In September 1961, the Texas Longhorn football team was set to open its season against the Golden Bears of the University of California. The game was to be played at Cal’s Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, and to help get more orange-minded fans in the seats, the University of Texas Ex-Students’ Association chartered its first football weekend excursion. For just under $200, the package included round trip airfare from Austin to San Francisco, two nights’ accommodations in the new Jack Tar Hotel (then billed as the most modern hotel in the world – a television in every room!), ground transportation to Berkeley, and a ticket to the game. The 80 available spots sold quickly. John Holmes, a Houston lawyer and the association’s president, was one of the first to register.
The trip also included a pre-game welcome luncheon at Cal’s Alumni House. (Photo at right is of the architectural model.) Opened seven years before, in 1954, the building was called a “house” as it was deemed a place where “alumni throughout the world can come and feel at home – at home because they are in a spot on the campus that belongs to them, was created for them, and in tribute to their accomplishments however large or small.” Outfitted with staff offices, conference rooms, a lounge, and a kitchen, the Alumni House had become a busy and important gathering place on the campus. It also left a strong and lasting impression on John Holmes. While Texas football won the day 28 – 3, Holmes was excited about the possibility of creating an alumni house in Austin, and spent the return flight conferring on the subject with alumni Executive Director Jack Maguire.
The idea of an alumni house was the solution to a long term issue: where to place a wandering alumni association. Founded in June 1885, the Ex-Students’ Association was homeless for its first 28 years until October 1913, when the University designated room 119 in the old Main Building (left) as the “Alumni Room.” Measuring 25 x 15 feet, equipped with tables, chairs, bookshelves, and its own telephone (a luxury in 1913), the walls were crammed with photos of Association presidents, University faculty, class portraits, and athletic teams.
The room, though, was only in use for four years. When Governor James Ferguson threatened to shut down the University over a controversy in 1917, the alumni rallied to protect their alma mater, and set up temporary headquarters in the Littlefield Building downtown. Two years later, after Ferguson had been impeached and World War I ended, the Association moved to the YMCA Building at the corner of 22nd and Guadalupe Streets.
In the 1920s, it ventured a little farther into west campus, where it purchased the quaint, Victorian-styled Waggener Home (above right), once owned by UT’s first president Leslie Waggener, at the corner of 23rd and San Antonio. It was here that alumni director John McCurdy and president Thomas Gregory guided the Association through the Union Project, a massive, and at times, heroic, fundraising campaign through part of the Great Depression to build Gregory and Anna Hiss gymnasiums, Hogg Auditorium, and the Texas Union.
When the Union building opened in 1933, the Association returned to campus with office space on the building’s second floor, now used as a student lounge next to the Union Ballroom. But after World War II, when a flood of returning veterans on the G. I. Bill created a boom in college enrollment across the nation, the alumni association soon discovered it needed more space.
Talks with University officials in the late 1950s led to the idea of the Association taking over the Littlefield Home at 24th and Whitis Streets, but extensive renovations would be required before the building was ready. In 1958 as a temporary measure, the staff was moved to the basement of Mary Gearing Hall, then used by the Department of Home Economics and is today the headquarters for the School of Human Ecology. The place was a little roomier, but the “mole hole,” as it informally came to be known, was difficult to find, and was certainly not suitable for the activities of a growing alumni association. After three years in its “temporary” quarters and no movement toward use of the Littlefield Home, a permanent solution was desperately needed.
John Holmes wasted no time on the Alumni House idea.The day after his return to Texas, Holmes conferred with other Association leaders, named a committee to investigate possibilities, and initiated a conversation with UT administrators. The point of contact from the University fell to UT System Vice Chancellor Larry Haskew, who moved the process along quickly.
Five weeks later, at the end of October, Haskew had prepared a draft report for the Board of Regents, which declared that “an Alumni House of distinctive character and outstanding convenience is of great importance to The University and that one should be provided as soon as possible.” The alumni committee and administration had investigated several options. The Littlefield Home was still a possibility, but serious design and financial obstacles existed. The group also looked at existing homes in the area, including the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house still located just north of campus, but the consensus was that a new facility, designed specifically for the needs of the alumni, was the best solution.
The desired location was the mostly-vacant lot on San Jacinto Boulevard, across the street from the football stadium. The area was still occupied by a pair of temporary men’s dormitories, former World War II army barracks that had been relocated to campus to accommodate the post-war growth in enrollment, but the dorms were scheduled for demolition. The space had been informally earmarked for a second student union building, but Haskew wrote, “This latter use would be enhanced, actually, by location there of Alumni House,” which implied that the alumni association and the Texas Union might join forces again in the future.
To help financially, the administration proposed using $110,000 from the Lila B. Etter trust fund, a bequest from the daughter (left) of former UT president Leslie Waggener. The alumni could add any amount desired, and the building would be known as the Etter Alumni House. Once completed and occupied, the Association would pay back the $110,000, without interest, at $5,000 per year.
The Board of Regents gave an initial green light to the project at its November meeting, and then formally approved use of the Etter fund and the San Jacinto location on February 3, 1962, a day after the Alumni Council had officially voted its consent. The local firm Jessen, Jessen, Milhouse and Greeven was brought aboard as the consulting architect, and Fred Day, a 1950 graduate of UT’s School of Architecture, was hired to design the building.
By June 1962, initial ideas had been discussed and approved, but the proposed sketch was unlike anything yet seen on the campus. “I’d feel safer,” Haskew wrote to Chancellor Harry Ransom and UT President Joe Smiley, “if both of you would look at the plot design and building schematics for the Alumni House. … My reaction is highly favorable, but the conception … is unusual enough to warrant advance cognizance of top administration before architects proceed with preliminary plans.”
Above: Fred Day’s initial plans for the Texas Alumni House. In this image, 21st Street runs along the left border with part of the Moore-Hill Residence Hall at top left, while San Jacinto Boulevard – with the stadium across the street – is at the bottom. Click on the image for an expanded view. Source: University of Texas Buildings Collection, Alexander Architecture Archives, University of Texas Libraries.
Haskew was prudent to call for “advance cognizance,” as Fred Day’s design was a bold one. The building didn’t simply nestle alongside the dappled and meandering waters of Waller Creek; the creek was the centerpiece of the plan. Day’s Alumni House resembled a squared “C” shape, with the central portion spanning the water. The east wing, nearest to San Jacinto Boulevard, contained the main entrance, lobby, and offices for the alumni association staff, while the west wing, on the far bank, housed a series of meeting rooms with creekside views, along with an extended outdoor dining terrace shaded by live oaks. Connecting the two wings was a grand main lounge and dining room, equipped with a catering kitchen. Visitors to the lounge would gaze out of full-length windows on either side to see Waller Creek pass underneath the building.
Above: The south and east views of the Alumni House.Source: University of Texas Buildings Collection, Alexander Architecture Archives, University of Texas Libraries.
To ensure enough water was present, a small dam was planned just downstream from the building that would both back up the creek and add a waterfall. A second partial barrier installed upstream, in the form of a stepping stone bridge, provided foot access across the creek and created an artificial rapids.
Day purposely located the building near the south edge of the property, where the slope of hill on the west side of the creek was a little less steep. It also reserved the rest of the land for parking and future expansion.
Above:Sterling Holloway, Allan Shivers, Harry Ransom, and Jack Maguire show off the first rendering of the UT Alumni House in August 1962. Though it’s difficult to make out much detail, the building’s entrance is in the center, the east wing with offices is to the right, and the main lounge, spanning Waller Creek, is on the left. The footbridge crossed a tributary (that still exists) which would have been redirected to be perpendicular to the creek and behind the downstream dam. Click on an image for a larger view.
A first birds-eye rendition of the Alumni House was ready in August and a formal announcement made to the press, though the reported cost varied from $250,000 – $300,000. The actual estimate was near $260,000, which required the alumni to raise $150,000 and add it to the $110,000 from the Etter fund.
With the fall 1962 semester underway and Fred Day at work on formal architectural plans, attention focused on fundraising. John Holmes appointed a fundraising committee. Former Association president Sterling Holloway agreed to chair the group, while former Texas governor Allan Shivers oversaw the acquisition of special gifts. Popular Dean of Student Life Arno Nowotny was named vice chairman. (A complete roster of the planning committee is on the right. Click on the image for a larger view.)
There were discussions with university officials on whether to concentrate on a few large donations or make a general appeal to all alumni. In the end, both strategies were used. In October and November, luncheons for prospective donors were held in cities throughout the state, including: Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Tyler, Midland, and others. On the agenda were talks by Harry Ransom, Allan Shivers, Arno Nowotny, Sterling Holloway, and Jack Maguire.
Above: Stationery used for luncheon invitations claimed that the alumni association had been “homeless since 1885.”
In concert with the fundraising luncheons, the November issue of the Alcalde alumni magazine featured a second, more detailed rendition of the building, which was now formally styled the “Lila B. Etter Alumni Center.” Included in the magazine was a general appeal for donations. Members of the Association also received letters which asked if they “could spare 144 bricks?” as a minimum $10 contribution would purchase those materials, a square yard of carpet, or two gallons of paint.
Top: A detailed view of the proposed Alumni Center, with some color added by the author to better distinguish the location of Waller Creek and the outline of the building. The east wing, in the shape of a “+,” housed offices for staff and a vault to safeguard the original alumni records, then kept on index cards. Above: A cutaway view of the main lounge, which used about 2/3 of the central wing. Beyond the doors was a smaller dining/meeting room, with a kitchen behind the wall on the far side. Click on an image for a larger view.
Along with alumni donations, other contributions came from a variety of sources. In January 1963, Allan Shivers, American Airlines president C. R. Smith, and actor Rip Torn, represented the University on “Alumni Fun,” a popular weekly quiz show broadcast on ABC. The team won $4,700, which was donated to the building fund. Along with quiz show winnings, the Canteen Company of America, one of the largest providers of vending machines in the United States, donated a week’s proceeds from three of its most popular coffee machines on the UT campus, and presented the alumni with $410 in dimes.
Above: Allan Shivers, C R Smith, and Rip Torn compete for the University of Texas in ABC’s Alumni Fun quiz show in January 1963.
By mid-spring, the campaign was a success. More than 3,000 alumni had sent contributions from $1 and greater, including three $10,000 donors, six $5,000 donors, and 25 alumni who gave $1,000 each. The new Alumni Center seemed assured, and a groundbreaking ceremony was promptly scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 6th, on the banks of Waller Creek. A large sign on the property announced the future home of the Ex-Students’ Association and told passersby to expect to see the Alumni Center within the year.
Top: A groundbreaking ceremony was held on the Waller Creek site on April 6, 1963. On the right is one of two post-WW II temporary dorms that were scheduled for removal. Groundbreaking participants included UT alumnus and Texas Governor John Connally, Board of Regents chair W. W. Heath, UT President Joe Smiley, and Dean Arno Nowotny.
The bad news came a few weeks after the groundbreaking. After bids were opened for contractors, the cost of the Alumni Center as designed was far greater than anticipated, specifically the transformation of the western bank of Waller Creek to make room for the west wing and dining terrace, the extensive use of retaining walls, and a redirected tributary to the creek so that it would remain behind the proposed dam. Through the summer of 1963, architect Fred Day attempted to redesign the structure. He shortened the west wing and reversed its direction, and then removed it outright while still preserving the main lounge. Neither brought the costs down to acceptable levels. Unwilling to reopen the fundraising drive, the Alumni Center committee reluctantly abandoned the initial plans and sent Day back to the drawing board.
Above: Fred Day attempted to redesign the Alumni Center by shortening the west wing and pointing it towards 21st Street. Source: University of Texas Buildings Collection, Alexander Architecture Archives, University of Texas Libraries.
Through the fall, Day worked on new plans for the building, placed it alongside Waller Creek instead of over it, and preserved the elements used in the initial designs. The single main lounge and dining area was divided into two connected rooms at right angles, and then joined to a larger structure around a simple square courtyard with a fountain. The plan afforded ample light throughout and office windows that faced either the courtyard or outside, while the main lounge and the dining room (today used by the Texas Expresso Café) were nudged close to the edge of Waller Creek for the best views. A walled patio adjoined the main lounge to make room for larger alumni events.
Above: The Alumni Center, drawn with Jack Maguire’s “orange carpet” welcome.
Above: The Main Lounge of the Alumni Center.
Designed in “Early Texas” style – which Fred Day described as a blend of Western and Spanish colonial – the 14,400 square foot textured brick building featured copper chandeliers in the main entrance, lounge, and dining room, that were hand-crafted in Mexico. Terra-cotta tiles, mahogany doors and paneling, vaulted beamed ceilings, and concrete Spanish roof tiles all added to the decor, along with refinished furniture from the 1930s that had originally been used when the offices were in the Texas Union. The Alumni Center, though, was also unabashedly a part of the University of Texas. Brass handles for the two front door were designed in the shape of “U’s” and attached to equally large “T’s” on the door front. The light fixtures were purposely created to evoke images of interlocking “UT’s,” and the orange and white silk-screened draperies, along with the orange carpeting in the staff offices, was hard to miss.
Construction finally began on April 27, 1964, just over a year after the groundbreaking. The alumni association staff moved into its new quarters the following February, and it was officially opened Saturday, April 3, 1965. In the morning, the graduating classes of 1940 and 1915 were the first to use the new building to start their 25 and 50-year reunions, and then joined a larger crowd outside in front for the dedication ceremony, which included performances by the Longhorn Singers and the Longhorn Band.
Executive Director Jack Maguire explained to those assembled, “Many years ago, Edgar Guest wrote a poem which began, ‘It takes a heap of livin’ to make a house a home.’ Today we are dedicating a very beautiful house. … It’s a heap of house,and we invite you to do a heap of living in it. The best invitation I can extend to you is a line which was used to introduce the 1915 Cactus. ‘The gate is down – ride through.’ Today the gate to the Lila B. Etter Alumni Center is down. Ride through it – any and every time you are here.”