Rumble at the Water Tank!

The 1904 start  of the infamous “feud” between engineering and law students.

WaterTower2It arrived late in the summer of 1904, when a near-vacant campus was quietly wilting under the August heat. A stark-black and spindle-legged water tank was installed just north of the old Main Building. Intended to be temporary – a year or two at the most – it remained for almost two decades. An instant campus landmark, the tank provided a backdrop for many campus shenanigans, and was the catalyst for a long-lasting rivalry between law and engineering students.

The need for a tank was born in 1900, when a spring flood brought down the seven-year old Austin Dam that had created Lake Austin. City water service was interrupted and remained sporadic for years, and the frequent water shortages forced Austinites to make emergency plans until the water supply was dependable again.

Just before the start of the 1904-05 academic year, UT President William Prather ordered the elevated water tank constructed behind the auditorium of Old Main. Dubbed “Prexy Prather’s Pot” by the students (“Prexy” was slang for “President” at the time.), it towered 120 feet on four lattice supports and stood “in somber majesty on the open campus, in its coat of black paint.” The tank cost just over $11,000, but after it was ready and tested, the University discovered that the city could only provide enough water pressure to fill the tank halfway, making it almost useless. Even worse, the tank leaked, and a permanent pool of mud formed directly beneath it. Fortunately, the University didn’t experience a water emergency, but a lonely water tank on a college campus isn’t likely to be friendless for very long. It soon became a focal point for student antics.

Main Building Water Tank043

Above: The water tank sat behind the old Main Building, fairly close to the north edge of campus at 24th Street, about where Inner Campus Drive passes the west side of Painter Hall today. Its height enticed students to climb up and enjoy the view, and to paint class numerals and other decorations.

On the brisk autumn morning of October 13th, about two months after the tank’s arrival, the campus awoke to find that the junior law class (the first-year law students) had scaled the ladder attached to the northwest support and decorated the sides of the tank with white paint. The initials of the 1907 Law Class – “0L7” – were boldly displayed, along with “Beware Freshie” and some derogatory remarks about freshmen, especially first year engineering students.

“Every time we viewed the shameful sight, it burned deeper into our seared vision,” wrote Alf Toombs, then a freshman engineer. While the junior laws’ handiwork taunted from above, the engineering freshmen huddled all day and plotted their revenge. Toombs acquired a large sheet of tough paper, and drew “by aid of a bottle of Whitmore’s black shoestring dressing, the silhouette of a jackass of noble proportions, and with the brand of the ’07 Laws on his flank.”

The choice of the animal wasn’t arbitrary. In 1900, law professor William Simkins was lecturing to his first-year Equity class in Old Main and had asked a student about the day’s lesson. Before he could respond, a mule grazing outside the classroom window brayed. “Gentlemen,” said Simkins above the laughter, “one at a time!” Thereafter, junior law classes were nicknamed “Simkins’ Jackasses,” or simply, the “J.A.s.”

WaterTankFightShortly after dinner that evening, the “clans of the engineers” gathered around the water tank, shouted class cheers and yells of defiance, and dared the law students to dislodge them. “Mars was the ruling planet in the horoscope for University students for several days,” noted The Texan campus newspaper. The junior laws responded accordingly, and amassed to face off against their campus rivals. Once begun, the freshman scrap sprawled over a half-acre and lasted almost an hour. “I entered the melee with a full wardrobe,” Toombs recounted, “and emerged minus a sweater, shirt, cap and part of my ‘munsing-wear,’ not to mention about four square inches of skin.” Though the junior law students were generally older and stronger, the engineers held a numerical advantage. As opportunities arose, unwary laws were captured and “baptized” in the mud pool below the water tank. The battle didn’t subside until the both groups were exhausted, and the muddy and overpowered junior laws had retreated, at least temporarily.

Flushed with their victory, the engineers recruited Toombs, along with fellow freshmen Clarence Elmore and Drury Phillips, to climb and redecorate the water tank. The ascent was a perilous one, as the ladder only went as far as the bottom of the parapet that guarded the service platform. Each of the three would have to grab the parapet, hang by their arms, and swing their legs up and over the railing to get a foothold. Since the law students had done this the night before, the three were certain they could “do all a miserable law could do,” and set out on their mission. Armed with white paint, paintbrushes and Toombs’ sign, the group brought along a pair of blankets each, as they planned to stay and guard their work through the chilly night.

The law students’ graffiti was replaced by a skull and crossbones, class initials “C.E. ‘08” and “E.E. ‘08” for the civil and electrical engineers, along with, “Down with the Laws,” and “Malted Milk for Junior Laws.” Toombs’ painting, “a meek, symbolic jackass, branded 0L7,” was hung in a prominent position. Before bedding down for the night atop the water tank, the three discussed what to do if the laws should return. As one of them had brought along some chewing tobacco, it was decided that if their “fort” was invaded, all of them would “chew tobacco for dear life and expectorate on the attacking party.” A late-night visit by four freshmen in the Academic Department caused some alarm, and the defense was employed. The pleading Academs insisted that they only wanted to add their own class initials to the side of the tank. After some heated deliberation, the engineers grudgingly consented. The rest of the night passed quietly, but it was a miserable one for Toombs. “You see, I was not a user of tobacco, and my gallant defense got the best of me. I was deathly sick for two hours.”

The tank’s revised appearance had the campus buzzing the following morning, and the talk continued for weeks. Engineers and Laws both claimed victory, and expressed their views poetically in “The Radiator” column of The Texan. The law students boasted:

Take your dues, ye engineers. Take a mudding mid the jeers of the ‘Varsity’s population –Simkins’ Equity is just. And the Laws will, when they must, give to you its application.

While the engineers parried:

That same night the Engineers, a noisy, noisome crowd, took lessons in high art at which no Law man was allowed. And those few Laws that hung around, knew not which way to turn. On every hand the enemy,whose need seemed to be stern.

President Prather, though, was not amused, and by mid-morning had hired someone to repaint the entire tank in gray and remove the ladder. Of course, this only provided an irresistible challenge to the students, and the water tank was regularly decorated through the rest of the academic year.

When Dr. David Houston succeeded Prather as president in 1905, he adopted a different strategy, and told the students they were welcome to paint the tank as often as they wished. This took all of the fun out of the deed, and the tank was neglected for years. William Battle, a Greek and Classics professor who had also founded the University Co-op and designed the UT Seal, rose through the academic ranks and in 1914 was appointed acting president. His attitude was “touch not,” which promptly re-ignited student interest. The tank was decorated once more, including a 1915 incident where several professors had to guard the tank overnight.

WaterTowerThe water tank remained on the campus through World War I. Along with the usual class initials and slogans, the tank sported the insignias of the military schools stationed at the University through the war, including a particularly well-done mural of a bi-plane painted by a soldier in the School for Military Aeronautics.

In 1920, the tank was sold to a Houston contractor for $2,000 and finally removed. Its passing was eulogized in the student newspaper: “Our old historic and beloved tank is no more. This old tank was to the University what the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York Harbor is to the lover of American democracy. It is the embodiment and emblem of all the splendid traditions, good or bad, of this still more splendid institution.”

UT Myth-Conceptions: A Rice Owl in the Tower

Yikes! The main library at Indiana University is sinking into the ground at the rate of an inch a year. The fault lies with the building’s designer – who graduated from rival Purdue – as he didn’t take into account the extra weight of the books on the shelves. At Iowa State, a student who carelessly treads on the university seal inlaid on the floor of the union building will fail his next exam. And Princeton undergraduates who exit the campus through the iron FitzRandolph gates before their graduation might not complete their degrees.

They’re all campus myths, of course, and are as common to colleges as all-nighters. This is one of a series of posts to set the record straight on some of those pesky legends that inhabit the University of Texas.

Myth: When viewed at an angle, UT’s Tower looks like an owl because it was designed by a Rice University graduate.

Of all the legends on the Forty Acres, this may be the one most frequently repeated. When the top of the Tower is viewed from a diagonal, two of the faces of the clock appear to be an owl’s eyes, while the pointed corner of the observation deck suggests a beak. This is intentional, as the story is told, because the Tower was designed by a graduate of Rice University, whose mascot is the owl. The same myth has recently been extended to the Frost Bank Building, which was opened in 2004 on Congress Avenue downtown. Apparently, Rice architecture grads are very busy.

But it’s not true, at least not on the Forty Acres. The architect of UT’s Main Building and Tower was Paul Cret (pronounced “Cray”), who was born in Lyon, France in 1876, and graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then considered the finest place in the world to study architecture. In 1920, the 44-year old Cret immigrated to the United States and was the head of the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia when he was hired as the University’s consulting architect in 1930.

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Above: A portion of Paul Cret’s 1933 campus master plan for the University of Texas. The original painting, about 12 feet long, is preserved in the Alexander Architecture Archive, on the ground floor of Battle Hall. Click on an image for a larger view.

Cret’s campus master plan, finished in 1933, influenced the University’s architecture for decades. The South Mall and its “six pack” of buildings, Goldsmith Hall and the Texas Union on the West Mall, Hogg Auditorium, Mary Gearing, Painter, and Welch Halls are among the products of Cret’s designs.

Above: A little-known early version of the University Tower. (See text.)

Starting with Battle Hall (designed by architect Cass Gilbert in 1910), UT buildings have followed a Mediterranean Renaissance style. Cret continued this theme, though there is a little-known and VERY suspicious early rendition of the Tower by the native Frenchman tucked away in the University Archives. (Photo above.)

All right, I may have made up part of that last paragraph. Perhaps it’ll be the birth of a new campus legend…

How did the Tower-Rice myth get its start? One possibility is connected to Dr. William Battle, who was hired in 1893 to teach Greek and Classical studies, and rose through the academic ranks to be a professor, dean, and for a short time, the acting president of the University. He founded the University Co-op, designed the UT Seal, and for many years was the chair of the Faculty Building Committee, a group that advised the Board of Regents on campus construction. Because of Battle’s extensive contributions and experience on the campus, the Board of Regents relied heavily on his advice and judgment. A new building wasn’t approved unless Battle agreed.

When Battle was first hired, he was assigned an office on the top floor of the old Main Building’s central tower. He named his new digs the “owl’s nest.”

In the 1930s, when the current Main Building replaced Old Main, Battle was again given an office on the top floor of the Tower – he joked that he had the “highest office in the land.” – and continued to call it the owl’s nest. After Battle retired in the 1950s, the reference could have transferred to the physical appearance of the Tower and evolved to be mistakenly associated with Rice University.

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Above: An 1937 aerial photograph of the newly finished Main Building and Tower.

The University of Texas Seal

University of Texas Seal

Go to any UT library, pull a book off the shelf, open the front cover, and you’ll find it. Run afoul of the University police (well, hopefully not!), and you’ll see it on the shoulder patches of their uniforms. Stroll into the Gregory Gym annex and you can see it inlaid on the floor. It’s printed on every UT degree, carved in limestone on campus buildings, and displayed prominently on the Main Building for commencement. It’s the official seal of the University of Texas.

What we think of as the modern university made its first appearance in 12th century Europe as a well-organized union of teachers and students. It was an “academic guild,” similar in many ways to the trade guilds that were an important part of medieval towns. An aspiring tradesman would learn his craft first as an apprentice, and progress to a journeyman. When he had fully developed his skills, his final test was to produce a “masterpiece,” usually an object that showed his best skills and all that he had learned. If it passed inspection, he was declared a master tradesman by his peers and allowed to teach others. Academic degrees grew out of this same process. But instead of a masterpiece, a modern-day Ph.D. candidate writes a doctoral dissertation and defends their thesis in front of a faculty committee.

From the beginning, academic insignia and dress were an integral part of university culture. Congregations, lectures, examinations, and graduations all included ritual words, objects, music, and required forms of dress. A scepter or mace carried by the rector identified him as the leader of a university, graduating doctors often received gold rings with their degrees, and hooded capes, which evolved into the modern cap and gown, were worn to identify university members to the public, with special colors and designs for both students and teachers.

The most prized symbol of a university was its seal. Only granted by a pope or monarch, the seal officially recognized a university as a corporation that could conduct legal affairs, and whose members had special rights and privileges different from ordinary townsfolk. The seal was so valuable, often the original carving was kept in a special chest with a triple lock, and several university authorities were required to be present to open it.

Early university seals were usually intricate, elaborate designs: a student at a desk reading a book, the rector in academic garb holding a mace, or an image of a saint special to the university. A Latin inscription, the “motto,” was almost always included, and was sometimes considered the most important part of the design. Later, as knights were permitted to have seals that resembled their personal shields, university seals began to sport coats of arms of their own.

In November 1881, the newly-appointed Board of Regents of the University of Texas convened in Austin for its inaugural meeting. Among the many items on the agenda, a sub-committee of the Board was asked to create a seal for the university. They completed their task in a single afternoon.

The original UT seal borrowed liberally from the seal of the State of Texas, with a five pointed star framed on the left by an oak branch, representing strength, and on the right by an olive branch, signifying peace. Placed within a circle, Universitas Texana labeled the seal as belonging to the University, with the motto Non Sine Pulvera Palma. A well-known Latin phrase, the motto may be translated as, “The prize cannot be won without effort,” or in more modern terms, “Do your best.”

Money was set aside to purchase an embossing stamp, but the University seal wasn’t very popular. Its use limited to decorating degrees and a few other official documents, though a mural of the seal was painted on the wall of the history lecture room in the old Main Building. (See photo above, on the wall to the right. Click on the image for a larger version, and did you notice that all of the co-eds sit toward the front?).

In 1901, Dr. William Battle, a well-known and popular professor of Greek on the Forty Acres, took it upon himself to design a new, more distinctive seal for the University. He may have been prompted by the 1900 vote by students and alumni to recognize orange and white as UT’s official colors, and thought the time was right. Of the original seal, Battle declared, “Except for the word Universitas, it might just as well have been the emblem of the State Penitentiary.”

Battle was thorough. He purchased books on heraldry, and requested copies of seals from universities across the U.S. as well as from Oxford and Cambridge in England. At his own expense,Battle hired a leading firm in heraldic design – the Bailey, Banks and Biddle Company of Philadelphia– as consultants and to sketch prototypes according to his directions.

The process went through several versions, all of which are still preserved in the UT archives at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Battle himself changed the motto to Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar’s famous quote, “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” which at the time regularly appeared on the inside covers of most University publications. Battle’s Latin translation of Lamar was Mens Instructa Civitatis Custos, but this sounded a bit clunky. Instead, Battle conferred with friend and colleague Dr. Edwin Fay, head of UT’s Latin Department, who suggested, Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis.

In its final version,Battle described the University seal:

“In conformity with general usage, the design adopts as its central feature the shield form that shows the origin of its heraldic arms. The shield is divided into two fields, the upper white, the lower orange, the University colors. In the lower and larger field are the historic wreath and star of the Great Seal of the State of Texas; in the upper field is an open book, fit symbol of an institution of learning. The shield rests within a circle of blue, the color of sincerity, containing the motto, Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis. This is Professor Edwin W. Fay’s rendering of the apothegm of President Mirabeau B. Lamar, “Cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy. Around the disk of blue is a larger disc of red, color of strength, bearing the words, Sigillum Universitatis Texanae.

Battle presented his seal to UT President William Prather in 1903. Two years later, on October 31, 1905, the Board of Regents officially approved Battle’s proposal, though the words, Sigillum Universitatis Texanae, were changed to the English, “Seal of the University of Texas.” Within a year, the new seal appeared on library bookplates, invitations and programs of University events, and, of course, diplomas.

Images: The Seal of The University of Texas at Austin; Seal of the University of Bologna, Italy, among the earliest of European universities; the history lecture room in the old Main Building, from the 1900 Cactus yearbook; an early version of the UT seal, found in the William J. Battle Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.