The Old Main Cornerstone

Above: The cornerstone of the Old Main sits in the front loggia of the current Main Building. The stone was supposed to be placed on November 16, 1882, but a rainy cold front postponed the ceremony to the 17th. Austin stonemason Ben Muschamp, who’d carved the letters in the cornerstone, didn’t have time to create a new one with the corrected date. 

It was a wretched morning. A cold front the day before had brought with it a frigid gale and steady rain, which forced a postponement of the ceremonies. Conditions hadn’t improved much overnight. For the moment, the rain had stopped, but a brisk wind enforced the damp chill of the autumn air, and the cursed clouds threatened to douse the city again. It was hardly the kind of day anyone had imagined to celebrate the beginnings of a new university.

On Friday, November 17, 1882, in defiance of the raw elements, a crowd of several thousand turned out in Austin to watch the laying of the cornerstone for the University of Texas. Just before noon, a parade assembled at the head of Congress Avenue, in front of the Capitol grounds. The place was nearly vacant. The old capitol had burned nearly a year ago, and construction of a grand new building hadn’t yet begun.

Leading off the parade was the popular George Herzog Marching Band. With their crisp, red and gold uniforms and brass horns, the group splashed through the muddy streets playing “souls stirring and foot stomping music.” Behind them, a long procession of horse-drawn carriages carried the governor, the University regents, the Mayor of Austin, and other state and city dignitaries. Following on foot were many of the city’s civic groups, dressed in uniform or their finest attire. Members of the Knights of Honor were joined by the United Order of Workmen and the Knights of Pythias.  The polished wagons of the Austin Fire Department came next, along with the Germania Association and the Austin Greys.

At the west entrance to the campus along Guadalupe Street, the procession was met by Austin schoolchildren, who joined the group as it climbed the hill. The assemblage gathered near the top, where the foundation had been laid for the west wing of the University’s first building.

Above: The cornerstone ceremony for the old Main Building. The stone is held by a hand crane just right of top center. In front was supposed to be seating on long planks supported by wooden barrels, but most elected to stand and huddle together in the cold. Click on an image for a larger view.

A crude, wooden platform was hastily erected at the construction site, upon which were seats for the distinguished guests. For the audience, benches had been improvised with long planks supported by wooden barrels. Most of the spectators, though, in order to keep warm (and avoid splinters), elected to stand, and huddled together against the cold.

Dr. Ashbel Smith, the 75-year old chairman of the Board of Regents, spoke at length. “We have come together to do a great work,” boasted Smith. “The corner stone of the University of Texas . . . far surpasses in solemn importance and in weighty, widely diffusive and long reaching consequences, any corner stone of any building hitherto laid, or likely hereafter to be laid, in the broad territory of the future millions of Texas.” A feisty orator, Smith was neither modest nor short of words. His speech lasted well over an hour, and he predicted a wonderful future for the new university.

Following Dr. Smith’s address, a few “official” items were placed in a small lead box that would be sealed inside the cornerstone: copies of Texas newspapers, a list of the Board of Regents, and a proclamation written by Governor Oran Roberts. But there was room for more, and the public was invited to contribute.

The crowd was ready, and the box was filled with an odd assortment of items. Business cards, police badges, a Bible, rosters and constitutions of local organizations, a piece of sheet music from a member of the George Herzog Band, locks of hair from several Austin debutantes, a cigar, and coins of all types were donated. Former Texas Governor Frank Lubbock contributed a lucky charm – a brass button – that he’d carried for over 40 years to ward off rheumatism, presumably to keep the University agile as it aged. Lastly, of all things, was a picture of Queen Victoria, clipped from a Harper’s magazine and mailed to the regents by “an unfortunate man in jail.” Once filled, the lead box was closed and set, and the hollow cornerstone lowered over it by a hand crane.

~~~~~~~~~~

Above: Some of the onlookers gather to watch the removal of the of the Old Main cornerstone in 1934, some sitting on the balconies of Battle Hall. In front, UT President Harry Benedict is fourth from right in the white hat. The camera on the tripod at front right took the image below. 

Above: The Old Main cornerstone is removed from its perch on the southeastern corner of the building, then taken to the president’s office to be opened.

Just over half a century later, on the sweltering summer afternoon of Saturday, July 21, 1934, UT President Harry Benedict, Board of Regents Chair Beauford Jester, and about 100 others gathered near the same spot to witness the cornerstone’s removal. Old Main was about to be razed to make room for the current Main Building and Tower.

Unlike the highly organized 1882 ceremony, the 1934 event was very informal. There were no planned speeches, though among the spectators was 64-year old Arthur Stiles, the only person present to have seen the cornerstone set in place. He recounted the colorful parade that braved a true Texas Norther and the “rotund bearded figures” who spoke glowing terms of the University’s future. As the cornerstone was removed from its resting place, a lone trumpeter at the top of the building’s central tower sounded “Taps,” which officially closed Old Main. The lead box was recovered from inside the stone and taken to the president’s office, where the contents were examined, recorded, and then replaced.

Above: The cornerstone as it appeared in Old Main. The carved letters were filled with paint to make them easier to read. One side listed members of the Board of Regents, the other displayed the names of the building’s architect and construction contractor.

Above: A crowd in the president’s office, then on the first floor of Sutton Hall, to see the contents of the Old Main cornerstone. The open lead box is on the right side of the desk. Click on an image for a larger view. 

When the present Main Building was dedicated on February 27, 1937, the box was placed inside the new cornerstone, complete with a lucky charm to fend off rheumatism.

Among the contents of the 1882 Old Main cornerstone:

  • The Austin Daily Statesman, Friday, November 17, 1882
  • The Galveston Daily News, Thursday, November 16, 1882
  • Dallas Daily Herald, Friday, November 10, 1882
  • Fort Worth Daily Gazette, Friday, November 10, 1882
  • The Daily Post (Houston), Thursday, November 16, 1882
  • “Governor’s Message” – Proclamation or Governor Oran Roberts,
  • to convene a special session of the Texas Legislature,
  • Executive Office, Austin, Texas, March 1, 1882
  • One picture card advertisement: George A. Brush, Austin, Texas, Dealer in Stoves, etc
  • One package of cigarette papers, belonging to N.P. Houx
  • A poem called “The Book of Life,” by Lee C. Hasby, Houston, Texas, November 14, 1882
  • “Constitutions of Grand and Subordinate Lodges of the Knights of Pythias of Texas,” adopted, Galveston, April, 1882.
  • Handwritten copy of the Roster of Mount Bonnell Lodge, No. 34, Knights of Pythias, April, 1882
  • “The Constitution and By-Laws of the Kindred Association of Texas,” 1882
  • A handwritten copy of the Board of Regents of The University of Texas, November, 1882
  • Printed Booklet: “Plan of Organization and Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Public Free Schools of the City of Austin for 1882-1883.”
  • A copy of “Form of State or Provincial Constitution Recommended for the Association of a State or Province,” and handwritten on the cover, “Return to James Down, Secretary and Treasurer, Austin Y.M.C.A.”
  • A handwritten letter to Alexander P. Wooldridge, Secretary to the Board of Regents. Dated November 16, 1882, the letter was from F.W. Hanks, then an inmate at the Travis County Jail. Enclosed in the letter was a picture of Queen Victoria, clipped from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
  • Muster Roll, Company “A” 2nd Regiment, Texas Volunteer Guards
  • Muster Roll of Terry’s Texas Rangers
  • Printed Booklet: “Reminiscences of Persons, Events, Records and Documents of Texian Times” by Mrs. W. A. C. Wilson, Austin, 1882
  • Drawing of the “New Capitol of the State of Texas,” by S. B. Hill, 818 Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas
  • An envelope containing the names of the artisans and mechanics employed in the construction of the University’s Main Building, a drawing of the completed building, and a photograph of its architect, F. E. Ruffini.
  • Advertising pamphlet for “Bandy and Parker, Manufacturers and Dealers in Saddles and Harnesses,” East Pecan Street, Austin, Texas
  • A piece of an envelope with the return addresses printed: J. W. Graham, Druggist, 918 Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas”
  • The business card of “J.A. Southern, Austin, Texas, Hack No. 12” (a horse-drawn taxi)
  • Locks of hair from: Miss Stella Wooten, Miss Etta Wooten, Miss Maud Wooten, Miss Tommie Wooten, Miss Tully Folts, Miss Mary Goldwyn, Miss Will Elle Hardeman.
  • A copy of the music to “Allegheny,” by I. J. Heffley with the words “Herzog Band” written on top in pencil.
  • A one hundred dollar Confederate bill
  • A sergeant’s badge from the Austin Police Department
  • A copy of “The Holy Bible,” printed in New York, 1882
  • One U.S. Silver Dollar, 1881
  • One Peso, Republica de Chile, 1876
  • A round whistle
  • A cigar
  • Three pecans
  • One brass button (a lucky charm donated by Governor Frank Lubbock)
  • 8 street car tokens for the “Austin City Railroad Co.”
  • A 50 Centavos coin, Republica Mexicana, 1879
  • 2 U.S. quarters, dated 1853 and 1877
  • A U.S. nickel, dated 1876
  • A U.S. two-cents coin, dated 1865
  • 7 U.S. pennies, dated from 1857 – 1882
  • One dozen marbles

Sources: Photos of the cornerstone removal are found in the Alexander Architecture Archives of the University of Texas at Austin, Main Building and Library Extension files, Box D171.

1 thought on “The Old Main Cornerstone

  1. Another excellent history piece, Jim; one can almost imagine being present in the crowd when the cornerstone was laid, and again when it was removed and opened.

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