UT Myth-Conceptions: A Rice Owl in the Tower

Yikes! The main library at Indiana University is sinking into the ground at the rate of an inch a year. The fault lies with the building’s designer – who graduated from rival Purdue – as he didn’t take into account the extra weight of the books on the shelves. At Iowa State, a student who carelessly treads on the university seal inlaid on the floor of the union building will fail his next exam. And Princeton undergraduates who exit the campus through the iron FitzRandolph gates before their graduation might not complete their degrees.

They’re all campus myths, of course, and are as common to colleges as all-nighters. This is one of a series of posts to set the record straight on some of those pesky legends that inhabit the University of Texas.

Myth: When viewed at an angle, UT’s Tower looks like an owl because it was designed by a Rice University graduate.

Of all the legends on the Forty Acres, this may be the one most frequently repeated. When the top of the Tower is viewed from a diagonal, two of the faces of the clock appear to be an owl’s eyes, while the pointed corner of the observation deck suggests a beak. This is intentional, as the story is told, because the Tower was designed by a graduate of Rice University, whose mascot is the owl. The same myth has recently been extended to the Frost Bank Building, which was opened in 2004 on Congress Avenue downtown. Apparently, Rice architecture grads are very busy.

But it’s not true, at least not on the Forty Acres. The architect of UT’s Main Building and Tower was Paul Cret (pronounced “Cray”), who was born in Lyon, France in 1876, and graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then considered the finest place in the world to study architecture. In 1920, the 44-year old Cret immigrated to the United States and was the head of the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia when he was hired as the University’s consulting architect in 1930.

1933-paul-cret-1933-campus-master-plan-central-portion

Above: A portion of Paul Cret’s 1933 campus master plan for the University of Texas. The original painting, about 12 feet long, is preserved in the Alexander Architecture Archive, on the ground floor of Battle Hall. Click on an image for a larger view.

Cret’s campus master plan, finished in 1933, influenced the University’s architecture for decades. The South Mall and its “six pack” of buildings, Goldsmith Hall and the Texas Union on the West Mall, Hogg Auditorium, Mary Gearing, Painter, and Welch Halls are among the products of Cret’s designs.

Above: A little-known early version of the University Tower. (See text.)

Starting with Battle Hall (designed by architect Cass Gilbert in 1910), UT buildings have followed a Mediterranean Renaissance style. Cret continued this theme, though there is a little-known and VERY suspicious early rendition of the Tower by the native Frenchman tucked away in the University Archives. (Photo above.)

All right, I may have made up part of that last paragraph. Perhaps it’ll be the birth of a new campus legend…

How did the Tower-Rice myth get its start? One possibility is connected to Dr. William Battle, who was hired in 1893 to teach Greek and Classical studies, and rose through the academic ranks to be a professor, dean, and for a short time, the acting president of the University. He founded the University Co-op, designed the UT Seal, and for many years was the chair of the Faculty Building Committee, a group that advised the Board of Regents on campus construction. Because of Battle’s extensive contributions and experience on the campus, the Board of Regents relied heavily on his advice and judgment. A new building wasn’t approved unless Battle agreed.

When Battle was first hired, he was assigned an office on the top floor of the old Main Building’s central tower. He named his new digs the “owl’s nest.”

In the 1930s, when the current Main Building replaced Old Main, Battle was again given an office on the top floor of the Tower – he joked that he had the “highest office in the land.” – and continued to call it the owl’s nest. After Battle retired in the 1950s, the reference could have transferred to the physical appearance of the Tower and evolved to be mistakenly associated with Rice University.

1937-ut-tower-aerial-view

Above: An 1937 aerial photograph of the newly finished Main Building and Tower.

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