Why is there a Tejas Club? The Club can trace its origins to old B. Hall, the University’s first residence hall for men.
Above: The University of Texas campus in the early 1890s, looking northeast from the corner of 21st and Guadalupe Streets. From left, the chemistry building, the old Main Building, and B. Hall, the men’s dorm.
When the University of Texas opened for its seventh academic year in the fall of 1889, enrollment exceeded 300 students for the first time, with almost two thirds of them men. There was no campus housing; most students found room and board in private homes around Austin for about $25 per month. Additional costs included an annual matriculation fee of $10, a $5 library deposit, and the purchase of textbooks. Tuition for in-state students didn’t yet exist, so that a year at UT could easily be had for less than $300.
That might sound inexpensive, but the cost of living in Austin was too high for many college-aged youth in Texas. At the time, almost 90% of the state’s population was classified as rural, struggling against the Southern agricultural depression of the late 1880s. Poverty conditions were widespread among the farms and ranches of Texas, where eggs brought in just two cents per dozen, cotton netted four cents a pound, and a healthy steer earned five to eight dollars. Young men raised in these conditions, known as the “poor boys” of the state, sought a way out, and looked to the University as a promising opportunity for social mobility.
When the Board of Regents convened in February 1890, George Brackenridge (photo right), a wealthy San Antonio banker and University regent, offered up to $17,000 to build an economical residence hall for the state’s poor boys. He preferred to keep his donation anonymous and requested the building be named “University Hall.” His fellow regents, though, wanted to encourage a similar gift for a dormitory for women, and persuaded the reluctant donor to allow the building to be named for him. (They did, though it was from Brackenridge again.) Students would later shorten the name from Brackenridge Hall to simply “B. Hall.”
Completed on December 1, 1890, nestled on the eastern slope of the 40-acre campus, within earshot of the ivy-draped old Main Building, the hall was a plain, no-frills structure, made from pressed yellow brick and limestone trim. Four stories tall, with simple bay windows and two front doors facing west, it better resembled a pair of low-cost city townhouses adrift on the Texas prairie.
Originally, Brackenridge Hall housed 48 men and could accommodate more than 100 persons in its ground floor restaurant. Rent was initially set at $2.50 per month for a room, and meals could be had for about $10 monthly, which reduced the usual cost of living in Austin by half. A decade after it opened, thanks to another donation from George Brackenridge, the hall was renovated and expanded to house 124 students. Wings were added on the north and south ends, an open community room was built above the top floor, and towers, turrets, and a red tin roof helped to improve its humble facade.
Above: The expanded B. Hall, with wings to the north and south and a community room added to the top floor.
B. Hall provided young men in Texas with limited finances the opportunity to attend the University. Many of them were the sons of pioneers, born in log cabins and raised with few luxuries. Practical, self-motivated, and individualistic, all of them were poor. Often equipped with a single change of clothes, some would ride into Austin on horseback, sell their horses, and use the money to help pay for a year’s stay. Almost all held part-time jobs while they were students.
What the hall’s residents lacked in pocket change, they more than made up for in character. From the Texas range they brought with them the best attributes of frankness and determination, and their shared economic status provided them with a common motivation. With limited opportunities to attend school in rural Texas, many had no high school diplomas. They had to prepare themselves for college-level classes and were conditionally admitted through examination. Ages varied from 18 to just over 30.
Sometimes shunned by more affluent UT students, the occupants of B. Hall developed their own fraternal, close-knit community. Academics were taken seriously. Most of the honors students, along with the University’s first Rhodes Scholars, lived in the hall. Professors were frequent guests for dinner and often stayed for the post meal “pow-wow,” held in the dining hall or in the shade on the east side of the building. For an hour or so at dusk each evening, faculty and students engaged in a lively conversation on current affairs, campus issues, or academic topics. “The student that missed the daily pow-wow,” wrote one B. Hall alumnus, “never knew what University life at its fullest really meant.”
Above: Two engineering roommates in B. Hall.
Strong friendships developed between the hall’s residents, as mutual support was always encouraged, and sometimes required. The University’s first visually impaired students lived in B. Hall, among them Olan Van Zandt, who graduated from the Texas School for the Blind to enroll in the law school. None of the texts were written in braille, and recordings weren’t available. Instead, Olan’s fellow denizens spent untold hours reading to him and reviewing torts, contracts, and equity. Van Zandt graduated with honors and went on to serve in the Texas Legislature: four sessions in the House, and another four sessions in the Senate.
Along with classes, B. Hall occupants took an active part in UT affairs, voted for themselves in student elections, and were recognized as campus leaders. Their contributions to the University were many and long lasting. The origins of The Eyes of Texas, Texas Taps (“Texas Fight”), student government, The Daily Texan, UT’s first celebration of Texas Independence Day, the Longhorn Band, and even the purchase of the steer that became the longhorn mascot Bevo are all connected to B. Hall. Three of the hall’s alumni: Dr. Harry Benedict, the first alumnus to be appointed UT president; Dr. Gene Schoch, a noted chemical engineering professor who founded the Longhorn Band; and Arno Nowonty, the immensely popular Dean of Student Life, have UT buildings named for them.
Above left: The original lyrics of The Eyes of Texas, written on a scrap of laundry paper in Room 203 of B. Hall by John Lang Sinclair.
Above: In 1900, chemical engineering professor (and B. Hall alumnus) Gene Schoch purchased 16 musical instruments at a downtown Austin pawn shop, then recruited a group of B. Hall residents to form what is today the Longhorn Band.
While most college dorms were heavily supervised by administrators, UT officials allowed the hall’s residents to largely manage themselves. There was a hired steward to look after finances, but the students created their own B. Hall Association, wrote a constitution and by-laws, and enacted their own regulations. A suit and tie were required dress for all meals, musical instruments could only be played between 1-2 p.m. and 5-7:30 p.m., and card playing was expressly prohibited.
Above: The Rustic Order of Ancient and Honorable Rusty Cusses was a very non-serious social club of B. Hall men who hailed from farms and ranches around Texas. Along with the P.E.C.s and the Gory Goo Roos, several groups formed within the hall.
That doesn’t mean life in the hall was all serious business. With little money for entertainment, the hall’s occupants often had to create their own diversions, and a favorite pastime was staging elaborate practical jokes. One student discovered he was a great voice impersonator and, pretending to be University President Sidney Mezes, called professors and instructed them to “be at my house tonight at 8 to discuss a serious matter.” Harried faculty members showed up unexpectedly at Dr. Mezes’ front door. Another B. Haller physically masqueraded as the UT president and registered most of the freshmen with fake papers, which resulted in a very interesting first day of class. A lost donkey was led into the women’s dorm as a late night gift on Halloween. In search of a new morning wake-up alarm, some of the hall’s residents “borrowed” a bell from the Fulmore School in South Austin. When a few B. Hallers tricked the Texas Legislature into officially inviting a world famous pianist to the State Capitol to “sing” his most famous piece, the incident created national headlines. As Engineering Dean Thomas Taylor, a regular guest at the hall, once remarked, “Barely a week passed by that some freakish cuss did not spring something entirely original, and not half of it ever got into the newspapers or magazines.” Many of the antics became legendary and the stories were passed along to succeeding generations of students.
After graduation, when the “poor boys” of B. Hall had completed their hard won degrees, they set out to make to the most of their education. Along with an impressive list of professors, lawyers, judges, authors, state legislators, engineers, and physicians, the alumni roster included a Librarian of Congress, a governor of Puerto Rico, multiple U.S. ambassadors, Morris Sheppard and Ralph Yarborough as U.S. Senators, and Sam Rayburn as Speaker of the House.
Most of the alumni maintained a lifelong, cherished attachment to the hall, often visited when they were in Austin, and were welcome guests. Prodded by the current occupants to tell stories of the “old times,” alumni shared their UT adventures, as well as their experiences after graduation, and in the process inspired new generations of students.
By the 1920s, as University enrollment surpassed 4,000 students, B. Hall was still the only on-campus men’s dorm. Though it was no longer a designated refuge for the “poor boys” of the state, it was still less expensive than other housing options and in high demand. The hall’s popularity meant that most rooms went to upperclassmen or older students, who were solid academically and already involved as campus leaders.
It was this unique living environment, developed over 35 years, which Tom Renfro and Howell Cobb encountered in 1925.
Above left: Where on campus was B. Hall? This photo, taken from the Tower observation deck in the 1940s, shows the hall straddled what today is the East Mall. Immediately behind the building is Waggener Hall and Gregory Gym, with the stadium in the upper left.
Above: It’s still possible to see a piece of B. Hall. A decade ago, the author discovered a decorative piece from the building in a warehouse at the Pickle Research Center, sitting on top of a pile of dusty boxes that contained the clock from the old Main Building (upper left). Thanks to funding from the Dean of Students office and the Division of Housing and Food, the six foot tall piece was restored and is now on display in Jester Center (above center), complete with a story board. The piece comes from the top floor of the building (upper right, highlighted in brown).
Above: The University of Texas in the mid-1920s, looking up University Avenue. To the right of Old Main is the Engineering Building (now the Gebauer Building), B. Hall, and the broad-roofed Law Building.
Above: Looking south on the Drag in the 1920s. Bustling with Model T Fords and electric rail cars, the University Co-op is on the right side of the image, in the same spot on Guadalupe as it is today. For reference, the University Baptist Church can be seen on the left. Click on an image for a larger view.
As the academic year opened in September 1924, the University of Texas campus was a lively and exciting place. The decade of the “Roaring Twenties” was in full swing. Campus co-eds (who, with all women in the U.S., had just won the right to vote in 1920) rebelled against longstanding social mores, and sported bobbed hair, shorter skirts, and listened to popular jazz. A just-completed Biological Labs building was opened on the northwest corner of the campus, and a new football stadium – Texas Memorial Stadium – was almost ready for the upcoming season after a major controversy over selecting the governor as UT’s next president almost derailed the fundraising drive.
Among the 4,105 students registered for the fall term were Tom Renfro (photo left) and his best friend Howell Cobb (below right). Both had just completed their bachelor degrees at Howard Payne College in Brownwood, Texas, about 140 miles northwest of Austin. Renfro and Cobb planned to study for law degrees, then known as a Bachelor of Laws and Letters (LL.B.).
Renfro had a more urgent reason to attend the law school. His tiny hometown of Mullin, Texas (20 miles from Brownwood) had elected him as their representative in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature, which would convene in January 1925. Renfro would be learning the law while creating it, which wasn’t all that unusual for the time. Six other legislators were also enrolled at the University.
The two friends first acquired lodging in a boarding house near campus, but placed their names on the waiting list for B. Hall and were given a room there the following spring. The move was a pragmatic one. Not only was B. Hall cheaper, the law school was next door to the south, on a space now occupied by the Graduate School of Business building. The Texas Capitol was an easy 20-minute walk.
Above: The Law Building near the southeast corner of the campus, where the Graduate School of Business building stands today.
Above: The view from the common room on the roof of B. Hall. The Law Building is next door to the south, with the Capitol dome about a mile away.
Through the spring, Renfro served in the Texas Legislature, while both he and Cobb continued their law classes. (Renfro took only a single course during the winter term to leave more time for his legislative duties.) They experienced life in the hall, witnessed the annual freshman versus sophomore pushball contest that coincided with Texas Independence Day (photo above), and saw as many UT baseball games as their studies would allow. But as the spring term drew to a close, Renfro and Cobb, along with the rest of the residents of B. Hall, learned that their storied dorm would close in a year. A new classroom building, to be named Garrison Hall, was being constructed just to the southwest, and University officials claimed that, as coeds would be attending lectures in the new structure, they would be able to see into the rooms of the hall’s occupants. More to the point, the hall was simply in the wrong location for future campus building plans. While another Brackenridge Hall would eventually be constructed on 21st Street, B. Hall was to be re-purposed for academic use starting with the fall term in 1926.
Summer school began June 9th, divided, as it is today, into two six-week sessions. Renfro and Cobb sweltered in unairconditioned classrooms, only to return to the same environment at B. Hall. Near the end of the first session, likely on July 20th, Renfro proposed an idea to his friend. According to Cobb:
“In the summer of 1925, Tom Renfro and I were rooming together in old B. Hall, and one day Tom said to me, ‘We’ll establish a club on this campus composed of men whom we believe to be honorable, and with whom we would like to associate as friends while in school and after we leave the campus.’ “
Renfro wanted to start a club, but why? There were already more than 150 student organizations on campus, but none were what Renfro had in mind. Fraternities then, as now, relied heavily on freshmen pledges to sustain their memberships. But first-year students weren’t yet experienced in the ways of college life, specifically academics, and Renfro wanted an older group. Co-ops were also available, but these were organized around economic convenience rather than friendship. Renfro envisioned a group of mature students with high moral and academic standards, self-reliant campus leaders who would be friends well after graduation. It was something similar to what he and Cobb had discovered at B. Hall. Renfro wasn’t trying to recreate the dorm, but the spirit of the place carried through in Renfro’s ideas.
On Sunday, September 27, 1925, an organizational banquet was held downtown at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel for a new group known as “Tejas,” a name taken from the Native Americans who had once lived in the eastern part of the state and which translated as “friend,” a trait the group wanted to emulate. Renfro and Cobb had recruited 17 other students. A few lived in B. Hall, others were members of Greek fraternities, and about half were law students. All were upperclassmen. The assembly approved a constitution (after adding the office of vice-president) and voted their colors to be burnt orange and black. Weekly meetings were to be on Thursday nights at 7 p.m., though the day was changed to Monday by the following spring.
“Believing a more complete life is realized when men share their personalities, abilities, and efforts. . .”
Though it wasn’t Tom Renfro’s specific intent, the Tejas Club carried and furthered the spirit of old B. Hall as it established its own identity. A center of campus leadership, membership has tended to be older students with strong academic priorities, and counts a Rhodes Scholar and a Marshall Scholar among its ranks. While B. Hall was the birthplace of The Eyes of Texas, the Tejas Club can claim the “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signal and the March 2nd Breakfast, currently the only University event to mark Texas Independence Day. In similar fashion to the after dinner “pow-wows” of B. Hall, University professors are often invited to address the Club at its weekly coffees. The Club’s alumni – teachers, coaches, professors, lawyers, engineers, authors, physicians, CEOs, state lawmakers, and judges, among many others – interact with the students regularly, and have provided the group a home near campus with an affordable rent.
With its roots dating back 125 years, the Tejas Club – 90 years young – continues to be a center of fellowship, scholarship, and leadership at the University of Texas.
Next in this series: The Best and Worst of Times: Tejas in the 1930s