“Coats on in the Library!”

battle-hall-1916-reading-room

Above: Before 1917, coats and ties were the customary dress in the University Library, regardless of the weather.

1915-university-library-battle-hall

It was a fine day for a rebellion.

Friday afternoon, May 25, 1917, was bright, sunny, warm, and humid. The kind of late spring day that usually precedes a long, steamy summer.

For University of Texas students, the academic year was coming to a close. Term projects were due, along with one last round of quizzes, before final exams and then commencement ceremonies in mid-June.

The University Library – today’s Battle Hall (photo above left) – was a popular place this time of year.  Opened in 1911 and partly inspired by the Boston Public Library, its spacious
reading room was a great improvement over the too-crowded previous quarters in the old Main Building.  At a time before the invention of air conditioning, architect Cass Gilbert 1914-university-library-entrance-screen-doorsdeliberately positioned the library just to the west of Old Main, near the top of the slope in the middle of the Forty Acres. Facing east and with the reading room on the second floor, the tall, arched windows could be opened to catch the southeastern breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, and help to mitigate the heat in the warmer months. To further help with air circulation, customized screen doors were created and fixed to the front entryway. (Photo above right.)

On this particular Friday afternoon, a small group of male UT students arrived for some late day studying, but looked decidedly different from their fellows. While there was a firm classroom dress code of suits and ties for men and dresses for women, the library wasn’t a classroom, and on this warm day, the students decided to leave their jackets at their west campus boarding house and visit the library in shirt sleeves.

After just a few minutes, Wilson Williams, officially the library’s Supervisor of Gifts and Exchanges, but better known on campus as the “silence restorer” of the reading room, swooped down upon the group with the peremptory command, “Coats on!”

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Above: Architect Cass Gilbert placed the library just west of the old Main Building.

As the students had left their jackets at home and couldn’t comply, they attempted a parley. Williams explained they had violated a well-established guideline of dress. The students asked whether the rule might be overlooked this one time, saving them the trouble of having to trudge home just to don jackets on a hot day.

Unmoved, Williams insisted, but the students persisted, and finally demanded to see the written rules that governed library dress and conduct. Williams reluctantly admitted that there was no formal regulation that required jackets be worn, but it had been a longstanding custom since the University opened in 1883.

To the students, though, practicality outweighed an unnecessary tradition. The group, confident in their victory over the library administration, remained at their seats in shirt sleeve comfort. Within a few minutes, a dozen other UT compatriots had peeled off their jackets, and before the library closed for the day, every male student had joined in the uprising. For the hapless Mr. Williams, a longstanding custom was no more. But for the students, a new tradition was born. Coats and hot days were not to meet in the library again.

1920-battle-hall-reading-room

Above: After 1917, UT students in the library studied in their shirt sleeves on warm days. Click on an image for a larger view.

How to Woo a Legislature

It’s that time of year again. The 85th session of the Texas Legislature convenes Tuesday, January 10th, and our University president – just as his predecessors were before him – is mindful of UT’s relationship with the current occupants of the Capitol.

Legislative relations can be tricky. Because the University is state-supported, the president, while wanting to adequately convey the needs, priorities, and aspirations of the campus to lawmakers, is prevented from roaming the halls of the Capitol to lobby on the University’s behalf. While alumni and other supporters have since assumed this important role, such was not always the case, especially in UT’s infant years. What’s a University president to do?

An ingenious Sidney Mezes called on all of his resources and devised a creative, novel, and apparently successful, approach just over a century ago.

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Old Main Building 1900s

The old Main Building on the UT campus in the early 1900s.

It was a mild and pleasant Saturday, February 18, 1911, when members of the 32nd Texas Legislature gathered at the west entrance to the University of Texas campus. Shuttled from the state capitol in a caravan of electric trolleys, the legislators had been invited by UT President Sidney Mezes to a barbeque lunch, privately financed by a group of Austin citizens, and an opportunity to visit the buildings and grounds. The invitation was a welcome respite from a rather hectic legislative session. But if the lawmakers expected a simple, quiet meal, they would soon discover that on this particular day, the UT campus was anything but tranquil.

The trolleys arrived promptly at 11:30a.m., and as the legislators disembarked and stepped onto Guadalupe Street, they were eagerly met by a cheerful President Mezes, most of the faculty, and the 25-member University Band. The visitors were politely ushered on to the campus, directed to the West Walk – which in future years would become the West Mall – and up the hill toward the Victorian-Gothic old Main Building.

Waiting for the legislators were almost 1,000 male UT students, which stood shoulder-to-shoulder along each side of the walk. As the lawmakers ambled up the hill, the gauntlet of students smiled, cheered, bowed, saluted, and made certain their guests felt two and three times welcome. In 1911, classes were normally held Monday through Saturday, but on this Saturday morning a brief suspension was ordered. The Texan newspaper requested that every student participate “with your yelling apparatus well oiled.”

1911 Legislative Reception.1.

1911 Legislative Reception.2.

Above: Labeled “We Entertain the Legislature,” two small photos tucked away in a corner of the 1911 Cactus yearbook may be the last surviving images of the event. Top: The West Walk (now the West Mall) viewed from an upper floor of Old Main, while male UT students line each side. Most are sitting, waiting for members of the Texas Legislature to arrive from Guadalupe Street in the background. Bottom: Led by the University Band, lawmakers begin their procession up the walk. The wooden fence on the left secured a portion of the construction site for Battle Hall. Click on the images for close-ups.

The procession continued to the crest of the hill, then around to the south doors of Old Main. Along the way, the group paused to view the progress of the new University Library, then under construction. Today known as Battle Hall, its broad, arched windows, red-tiled roof and colorful decoration would soon lend an air of architectural sophistication to the campus.

As the legislators approached Old Main, they were met by more than 600 University coeds, “clustered like a great bouquet” at the front steps. The girls sported their best Victorian dresses, serenaded the lawmakers with The Eyes of Texas, and pinned flowers on the lapels of their guests as they were escorted inside to the University Auditorium. According to Austin Daily Statesman, the transition was startling, as the legislators had been “greeted by the masculinity and strength of the school, and then suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by femininity, grace, and beauty.”

Old Main Auditorium

The University Auditorium in the Old Main Building.

The auditorium was crammed well beyond its seating capacity. On the main floor, House and Senate members sat in the front center section, surrounded on three sides by the male students and faculty. The upstairs balcony was reserved for the female members of the University community, as cheering, yelling, or anything else above a polite applause was considered “unladylike” and strongly discouraged.

Displayed on the auditorium walls were large charts, painted on canvas, which compared the University of Texas to other state universities (e.g. legislative appropriations given to universities in Illinois, Wisconsin and California, among others, had been awarded more in a single session that the University of Texas had received over its entire history), UT enrollment from each Texas county, and other information that might be of interest to the lawmakers.

Head yell leader and law student Gene Harris bounded upon the stage and conducted a boisterous series of UT yells in honor of the legislators. Among the cheers were the always popular Rattle-de-Thrat Yell and the Nine Rahs.

In response, the lawmakers stood and performed an impromptu oratorical stunt of their own, though the specifics were, unfortunately, not recorded.

President Mezes assumed emcee duties, welcomed everyone to the campus, commented briefly on the state of the University, and flatly told the legislators that UT’s future had been entrusted to them. Mezes then introduced four of the lawmakers – two each from the House and Senate – who addressed their colleagues in turn, emphasizing the needs of the University and expressing the desire to fill those needs.

One of the presenters was to have been Sam Rayburn, a UT Law grad and the newly elected Speaker of the House, but legislative business required Rayburn to remain at the Capitol. In his stead was Austin Kennedy, who led the House in the previous legislative session. Kennedy prefaced his remarks by claiming no gift for oratory, and then promptly launched into a dramatic, heartfelt speech. He’d been denied the prospect for a higher education early in his life, and made an emotional appeal to his fellow lawmakers to ensure that such an opportunity existed for future generations of Texans.

Gebauer Building 1910s

The old Engineering Building, currently the Gebauer Building.

With the program concluded, a hungry crowd of legislators left the auditorium, retraced their steps outside Old Main, and then turned east to the Engineering Building, today known as the Gebauer Building. Waiting for them, sprawled on long tables on the front lawn, was an immense barbecue spread of beef, mutton, and pork, along with bread, pickles, and coffee. The lawmakers took their seats and were served by the best-educated wait staff ever assembled in the state: the University Faculty.

After lunch, legislators took time to informally visit the University’s facilities, inspect classrooms and laboratories, talk with the students, and then took the mile-long stroll back to the Capitol. As the Saturday afternoon session began, the lawmakers discussed the funding of the University.

For the University of Texas, the 1911 legislative appropriation was the most generous it had yet received.