How to Build a Tower

Main Building and Littlefield Fountain

It’s the Tower, the definitive landmark of the University. For more than three-quarters of a century, it has quietly watched over the daily campus bustle, breaking its silence every quarter hour to remind everyone of the passing of the day. Bathed in warm orange lights to announce honors and victories, crowned in fireworks at the climax of spring commencement ceremonies, it’s been a backdrop for freshman convocations, football rallies, concerts, and demonstrations. Architect Paul Cret intended it to be the “image carried in our memory when we think of the place,” though author J. Frank Dobie, incensed that a state so rich in land would build something better suited to New York City, branded it a “toothpick in a pie.” While academia has sometimes been called a metaphorical “ivory tower,” the University of Texas doesn’t settle for expressive substitutes. We have a tower all our own.

Old Main Library.1902.The Main Building with its 27-story Tower was to be the long-term solution to a problem that had plagued the Board of Regents for decades: how to increase the size of the library. The University library was initially housed on the first floor of the old Main Building (Photo at right. Click for a larger view.), but as its holdings increased, the space needed for additional bookshelves literally squeezed the students out of the reading room. The problem was temporarily relieved with the construction of a separate library building in 1911 (now Battle Hall), but by 1920, its quarters were again hopelessly overcrowded. A new library was needed, but where to place it?

1908 Postcard.Old Main with bluebonnets

Above: The old Main Building, surrounded by Texas Bluebonnets in the spring.

While the crest of the hill at the center of the Forty Acres was the obvious best setting for such a monumental building, it would have meant the destruction of the Victorian-Gothic Old Main. As the first structure on the campus, it was the sentimental favorite of both of faculty and alumni, and its offices and classrooms couldn’t be easily moved elsewhere. There simply wasn’t room.

Proposals included the addition of a new library north of Old Main, or, perhaps, to the south, where it would have sat in the middle of today’s South Mall and prevented the development of a grand main entrance to the University. A third scheme was to expand the existing library, double the size of the front façade, and add a 16-story tower for book stacks. All of the proposals either placed the library in an inconvenient spot or were too expensive.

Paul CretIn 1930, the Board of Regents hired Paul Cret as Consulting Architect for the University. Born in in 1876 in Lyon, France, Cret had graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, at the time considered to be the world’s best university for architecture instruction. He immigrated to the United States early in the 20th century and was the head of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania when he was agreed to take on the consulting position for UT. Cret was to design a new master plan for the campus, and among his first priorities was the solution for a new library.

Cret quickly realized that the library belonged on the top of the hill, and as he developed his master plan, the library building became the focal point of his designs. Because the plan was to be a guide for campus construction over several decades, Cret proposed building the library in parts, both to reduce costs – especially important during the 1930s and the time of the Great Depression –  and ease the pain over the removal of Old Main.

The back, lower half of the building was to be constructed immediately. It required only the destruction of the little-used north wing of Old Main, and a hallway would connect both structures. Officially it was to be known as the “library annex,” though at some point in the future it would assume the role as the primary University library. It was important for Cret to get at least part of the building on top of the hill, as it was the lynch pin for the rest of his plans.

Cret imagined that after 20 years or so – in the 1950s – when additional structures had been built to compensate for any space lost with the destruction of Old Main, UT’s first building could be finally retired, and the South façade and stack tower added to complete the library.

Main Building Construction.1.

Above: The back, lower part of the current Main Building was completed first, in 1934. Officially named the “library annex,” it was connected to Old Main, which can be see on the right. The Life Sciences Library, along with the Hall of Texas and the Hall of Noble Words, is still here.

The Board of Regents approved the plan in 1933, and construction for the north annex was finished the following year. It boasted a new Loan and Catalogue Room, also known as the Hall of the Six Coats of Arms. Two stories high, framed in marbles from West Texas, New York, Vermont, and Missouri, with walnut doors and screens, and illuminated by bronze light fixtures, the room featured the coats of arms of the six nations of which Texas has been a part: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States, and the United States.

Hall of Noble Words.2Two spacious reading rooms were placed on either side of the Catalogue Room. To the east was the Hall of Noble Words. (Photo at left.) The ceiling featured a series of heavy concrete beams painted to look like wood. Each side of a beam was decorated with quotes within a specific theme, among them: friendship, patriotism, freedom, wisdom, and truth. It was hoped that the students studying below would occasionally glance upward and be inspired by the exhortations above them. The Hall of Texas opened to the west. The beams here depicted periods of Texas settlement and history, from the times of Native Americans up to the opening of the University. While the Plant Resources Center takes up part of the Hall of Texas, it and the Hall of Noble Words are still open to the public, used by UT students for almost eight decades.

Main Building Construction.2..

Above: In the summer and fall of 1934, Old Main was demolished, and by the following January, steam shovels had arrived to dig out a foundation for the new Main Building’s facade. Battle Hall can be seen on the left and the West Mall in the distance. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

Once completed, the library annex was to have hidden behind Old Main for decades. But as the Great Depression worsened, UT sought ways to minimize the number of unemployed in Austin. The University’s ever-growing building program brought with it construction jobs that helped soften the economic blow. Robert Leon White, an alumnus who was also the University’s Supervising Architect, approached UT President Harry Benedict about finishing the library sooner. Money through the Available University Fund wasn’t available, but White wanted to apply for a loan through the newly created Public Works Administration, one of many New Deal programs initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt. Benedict was skeptical, but allowed White to try.

Main Building Construction.3.

Above: With Old Main razed, work begins in front of the “library annex.” This was the view from Battle Hall on a cold, cloudy day in January 1935. Boardwalks were constructed for students to change classes. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

White filed an application with the PWA for a $2.8 million loan, $1.8 million to complete what was labeled the Main Building and Library Extension, and the rest for three men’s and three women’s residence halls. White was optimistic, in part, because one of his childhood friends was Tully Garner, son of then Vice President John Garner from Uvalde. Using these connections, White arranged a meeting with the vice president for him and Beauford Jester, chair of the Board of Regents. The meeting was a positive one, and Garner agreed to give his support to the University’s application.  A few months later, UT received the funds it needed, and the early completion of the University’s new Main Building and Tower was guaranteed.

Main Building Construction.4.

Above: With work well underway in front of the Main Building, the Tower, which will serve as the book stacks for the library, begins to rise from the one-time “library annex.” From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

The formal dedication ceremony was held Saturday, February 27, 1937. President Benedict, and Regents Beauford Jester and Lutcher Stark made appropriate remarks. A sealed box filled with papers pertaining to the construction of the new Main Building was placed inside a cornerstone next to the south entrance in the building’s loggia.

Main Building Construction.5.

Above: By the end of 1935, the Main Building and its Tower are taking shape. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

Designed as a closed-stack library, the Tower was intended to store the University’s general collections. Sheathed in Indiana Limestone, its infrastructure was built by the Snead Stack Company of New Jersey. Patrons entered the building through the south loggia, climbed one flight up the central staircase, and entered the Catalogue Room. After searching an immense card catalog, readers requested books at the front desk. Orders were then forwarded upstairs to a Tower librarian, who often navigated the rows of bookshelves in roller skates. Once found, books were sent downstairs in a special elevator, then to the main desk to be checked out. Newspapers and magazines were stored on the ground floor, and special collections, including rare books and Latin-American literature, were housed in separate rooms in the building. For a while, it was informally dubbed the Mirabeau B. Lamar Library, but the name wasn’t very popular. Students and faculty preferred a remembrance to Old Main that had once inhabited the spot, and simply called the library the new Main Building.

Main Building Construction.8.

Above: Exactly one year away from its dedication, the Tower is more than halfway complete. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

Main Building.Littlefield Fountain.1938

Above: Officially opened on February 27, 1937, the Main Building and Tower served as the University Library until the 1960s, when higher enrollment and greater usage meant more than a half hour wait to retrieve a book from the Tower stacks. In 1964, the Undergraduate Library – today’s Flawn Academic Center – was opened with direct access to the bookshelves. 

Photo credits: Many of the images in the post come from the University of Texas Buildings Collection, Alexander Architecture Archive, University of Texas Libraries.

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