GOD & TEXAS: Master Builder


The Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville is not a vacation destination of choice. Affectionately known as “The Walls” unit, it has been featured in Hollywood movies with such actors as Kevin Costner, Steve McQueen, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro.


Abner Hugh Cook both designed and built the penitentiary in Huntsville (1849). Additionally, he was the contractor of the State Lunatic Asylum (1857), the designer of the original Old Main at the University of Texas (1884), and the builder of Woodlawn Mansion (1853), in Austin. He also designed all of the woodwork in the state capitol (1852), and his masterpiece design was the Governor’s Mansion (1856).


A native of North Carolina, Cook was born in 1814. By the young age of 25, he was already an experienced designer and builder, having studied under the coaching of renowned architect Samuel Lemly.


When Cook arrived in Austin in 1839, his creativity and skill earned him the title of Master Builder. He was best known as a successful designer using the Greek Revival style. Though many of the buildings he created have now been razed, his work is still respected today.


In 1842, Cook met and married a widow named Eliza Taylor Logan. Together, they had sons Abner, Jr., Charles, Frank, and Edgar. Abner, Jr. would later go into the building business and teamed with his father on many projects.


When Abner Cook was contracted to build the Governor’s Mansion, he was asked to design it with a strong resemblance to previous homes he had built including the Raymond House, the Shaw House, and the Neill-Cochran House. Each of them had the dominant two-story six-column (hexastyle) porticos, and the “wheat sheaf” design of the ornamental railing (known as the balustrade) on the balcony. This was the hallmark of Abner Cooks designs.


To this day, you can drive the streets of Austin and marvel at the designs of Abner Cook. This “Master Builder” remains highly revered and studied in the field of Texas architecture. Besides being remembered for his designs, Cook left an even more notable heritage.


Abner Cook was known throughout the city as a committed Christian. His devotion to Christ guided him and several others to establish the first church in Austin in October 1839. It is said that Abner Cook built the first Presbyterian church with his own hands, out of logs and materials that he obtained for the task.


Later, he would design and build two more Presbyterian churches to minister in the city of Austin. One was located at 8th and Brazos streets, and the other at 7th and Lavaca streets. When he died in 1884, many accolades were given, not only for his professionalism as a “Master Builder,” but for his public commitment to Christ, the foundation and cornerstone of his life.


Like the “Master Builder,” build your life on Christ. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11 NLT).


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