Life in Cliff Courts

The G. I. Bill more than doubled UT enrollment in three months.

Above: Post World War II class change on the Main Mall. 

When the war ended, the invasion began.

On June 22, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the “G.I. Bill.” (Photo at left.) With millions of veterans returning home from the Second World War, and with limited employment and housing opportunities to greet them, the legislation was meant both to ease the transition to civilian life, and mitigate the surge of jobseekers on the economy.

The G.I. Bill provided a variety of assistance from which a veteran could choose: a year of unemployment benefits, low interest loans to start a business or buy a house, or stipends for tuition and living expenses to attend a vocational school or a four-year college or university.

Designers of the bill added the education benefit both to allay concerns that too many of America’s youth had missed college because of the war, and to delay some veterans from entering the job market immediately. As the war was ending, surveys of the troops indicated that about 200,000 planned to enter college, but the actual number surprised everyone. Just over two million veterans – more than ten times the estimate – opted to continue their education.

Universities scrambled to accommodate the flood of new students. Additional teachers were hired. Congress authorized $75 million for a Federal Works Administration Project that transported what were then unused barracks and other buildings from military bases to college campuses as makeshift dorms and temporary classrooms. But the issue was more complicated than just finding room for everyone. As students, the veterans were unlike any of their predecessors.

Traditional college undergraduates had long been between 18 and 22 years old, just out of high school, and living on their own for the first time. The veterans, though, were older, more mature, and the war had provided many of them with significant life experiences. They were serious about completing their degrees, asked more questions in class, and usually earned higher grades than their younger counterparts.  “The returning service men and women who now fill our institutions of higher learning to overflowing are by far the ablest students American college teachers have been privileged to instruct,” lauded Chancellor Bill Tolley of Syracuse University. “Thousands of college professors dread the approach of that inevitable day when they will be back among the eighteen-year-olds, and once more must measure their strength against the resisting medium of the adolescent mind.”

Some of the veterans were also married. Before the GI Bill, a married student was still a campus rarity; at some colleges it had been grounds for dismissal. And a size-able number of married students had already started families. For the first time, baby carriages, diapers, and high chairs were a part of the American collegiate scene.

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While the University of Texas had prepared for an influx of veterans, the full effect of the GI Bill created something of a campus emergency. Enrollment at the end of the spring 1946 semester was 6,794. Three months later, 17,108 students arrived for fall classes, of whom almost 11,000 were veterans. (Over the next decade, over 25,000 World War II vets would attend UT.) Some academic departs doubled or tripled in size overnight, while the law school increased ten-fold, from 78 to 797 students.

Class registration, to put it kindly, was a challenge. Students crowded the loggia at the south entrance to the Main Building to pick up registration time cards (photo at left) before waiting in extensive lines at Waggener Hall to complete forms, present medical records, and sign up for placement tests. Registration itself was held in the un-air conditioned Gregory Gym, where tables for academic departments were arranged in rows and students placed their names on class rosters. The more popular courses and class times filled up early; those who waited to start the process at the Main Building had fewer choices.

Above: Class registration in a crowded Gregory Gym.

Living off limited government stipends, most veterans couldn’t afford to replace their entire wardrobe with civilian clothes right away, and instead sported the military apparel they still owned. The campus teemed with flight jackets, naval pea coats, and Eisenhower jackets (or “Ike jackets”). All were worn with the ubiquitous gold discharge lapel pins (photo at right). For a time, it was impossible to enter a store on the Drag and not hear veterans sharing their war stories.

As expected, Veteran-related student organizations proliferated. The Ex-Servicemen’s Association was, by far, the largest group on campus, along with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Navy Pilot Club, Canopy Club (Army parachutists), Semper Fidelis Club (Marines), Disabled American Veterans, and even a group for former prisoners of war.

Above: With a table in front of Gregory Gym during class registration, the Ex-Servicemen’s Association recruits new members.

Sprinting just ahead of the flood of new students, University administrators raced to add 176 full-time teaching positions and revamped the class schedule to run continuously from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., while lab classes continued until 11:30 p.m. Additional classroom space was provided through 14 surplus military buildings transported from Camp Wallace in Galveston. One was placed on the South Mall – where Parlin Hall stands today – to serve as the campus offices of the Veterans Administration. The others housed 36 classrooms, four chemistry labs, an engineering workshop, faculty offices, a student health service annex, and a cafeteria.

Above left: Temporary classroom facilities installed on the East Mall as seen from the UT Tower observation deck. Look close! Two more are on either side of Gregory Gym. Click on an image for a larger view.  

What used to be a longstanding, campus-wide lunch break from 1 – 2 p.m. was abandoned, in part, because there simply wasn’t room for everyone to dine at the same time. The Texas Union’s Commons could accommodate 2,000 persons, and cafes along the Drag and just south of campus could handle another 1,500. Most students either went home or brought lunch with them.

The greatest concern, though, was housing. Residence halls, boarding houses, and apartments filled quickly. Soon, there were veterans living in attics, basements, garages, or any nook that might hold a bed and a desk.

The University’s three men’s residence halls – Brackenridge, Roberts, and Prather- temporarily increased the usual two persons per room to three  room. Eight, two-story Bachelor Officers’ Quarters – or “BOQs” – were acquired from Louisiana and placed along San Jacinto Boulevard as additional men’s dorms.To accommodate some of the married students, UT constructed the Brackenridge Apartments on the Brackenridge Tract southwest of campus near Lake Austin.

Above: This photo of the 1963 groundbreaking for the alumni center includes an image of one of the two “BOQs” placed on the site as temporary dorms. In all, eight BOQs were positioned along San Jacinto Boulevard. 

Perhaps the most unusual housing arrangements were 150 hutments. Pre-fabricated, 16-foot square units, they were originally built for Higgins Industries, a large, prolific defense contractor based in New Orleans. The hutments were to house employees but never used, and acquired by the University through the Federal Emergency Housing Administration. Grouped in to three “mini-neighborhoods” on campus and at the Brackenridge Tract, each unit housed up to four persons. Furnished, with electricity, running water, heat, and with a bathroom (though no kitchen, air conditioning, or telephone service), rent was $22.00 per month, split among the residents. To better serve the students, the University connected the hutments with sidewalks, and added clotheslines, storm drains, and trash bins.

Above: The University constructed three neighborhoods of hutments: at Little Campus, where the Collections Deposit Library now stands; on the northeast corner of campus, the site of today’s Law School; and on the Brackenridge Tract. 

At the last minute, 33 additional “double hutments” were ordered. These were twice the size (16 x 32 feet), divided into a study area on one side, and with sleeping quarters and a bathroom on the other. Arranged in four rows, the hutments were placed just south of Prather Hall, about where the RecSports outdoor basketball courts are today. The location was atop a short cliff that overlooked present day Clark Field, and was named “Cliff Courts.” Rent was slightly higher, $30.00 per month, divided among roommates.

Above: An overhead view and map of the Cliff Courts area. Gregory Gym, Brackenridge, Roberts, and Prather Halls, as well as the stadium, can be seen along the top. To the left, the intramural field is the present site of Jester Center residence hall and the Blanton Museum of Art. The open field to the right is today’s Clark Field. In the middle, the four rows of pre-fabicated huts that were cliff Courts.

The hutments were meant to be a makeshift housing solution and expected to last three years. But while the other hutment communities had disappeared by 1950, Cliff Courts remained for over a decade.

Isolated from the busier areas of campus, the “Cliff Dwellers,” as the residents came to be known, created their own community. As veterans, they shared their war experiences, helped each other through the trials of returning to school, and formed lifelong friendships. While they were serious about completing their degrees, more than one Cliff Dweller noticed that the Courts were much closer to Scholz’ Beer Garden than to UT’s main library, then in the Tower.

The residents found ways to dine together (either by using electric hot pots to cook simple meals or going together to one of the off-campus cafes), fielded intramural sports teams, and organized their own social events. The group’s first dance party was held in the Roberts Hall lounge. Refreshments were provided, music was courtesy a borrowed record player, prizes awarded to the best waltzers and jitter-buggers, and “card tables, ping-pong tables, and other amusements” were available. When warm weather made sleeping in the un-air conditioned hutments difficult, the Cliff Dwellers moved their beds outside, next to the overhang above today’s Clark Field, and slept under the stars, taking advantage of the southeastern breezes that arrived from the Gulf of Mexico.

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Over the years, as the surge of returning veterans eased, Cliff Courts remained as an inexpensive housing option for more traditional UT students. Rent was raised slightly, to $45 per semester for each resident, to help with the rising costs of maintenance on the hutments. It was, in the long run, a losing battle. The structures were meant to be temporary, but the constant upkeep made it economically difficult to operate them. Besides, the lack of conveniences, especially of telephone service, made the Courts less popular.  In 1960, after a 14-year run, Cliff Courts was closed and the hutments sold.

Above: An aerial view of the Cliff Courts area. Waller Creek and San Jacinto Boulevard are lower right, next to today’s Clark Field. Cliff Courts was perched on the shallow cliff above the field, just south of Prather Hall.

One thought on “Life in Cliff Courts

  1. Excellent article, Jim! It’s amazing to see the transitions through which the University has gone. Every Longhorn owes you a debt of gratitude for bringing these stories to us and allowing us to appreciate the foundation on which our beloved institution is built.

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