — usually not Texas. But Larry Speck, dean of the UT School of Architecture, begs to differ with that notion.

There are at least seven wonders of Texas architecture, he says. And like landmarks of other locales, they tell the story of the state and its people.

Take the Alamo, for instance. The wonder of that structure is that it reminds Texans of the state’s Hispanic heritage. In fact, all five of the 18th century Spanish missions in San Antonio are reminders that Texas has its roots in the culture of Spain.

“When you go to the Alamo you can still feel what it was like to be a pioneer almost 300 years ago,” Speck said. “It’s not just a building. It’s a lifestyle.”

The Alamo was built in the early 1700’s simultaneously with the colonial village of Williamsburg, Va., the more commonly regarded symbol of our nation’s beginnings.

Another San Antonio landmark on Speck’s list of architectural wonders is the River Walk, or Paseo del Rio. An outstanding example of urban design along the San Antonio River, the River Walk today is one of Texas’ most popular tourist attractions.

But it has not always been so. Until the late 1930s, the river was little more than a drainage ditch that backed up to deteriorating downtown buildings. After a severe flood in 1921, the city hired an engineering firm, which recommended that the river be filled in and paved.

But architect Robert H.H. Hugman came up with a unique plan to turn the river into a beautiful focal point for shops, clubs, restaurants and hotels. It took Hugman 10 years to secure funding for the project, which was completed by the federal Work Projects Administration (WPA). The River Walk did not become a commercial success until the 1960s, when the world’s fair (HemisFair) gave San Antonio global exposure.

In Austin, Speck selected two buildings to highlight. The first is Battle Hall on the University of Texas campus. It was designed in 1910 by Cass Gilbert, who had designed the U.S. Customs House in New York and the state capitol of Minnesota.

“He was impressed with the clear sky and the climate here,” said Speck, who added that Gilbert also liked the native limestone of Texas. Gilbert’s concepts shaped the development of the remainder of the UT campus.

Battle Hall, a modified Spanish Renaissance building, originally was the campus library. Today it serves as the School of Architecture Library.

Texas limestone was also to be used to build the Texas Capitol, another building on Speck’s honor roll. But the limestone was replaced by pink granite from nearby Granite Shoals after it was discovered that the creamy limestone would eventually streak yellow because of its mineral content.

Completed in 1888, the capitol was designed by Elijah E. Myers of Detroit, one of the leading architects of his time. “The Capitol is a wonderful depiction of rough and tumble Texas,” said Speck. “For that time period, the building was an enormous gesture of confidence and brashness.”

Not all of the seven wonders are in big cities. The Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie, built in 1896, is representative of county buildings in dozens of other Texas counties. It fits the prototype Texas courthouse square surrounded by commercial buildings in the center of town.

Made of limestone, granite and sandstone, this Richardsonian Romanesque structure was designed by James Riely Gordon. Gordon distinguished himself as a designer of courthouses, eventually building 16 such buildings in Texas and more than 60 across the nation.

The most modern building on Speck’s list ¬ and his personal favorite ¬ is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. “It is serene. A great cultural institution for all kinds of people,” Speck said. “It is very Texas æ low slung and made with tawny colored materials. It does an excellent job of softening the harsh Texas light.”

Louis I. Kahn was the architect for the museum, which was completed in 1972.

Speck’s final selection could be a surprise to some. It is the Astrodome in Houston, built in 1964. “I love it for its modernity,” he said. “It’s a gutsy building, remarkable for its technical features.”

The stadium was the first enclosed, air-conditioned baseball field, the forerunner of other such athletic fields. It is remarkable for its innovation in assuring that professional baseball could be played in one of the hottest cities in the major leagues.

To educate the public on Texas’ architectural heritage, Speck gives speeches and presentations about the seven wonders. The seven structures are a short list pared down from 20 selected by a task force of Texas architects in the 1980s.

Speck wrote a book about the 20 structures, and it was published by UT Press in 1986 to coincide with the Texas Sesquicentennial.