The Best and Worst of Times: Tejas in the 1930s

University Avenue View.1938
It was the best of times. And it was the worst of times.

Through the decade of the 1930s, economic hardships that accompanied the Great Depression profoundly affected American higher education. Public universities faced cuts in state appropriations, which resulted in reduced faculties with smaller salaries and greater teaching loads. Parents made serious sacrifices to send their sons and daughters to college; most students worked part-time if they could, as just a few dollars often made the difference between dropping out and graduation. Presidents of smaller colleges, which depended on tuition funds to remain open, scrambled to keep students from leaving and resorted to creative financing. Carthage College in Illinois accepted coal instead of cash for tuition, while the University of North Dakota allowed payments in farm produce. The efforts paid off. Nationwide, enrollment rose through the 1930s, evidence of the value most Americans then placed on a college degree.

At the University of Texas, the reality of the Depression made itself known in 1933, when legislative reductions in UT’s appropriation required the Board of Regents to lower all faculty salaries by 25 per cent. Tuition, which had been free for in-state students until the 1920s, was raised from its initial $30 to $50 per year. In order to make ends meet, students found part-time or full-time jobs. Funds for work-study programs were provided by the U. S. government through President Roosevelt’s New Deal, first through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later by the National Youth Administration (NYA). Employed at 36 cents an hour, UT students were hired as janitors, traffic police, groundskeepers, and office assistants. Enrollment grew from 5,700 students in 1930 to more than 10,000 by the end of the decade.

West Mall and Texas Union.1938.ColorCampus life was more subdued than in the 1920s. More than a few parents had flirted with poverty in order to send their sons and daughters to Austin, and the students responded by taking academics more seriously. Gone were the abundance of parties and dances of the overindulgent Roaring Twenties. UT students spent less money on dates, and opted for hikes or picnics instead of road trips or shows. “Navajo Parties” were popular. Equipped with a Navajo blanket and a picnic basket, couples would drive to Dillingham’s Pasture, a privately owned farm eight miles north of campus. For 25 cents, students could park undisturbed, and about a half-hour before the midnight dorm curfew, Mr. Dillingham would ring a warning bell before personally riding out on horseback to each car. The most popular social events were the weekly all-University dances held in the Texas Union Ballroom and Gregory Gym. Well-known jazz performers such as Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington made appearances on the campus.

Above right: From 1938, this is the earliest known color photo of the West Mall. The “UT” in the grassy area at the bottom of the image was usually highlighted with orange and white flowering plants. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

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Shacks on Speedway

Above: In the 1920s, a row of pinewood shacks stood along Speedway, where Waggener Hall and the McCombs School of Business are today. Initially used as barracks during World War I, they became temporary classrooms.

And yet, despite all the adversity wrought by the Great Depression, the 1930s were also boon years for the University. Since 1911, when UT’s meager finances weren’t enough to keep up with a growing enrollment, the campus was littered with plain, inexpensive, wooden shacks. Used for classrooms as well as the men’s and women’s gymnasiums, they were constructed from pine and had no foundation. University presidents purposely left them unpainted in the hope that the Texas Legislature would find the shacks’ appearance too embarrassing and replace them with adequate buildings. A sympathetic president at the University of Illinois declared them to be the finest example of “shackeresque architecture” in the country.

1923 Santa RitaOil was discovered on UT owned West Texas lands in 1923, which brought much-needed relief in the form of royalties to the Permanent University Fund (PUF). But as the PUF began to swell, the money could only be invested. Profits from investments were deposited in the Available University Fund (AUF), which could then be spent on new buildings. While oil companies were frantically drilling on UT lands, it was expected to take many years for the AUF to grow sufficiently to rid the campus of the hated shacks.

Left: The Santa Rita oil well was the first gusher on UT lands in 1923.

Not wanting to wait, the Board of Regents convinced Texas voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 1930 which allowed the board to issue bonds directly from the PUF for a $6 million building program. At the same time, UT graduate Tom Gregory, as president of the Ex-Students’ Association, had galvanized his fellow alumni and launched the Union Project, an ambitious $600,000 fundraising campaign to build the Texas Union, new gyms for men and women (today named for Gregory and Anna Hiss), and Hogg Auditorium. Dedicated alumni weren’t deterred by the Depression. Some missed meals in order to save enough for their $1 a year pledge to the fund.

Main Building and Tower Construction.1935The result was a massive transformation of the campus in just a few years. By 1933, as the University celebrated it 50th anniversary, 14 new buildings were opened in three years. They included Gregory and Anna Hiss Gyms, the Texas Union, and Hogg Auditorium, along with facilities for chemistry (Welch), business (Waggener), architecture (Goldsmith), geology (W. C. Hogg), physics (Painter), and home economics (Mary Gearing). Before the end of the decade, with the help of New Deal grants and loans, the Main Building and Tower (photo, above right) – as the University’s new library – would be completed, along with Brackenridge, Roberts, Prather, Carothers, and Andrews residence halls, and the Texas Memorial Museum. The unsightly wooden shacks disappearded, and the abundance of construction jobs generated for such a large project spared Austin from the brunt of the Great Depression.

Gregory Gym.1930s

Above: Gregory Gym, opened in 1930 was the first phase of the Union Project.

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Tejas House.1907 Nueces StreetAfter years of wandering, the Tejas Club settled on a home. Following its organizational banquet in September 1925, the group rented the second story of a house, just south of campus at 1906 Wichita Street, that was also being used as a dry cleaning shop. The proprietor allowed the Club to use part of the downstairs for social events and gave the members discounts on their cleaning. After two years of makeshift quarters, the Club sought out more spacious accommodations, and for a year lived in an unfurnished three-story house at 1907 Nueces (photo, above right), in the neighborhood west of campus. Eldon Hancock, as the Club’s first business manager, rummaged through the nearly 20 shops across Austin that sold new and used furniture, and room rent was set at $8.50 per month. The house, though, proved too large and too expensive to be economically viable for the long term. After a year, in 1928, a more modest and suitable house was found just northwest of campus, at 307 West 26th Street. There the Club would reside through the Second World War.

Tejas Club House.26th Street

Above: The Tejas Club house on 26th Street. The street is seen along the bottom of the image. The house faced east (left) toward an alley that continued to 24th Street. Out of the photo to the right is a Gulf service station. To the left is the base of a moonlight tower that stood next to the house. Behind the tower, in the distance to the south, is the bellfry of the University Methodist Church. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Tejas Members.Front PorchThe two-story, clapboard house stood behind a Gulf service station that was at the corner of 26th and Guadalupe Streets, and while the house address placed it along 26th, the front door actually faced toward the east. A single lane alley fronted the house and continued two blocks south, where it emptied out on 24th Street, between the Littlefield Home and the University Methodist Church. Tejas members turned the alley, part of which still exists, into a main thoroughfare, and used it as their short cut to the campus.

Next to the house and just across the alley stood one of Austin’s famed moonlight towers. Erected in 1895 as an economical means to provide nighttime illumination throughout the city, the 150 foot tower made it easy for guests to find the Tejas Club for parties or other social occasions.  An endangered species today, only fifteen of the 31 towers remain, and they are the last of their kind in the world. (UT history professor Bruce Hunt has written about the moonlight towers here.)

Above the front entrance of the house was a roomy sleeping porch, intentionally placed on the east side of the house so it would be in the shade through the hot afternoon, as well as be able to take advantage of the gulf breezes that arrived from the southeast. Before air conditioning, the porch was a comfortable place in the warmer months. The only downside was that the moonlight tower was too bright for sleep. Heavy canvas curtains were installed to block the light, and ceiling fans kept the air circulating.

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UT Aerial 1938

Tejas House.2.

Above: Where, exactly, was the Tejas house? The aerial view of the campus was photographed in 1937, weeks after the Main Building and Tower were dedicated in February. The Tejas house is visible in the close-up views of the neighborhood northwest of the Tower. The house (orange circle) is next to a moonlight tower, dimly visible just to the left of the vertical line. To the west (left) of the house is a Gulf service station; it’s possible to see the Gulf sign on the street corner as a white pole capped with a white circle. Starting at the house, an alley ran south to 24th Street, in between the Littlefield Home and the University Methodist Church.  Today, the area is home for UT’s College of Communication. (Click on the images for a closer view.)

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Tejas front porch.1930sIn the 1930s, life at the Tejas abode was rarely quiet. Members who didn’t live in the house studied or socialized there between classes and ate dinner with the rest of the Club in the evenings. Along with usual Monday night meetings, the Club began to sponsor “smokers” in the living room that evolved into the present day “coffees.” Professors, University administrators, and Austin celebrities were invited to speak to the Club and their guests, and the coffees quickly became a primary venue to meet potential members.

Above: Tejas members passed the time between classes on the front porch.

1939 Cactus.Tejas Coffee.Botany Prof Ben TharpLeft: Club members Jack Fouts and Bob Keeton listen to UT botany professor Ben Tharp (center) at a Tejas coffee in 1939. Look close. Immediately behind Dr. Tharp on the fireplace is a rectangular piece of oak with the Tejas Club’s coat-of-arms carved into it by internationally-known Austin artisan Peter Mansbendel. The piece still hangs over the fireplace today.

Tejas pianoRight: Despite the Great Depression, the Club, with the help of a few alumni, acquired a baby grand piano that was used for sing-a-longs after Monday night meetings and to entertain guests at coffees and parties.

Because the Tejas Club was young, its alumni were not yet well-organized. Most were in their late 20s and early 30s, getting married and starting families in tough economic times. Still, the alumni helped when they could. The purchase of a baby grand piano, which was regularly used after Monday meetings and Club parties, was made possible by alumni contributions. And the Tejas house always needed repairs, though the members mostly had to depend on themselves. As Joe Cowen later recalled, “The Club taught self-reliance,and that work and self-help were symbols of honor. Swain Burkett, myself, and others refinished the floors downstairs with with equipment rented for us by [Tejas alumnus] J. O. Garrett. We also painted the premises and renewed the heavy canvas curtains over the sleeping porch. We did not cry for help. We did it ourselves and on our own.” As with most UT students, Tejas members worked part-time to make ends meet, either on campus, or in one of the cafes, bookstores, or movie theaters along Guadalupe Street. A few worked at the Gulf station next door.

Tejas.Campus Leaders.1930sKeeping up a tradition that began with the Club’s roots in old B. Hall, Tejas members actively sought out student leadership positions throughout the University community, as editor of The Daily Texan, presidents of literary societies, debate clubs, and the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, representatives in Student Government, or as the drum major of the Longhorn Band.

Pictured above from left: Wendell Seibert was captain of the UT Track and Field Team, Wayne Ashmore served as Head Yell Leader, and Jenkins Garrett was elected President of the Students Association (today’s Student Government). Garrett would later serve on the UT Board of Regents from 1969-1975.

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1937 Cactus.Margaret Berry.Senior.1.

A future honorary Tejas member, Margaret Berry (right), arrived in Austin as a UT freshman in 1934, and had some of her first year courses in the Victorian Gothic old Main Building just before it was razed. A history major, she was active in the Orange Jackets and Mortar Board, and served as president of the Co-ed Assembly and the Sidney Lanier Literary Society. Margaret graduated in the spring of 1937, a few months after the current Main Building and Tower were dedicated.

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AAS.1934.03.11.Society Page Header

Open House Combo.1.

Above: Party! Party! Party! Life in the 1930s wasn’t all serious business. The Tejas Club regularly hosted parties – officially labeled “open houses” – that were often mentioned in the society pages of the Austin American-Statesman. Above is a notice from March 1934, when “pink lemonade and popcorn” were refreshments for a carnival-themed affair.

Society Combo .2.

Above: Two more notices from the Austin newspaper. A Halloween bash was reported on October 29, 1933 (left), and a radio dance party appeared on January 14, 1934.

AAS.1932.04.24.Tejas DanceLeft: A dance party report from the April 24, 1932 American-Statesman. Per University regulations, chaperons were required to be present. But the persons who volunteered for chaperon duty – Arno Nowotny, Dean of Student Life; Victor Moore, Dean of Students, and John McCurdy, then Executive Director of the Ex-Students’ Association – was an indication of the respect the Club had already garnered on the campus. (Click on an image for a larger view.)

From Tejas alumnus Leslie Curry: “To us dinosaurs of the early ‘30s, to be a Tejas Brave meant sharing with each other of the good times and the bad times. It meant that we were in close association with others of similar values, interests, and ambitions. It meant that the Club itself provided a supportive environment in which we could live and carry on our college work. Altogether, this was important in the tough Depression years.”

Also in this series: Why is there a Tejas Club?

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