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.

Remembering Old B. Hall at 125

This month marks the 125th anniversary of UT’s first residence hall.

B Hall Color Postcard

 “You may tear down the Alamo, but never B. Hall!” – B. Hall Alumni Association

In the storied annals of Texas history, few places could ever compete with the spirit and lore of the Alamo. But for a select group of students who lived on the University of Texas campus from 1890-1926, the Alamo took a back seat to B. Hall.

Nestled on the eastern slope of the Forty Acres, within earshot of the ivy-draped old Main Building, Brackenridge Hall, or simply, “B. Hall,” was the University’s first residence hall. Opened December 1, 1890, it was intended to be an anonymous, unceremonious gift, a low-cost building to provide cheap housing for male students. But the gift of B. Hall grew to be much more.  For decades, the hall and its residents were central to campus life. A stronghold of student leadership, the birthplace of UT traditions, championed as a bastion of “Jeffersonian Democracy,” the hall sheltered future Rhodes Scholars, professors, philosophers, lawyers, physicians, state and national lawmakers, U. S. ambassadors, college presidents, a governor of Puerto Rico, and a Librarian of Congress. For a time the hall became so well-known nationally that letters addressed simply to “B. Hall, Texas,” were known to reach their destination. When it was finally razed in the 1950s, the legacy of the hall wasn’t simply a building and its donor. The gift that was B. Hall rested with the indelible contributions its residents had made to the University, and, later, to the world.

Ashbel SmithDormitories were not originally planned for the University. Ashbel Smith, the first chair of the Board of Regents (photo at left), was flatly opposed to them. “It is even worse than a pure waste of money. Nor should there be a college commons where students eat in mess. Experience is decisive on these points.” By experience, Smith knew of the raucous student rebellions that had plagued Harvard and Princeton and left their dorms in shambles, and of a violent incident at the University of Virginia in which a professor was shot and killed. All of these events involved young men housed together on the campus, which left many college authorities hesitant to build dorms. Cornell’s first president, Andrew White, hoped the hometown citizens of Ithaca, New York would provide room and board. White wrote in 1866, “Large bodies of students collected in dormitories often arrive at a degree of turbulence which small parties, gathered in the houses of citizens, seldom if ever reach.” Manasseh Cutler, a Massachusetts botanist who helped to settle Ohio and found Ohio University, was more direct: “Chambers in colleges are too often made the nurseries of every vice and cages of unclean birds.”

Old Main.1890

Above: In 1889, only two-thirds of the old Main Building was completed. The two children in the front are sitting among bluebonnets about where Sutton Hall is today.

As 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. As 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, 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.”

B Hall Original.1890

Above: The original B. Hall, opened in 1890. The house down the hill to the right sat along Speedway Street and would today be in the middle of the East Mall.

Completed on December 1, 1890, the original 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.
1899 Cactus.Campus from 21st and Guadalupe

Above: The Forty Acres in the 1890s as seen from 21st and Guadalupe Streets. Old Main is in the middle of the campus, with B. Hall to the right.

Initially, Brackenridge Hall housed 48 men and could accommodate more than 100 persons in its ground floor restaurant, which doubled as the first campus-wide eatery. Rent was initially set at $2.50 per month for a room, and meals could be had for less than $10 monthly, half the usual cost of living in Austin by half.

1892 B Hall Menu

Above: The B. Hall menu for Thanksgiving Day, 1892. Check out the prices and the inside jokes with the quotations. Source: UT Memorabilia Collection, Box 4P158, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

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.

B Hall Color

Above: In 1899, wings were added to the north and south sides of original building.

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.”

B.Hall.1904.Engineering Roommates

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.

Eyes of Texas First VersionAlong 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 campus 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.

1901 Cactus.Varsity Band

Above: In 1900, Gene Schoch purchased 16 musical instruments at a downtown Austin pawn shop, and then recruited a group of B. Hall residents to form what is today the Longhorn Band.

While most college dorms were heavily supervised by campus administrators, UT officials allowed the hall’s denizens to largely manage themselves. While there was a hired steward to look after finances, the students created their own B. Hall Association, wrote a constitution and by-laws, and enacted their own regulations. A suit and tie was required dress for all meals, musical instruments could only be played between 1-2 pm. and 5-7:30 p.m., and card playing was expressly prohibited.

Rusty Cusses.1908

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. Several campus organizations were born within the confines of B. Hall, including the Texas Cowboys and the Tejas Club.

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 hall 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, along with their experiences after graduation, and in the process inspired the generation of students.

B. Hall from Main Building.1945By 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.

 

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.

However, the building itself was in the way of future campus development. In 1925, the Board of Regents decided that B. Hall was too close to Garrison Hall – then under construction – to remain a dormitory. Garrison was to be a co-ed classroom building. According to the regent’s minutes, “young women should not be required to attend classes in full view of the bedrooms of men, particularly in a dormitory where freedom in matters of clothing is well-known.” Alumni of the hall loudly protested, organized into a formal B. Hall Alumni Association, and threatened legal action. (The Association’s president was, appropriately, Walter Hunnicutt, the composer of the “Texas Fight!” song.) Before the situation became too tense, University officials and alumni settled on a compromise: the current B. Hall could be re-purposed if a new Brackenridge Hall was built on a more appropriate site.

The hall was closed in 1926, renovated, and served, among other things, as the first home of the School of Architecture until it moved into more spacious quarters at Goldsmith Hall. In 1932, a new Brackenridge residence hall was formally dedicated on 21st Street.

Brackenridge Dorm.1930s.

Above: A new Brackenridge Hall was opened in 1932, just south of Gregory Gym.

B Hall was finally razed in 1952 to clear the way for the East Mall. As it was being demolished, the contractor did his best to satisfy the many requests from alumni for specific bricks, doors, floorboards, and other pieces of the building. Former Austin Mayor Walter Long also ensured that some parts of the hall were kept and preserved by the University. One of those pieces, a decorative pediment from the roof, spent decades in storage at the Pickle Research Center, but has been restored and is now on display in Jester Center, just outside the auditorium.

B Hall Pediment.

Above: it’s still possible to see a piece of old B. Hall. A decade ago, the author discovered a decorative piece from the building in a warehouse at UT’s Pickle Research Center in north Austin, 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 UT Division of Housing and Food and the Texas Exes, the six foot tall piece was restored and is now hanging in Jester Center (above center), complete with a story board. The piece comes from the top floor of B. Hall (upper right, highlighted in brown).

1900. B Hall from Speedway