One Hundred Thirty-Six

Above: The earliest known image of the UT campus, taken in 1883 at the present intersection of University Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. The west wing of the old Main Building – where the present Main Building and Tower stand today – is the only structure.

The arrival of The University of Texas wasn’t greeted with trumpet and fanfare, but with neighs and whinnies.

At 10 a.m. on a sunny, sticky, Saturday morning, September 15, 1883, nearly three hundred persons gathered for the opening ceremonies in what was the unfinished west wing of the old Main Building. The audience sat on chairs arranged on a makeshift floor of undressed lumber, surrounded by unpainted walls. The incomplete windows were open to the elements, and required the day’s speakers to compete with the brays and snorts of the many horses hitched outside.

The west wing sat near the center of a square, uneven, 40-acre campus, initially dubbed College Hill. It was almost devoid of flora, save for a thicket of mesquite trees and a handful of live oaks, some festooned with Spanish moss. A great gulley extended from the top of the hill to the southeast, dry most of the time but a quagmire in wet weather. According to Halbert Randolph, who earned his law degree in 1885, the ornamental shrubbery consisted of “cactus sporting its full-grown fruit, looking like the ripe nose of a drunkard.” For a few weeks in the spring, the campus was aglow with a blanket of Texas Bluebonnets, and the pitiful state of the landscape was temporarily forgotten.

Above: The west wing of the old Main Building, about 1885, surrounded by newly planted hackberry trees. Plumbing for the building was incomplete. Out of sight and behind the hill to the right was a temporary lavatory.

To the east, beyond the University grounds, lay vast tracts of pasture and open prairie. Just to the west, along a dusty and unpaved Guadalupe Street, stood two grocery stores, a dry goods shop, and a saloon.

The sprawling town of Austin filled the view to the south, its 11,000 inhabitants still abuzz over the local telephone service that was installed two years earlier. Austin won the privilege to host the main campus of the University after a hotly contested state election, and as it was already the seat of Texas government, civic leaders predicted Austin would soon be the “Athens of the Southwest.” Fortunately, there were no proposals to change the city’s name accordingly. (Through much of the 19th century, as the United States expanded westward, colleges and universities were desired assets of newly founded, up-and-coming towns with lofty ambitions, and communities sometimes renamed themselves to reflect their goals. It’s no accident that two of Ohio’s state universities reside in towns named Oxford and Athens, that students enrolled at The University of Mississippi travel to Oxford, or that The University of Georgia is located in Athens.)

Ashbel Smith, a 76-year-old physician from Galveston (photo at left), was selected to chair the first Board of Regents, and was entrusted with the Herculean task of creating the new university. A graduate of Yale, Smith was a secretary of state for the Republic of Texas and served multiple terms in the state legislature. The University of Texas was Smith’s passion in the final years of his life, and his top priority was to recruit the best faculty possible. He traveled extensively, visited colleges throughout the country, and spent many late nights devoted to University-related correspondence, often scribbling letters by candlelight.

After nearly two years of effort, Smith and the Board of Regents selected eight professors. Six of them formed the Academic Department, and most were assigned to teach multiple disciplines: English, literature, and history; chemistry and physics; mathematics; metaphysics, logic, and ethics; ancient Greek and Latin; and Spanish, French and German. The remaining two professors composed the Law Department. Salaries averaged $2,500 per year, a generous sum in the 1880s.

Above: The University’s first faculty. From left: John Mallet, professor of physics and chemistry; Leslie Waggener, professor of English language, history, and literature; Robert Dabney, professor of mental and moral philosophy and political science; Robert Gould, professor of law; Oran Roberts, professor of law; Henri Tallichet, professor of modern languages; Milton Humphreys, professor of ancient languages; and William LeRoy Broun, professor of mathematics.

The initial entrance requirements were determined by the faculty. Candidates for the Academic Department were expected to know elementary Greek and Latin, though French and German could be substituted for those planning to pursue science or literature. Competency in algebra and plane geometry, English composition, history, and political geography were also required. Prospective law students needed to have a strong background in reading and writing English, and a “familiarity of the history of the United States and England.”

In the weeks before the University was scheduled to open, college-aged youth made their way to Austin to present their credentials and be interviewed by the faculty for admission. In a state where 90 percent of the population was classified as rural, many of the candidates were from farms and ranches, the children of pioneers, raised in log cabins with few luxuries. They were practical and self-motivated, but their preparatory education was incomplete. Many did not possess high school diplomas, and the standards for admission were too high. One prospective student who hoped to study mathematics, when asked how much math he had taken, proudly responded that he’d completed a class in “discount and bankruptcy.” Though hindered by a lack of formal education, the young Texans managed to impress the faculty. According to chemistry professor John Mallet, “Boys whose spelling and arithmetic were much behind their years, talked and thought like grown men of house building on the prairie, of cattle driving, even of social and political movements.” At the end of the first day of entrance examinations, the faculty met, discussed the situation, and with a collective shrug decided not to rigidly enforce the “grade of scholarship” established for admission, due to the “limited advantages for education in this state.”

From the beginning, the University was open to women, a progressive statement at a time when opportunities for women in higher education were rare. That UT would be co-educational was the result of a compromise in the state legislature as it debated the bill to create the University. Some members of the House who were opposed to female students were also political opponents of Governor Oran Roberts, and they feared that Roberts, whose term in office was coming to a close, would be named UT’s first president. In order to support the inclusion of women, the legislators demanded that the University be modeled after the University of Virginia, which was then led by a faculty chairman instead of a chief executive. An agreement was reached, and for its first decade, University affairs were the responsibility of the elected head of the faculty. Roberts was denied the possibility of serving as UT’s president, but he was appointed one of the two initial law professors.

With an incomplete building, sitting on a mostly barren campus, boasting an inaugural faculty of eight professors, and joined by 221 students, the University took its first, tentative steps upon the stage of Academe.

“…what is a university? Like any living thing, an academic institution is comprehensible only in terms of its history.” – James Conant, President of Harvard, 1933 – 1953

1950s Football Flare

UT Football Pin 1950s

When it’s time for kick-off, how do you show your team colors? Football fashions have been around as long as, well, football itself. In the 1880s and 1890s, fans going to a game pinned colored ribbons to their lapels to show which team they supported, though the guys often sported longer ribbons to be sure they’d have extra to share with a pretty girl who had none.

By the 1950s, ribbons were still being worn, though though they were more popular with the co-eds. Some were solid color ribbons attached with a team button (see photo at left), and perhaps decorated with “football charms” – tiny footballs, helmets, megaphones, or trophies.

At the University of Texas, paper ribbons printed with a catchy phrase about the day’s opponent were also popular. Pinned to a shirt or blouse, the ribbons were simply strips cut from a regular 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. The University Co-op sponsored the printing costs, and the ribbons were distributed in front of the entrances of the stadium as fans arrived for the game. Below is a sampling from the 1950s and 60s. (Click on an image for a larger view.)

Ribbon Image 1

Above, from left. Paper ribbons used for home games against Texas A&M, when the annual Thanksgiving Day game was often billed as the Tea-Sips vs. the Farmers, rather than Longhorns and Aggies; Oklahoma Sooners (Who else?); Rice Owls; and the TCU Horned Frogs. The “T” and longhorn logo at the bottom was used for only a few years in the early 1950s. The “yelling Bevo” icon was first appeared in 1953. 

Ribbon Image 2

Above, from left. An early 1950s ribbon for a Texas Tech game; from the 1964 Texas vs. Army bout in Memorial Stadium (UT won 17-6.); Oklahoma State was a non-conference opponent in 1963, when Texas went undefeated and claimed its first national football championship; in 1953, third ranked Baylor came to Austin, but UT students had been burning red candles to hex the Bears. Baylor fell 21-20.

Ribbon Image 3

Above, from left. Click on an image for a larger view, and you can still see the holes at the top where the ribbons were pinned. These are from the 1950s and 60s for games against Oklahoma, as well as Southwest Conference opponents Rice, Baylor, and Arkansas.

1955 UT Image

How to Celebrate Texas Independence Day

Texas Flag

For some Texans, it’s the most important day of the year, and a holiday that no other state can claim. March 2nd is Texas Independence Day, and its observance on the University of Texas campus began with some tenacious students, a missed class, an afternoon spent at Scholz’ Beer Garden, and a very noisy cannon.

In the spring of 1896, the fledgling University was confined to a 40-acre campus, with a white-washed wooden fence around the perimeter to keep out the town cows. A Victorian-Gothic Main Building, only two-thirds complete, commanded the hill in the center. It was flanked by the Chemistry Lab Building to the northwest, and B. Hall, a men’s dorm, down the hill to the east.

UT Campus in the 1890s

The University’s 482 students were divided into two departments: Academic and Law. The Academic Department encompassed studies comparable to today’s Colleges of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and the “Academs,” as its students were known, pursued their classes for the usual four years, most leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Law students, though, needed only two years to complete an LL.B. – a Bachelor of Laws and Letters – and a previous undergraduate degree wasn’t required for admission. Junior Laws were first-year law students and often the same age as other UT freshmen, while Senior Laws were completing their final year.

On the cloudy, warm, and humid morning of March 2, 1896, the Junior Laws were waiting for their next lecture in criminal law, taught by Judge Robert Batts, when one student bemoaned the fact that the day was Texas Independence Day, a legal holiday for Texans, except, apparently, for those on the University campus.

For years, students had regularly petitioned the faculty for a break on March 2nd, but had always been refused. “Our faculty is afraid to grant us holiday, even on such occasions,” complained the Alcalde, a weekly student newspaper that pre-dated The Daily Texan (and not to be confused with the present alumni magazine). “They fear that some 2 x 4 politician, or still smaller newspaper, will accuse them of not earning their money. That is the real cause of their reluctance to grant a cessation of routine grinds, to allow our Texan bosoms an inflation of truly patriotic atmosphere.”

After serious discussion, the Junior Laws decided they would honor such an auspicious day by avoiding class altogether, and invited Judge Batts to join them. The diplomatic Batts responded with an eloquent speech, espousing all of the grim and dire things that might happen to Junior Laws who skipped lectures. The students listened, politely applauded, and promptly ignored Batts’ pleas, choosing instead to spend the day at Scholz’ Beer Garden just south of the campus, where they were reportedly “very gemuethlick.”

George Tayloe WinstonOne year later, in 1897, the now senior law class was determined to include the entire campus community in a celebration of “the natal day of Texas Independence,” and again petitioned the faculty for a holiday. But the Board of Regents had recently appointed George T. Winston (photo at left) as president of the University. A native of North Carolina, Winston had attended the U.S. Naval Academy and was at the head of his class when he was reluctantly forced to leave school because he was too prone to seasickness. Winston completed his studies at Cornell, though he continued to follow the rigorous exercise regimen instilled in him at the Academy. While in Austin, President Winston often ended the work day by first removing his suit coat, and then leaving the office for a brisk walk/jog west of campus to the Austin Dam, where the “Hula Hut” restaurant is today. There he acquired a canoe, paddled up the lake to Mount Bonnell, climbed to the peak to take in the view, and then returned to the campus along the same route. Occasionally, a few professors or students would join him. (He might have been UT’s most physically fit president!)

Winston’s Academy experience also taught him to be a thoroughly patriotic American. He neither understood nor shared the affinity Texans had for March 2nd, recognized only one Independence Day, and that was on July 4th. Undaunted, the Senior Laws pressed ahead with their plans, hoping to impress upon the president the importance of the second day of March.

Working with the Texas Attorney General, four of the students signed a bond in order to borrow one of the two brass cannons that stood guard – and are still on display – in front of the State Capitol. It took most of the afternoon of March 1st to roll the cannon to the Forty Acres, where the Laws planned to use it for a 21-gun salute to Texas at dawn the following day.

Just before sunrise on March 2, 1897, the Senior Laws arrived, anxious to start the festivities, only to discover that the cannon had been spiked. A large nail had been driven in to the ignition hole, and it took some time, persistence and the employment of several pocket knives to remove the offending item. By then, President Winston had arrived on the scene, and was rather unhappily resigned to the fact that the students were going to celebrate, whether or not the faculty approved. (Years later, Winston finally admitted that he had spiked the cannon himself!) Hoping to minimize the damage to the class day, Winston asked the Laws to move the cannon away from the Main Building, down the hill to the University’s athletic field, about where the O’Donnell Building and the Gates-Dell Computer Science Center now stand. Or, they could wait until after noon to have their fun. The students elected to do both.

Boom!! Starting at 9:30 a.m., an otherwise peaceful March morning was harshly interrupted by a series of cannon blasts from the athletic field. The entire Law Department attended, including Professors Robert Batts and John Townes, and following the cannon fire, each person present gave a short but sincere patriotic speech. The talks by Batts and Townes were greeted with particularly loud cheers from the students.

Meanwhile, a distracted Academic Department continued to hold classes as best as it could in the old Main Building, some of the faculty hoping the Laws would tire of their efforts, while other professors were no doubt wishing they could join in the fun. The Laws, though, weren’t going to allow Texas Independence Day to pass without including the rest of the University.

Texas Independence Day.March 2 1897

At 1 p.m., a fresh supply of gun powder was secured, and the cannon was dragged up the hill and positioned directly in front of the Main Building, facing the Capitol. Boom!! The first blast “threatened to break every window in the building,” claimed an eyewitness. In a flurry, the Academs vacated their classrooms and joined the Laws outside and the scene of the morning was repeated, with more speeches from students and professors.

Midway through the afternoon, it was discovered that President Winston had quietly made an escape to his home just north of the campus, to which a large and boisterous committee of students promptly followed. Refusing to take no for an answer, Winston was persuaded to return and make a speech of his own. He opened with the paraphrased remark:

“I was born in the land of liberty, rocked in the cradle of liberty, nursed on the bottle of liberty, and I’ve had liberty preached to me all my life, but Texas University students take more liberty than anyone I’ve ever come in contact with.”

The students responded with their loudest cheers of the day, and gave President Winston a rousing rendition of the ‘Varsity Yell:

Hullabaloo! Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
Hullabaloo! Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
Varsity! Varsity! U. T. A.!

Since then, UT students and alumni have recognized March 2nd as a time to celebrate both the Lone Star State and their favorite University. In 1900, the Ex-Students Association adopted a resolution which states: “Whenever two Texas Exes shall meet on March 2, they all shall sit and break bread and pay tribute to the institution that made their education possible.”

Today, the on-campus celebration is limited to a popular annual breakfast hosted by the Tejas Club, and attended by the UT president, faculty, staff, and invited graduating seniors, though alumni chapters worldwide join in on the fun, and organize events that raise funds for UT scholarships.

Texas Independence Day.March 2 1981

Above: In the 1980s, Texas Independence Day was remembered on the Main Mall at noon with members of the Longhorn Band, Alpha Phi Omega’s “world’s largest Texas flag” draped in front of the Main Building, and Texas birthday cake served by the Orange Jackets women’s service organization. To continue the 1897 tradition, the Texas Cowboys fired Ol’ Smokey, the cannon used at football games. The image above is from 1981.

More Postcards for the UT History Corner

Main Building and Tower.1930s

Perusing old postcards is a great way to explore the University’s history. Since the UT History Corner is intended to be a resource on the subject, the postcards section under the “Images” portion of the web site has been expanded.

Though postcards have been around since the 1840s, the U.S. Post Office was initially the only establishment allowed to print them. The first souvenir cards it published were views of the popular 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1898, the monopoly was broken when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, and over the next few years, entrepreneurs began to print cards with local scenes and attractions, selling them to tourists who would then mail them to friends and family back home. For Austin and the University of Texas, postcards began to appear at the start of the 20th century.

You’ll find the postcard section on the UT History Corner divided into three pages (links provided below):

Postcards 1: 1900 – 1920s

Postcards 2: 1930s – 1940s

Postcards 3: 1950s – 1970s

Use the “Images” menu near the top of the web site to navigate from one page to another, and you can always click on a postcard to see a larger version of it.

Have fun exploring!

UT Stadium and Campus.1960s.

World War II and the Longhorn Room

West Mall.Texas nion.1942

The Texas Union and the West Mall in 1942. Students crossed Guadalupe Street at the direction of a lone traffic signal, set on a pole. In the spring and summer, the rectangular grassy spot just behind the traffic light was planted with flowers to form a large “U T.”

When the United States formally entered World War II in December, 1941, campus life abruptly changed to support the war effort. The academic year was altered to permit additional short terms just after Christmas and over the summer, so that students who might be drafted could graduate in just under three years. Special courses were added to train military personnel, and research became almost exclusively war-related. A Naval ROTC unit was headquartered in the Littlefield Home, with two anti-aircraft guns placed on the front lawn of the Victorian mansion, and a practice firing range in the attic. By 1943, ROTC had been absorbed into the Navy’s V-12 program, which brought thousands of officer candidates to the campus.

Despite the seriousness of the times, students still found ways to have fun, and much of the University’s social life centered on the Texas Union.

During the war, the Union was a place to both participate in the war and escape from it. The U.S. armed forces opened a recruitment center in the building. Classes in first aid, bandage rolling, and how to be an air-raid warden were common. The Union was also the drop-off site for an endless series of collection drives. Aluminum, rubber, and books and magazines for soldiers overseas were the most successful.

An appeal to collect silk, though, was not as popular. Because silk burned without smoking, it was needed to make gun powder bags for ammunition. Silk shirts and women’s hose were requested, but campus co-eds were not eager to donate. “Too many girls are sitting on silk,” admonished The Daily Texan student newspaper. “Campus co-eds are either not taking the trouble to turn in their old hose, or are looking forward to a cold winter.”

DT.Nov 17 1942.Tower Air Riad Siren Test.

An air raid siren was installed on top of the UT Tower, while instructional classes on how to be an air raid warden were held in the Texas Union. The article is from a November 1942 issue of The Daily Texan. Click on the image for a larger view.

In the fall of 1942, the War Effort Council, a committee that coordinated student war activities, looked for a way to solve an issue caused by the war. The all-University dances, held every weekend in the Union Ballroom, were extraordinarily popular through the 1930s. Jazz greats such as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington brought their bands to the campus, and revenue from the dances allowed the Union to remain self-supporting. With the onset of war came gas rationing and tire shortages. Dance bands could no longer easily tour the country; University students had to rely on local talent or supply their own.

UT_Swing_DancingThe “Longhorn Room” debuted Saturday evening, November 14, 1942, to a sold out crowd of 600 persons, including UT President Homer Rainey and his wife. Decked out with wagon wheels, cedar posts, bales of hay and red-checkered tablecloths, the Union’s ballroom was transformed into a western-styled nightclub. Couples (no stags allowed!) were charged fifty cents, and could reserve tables in advance. Music was supplied by the Union’s record player. “Music for dancing will be furnished by 120 records and patrons are asked to make requests for their favorite tunes,” announced the Texan. Student groups, including the Texas Cowboys, Alpha Phi Omega, Orange Jackets, and Silver Spurs, volunteered to set-up and decorate, wait on tables, tend bar, and clean up afterward.

The highlight of the evening was the half-hour variety show, which was often unpredictable. A sorority might perform a short musical, complete with costumes and dancing, or individual students would entertain the crowd with stand-up comedy. Occasionally the football team brought down the house with their version of the Can-can.

The bar was strictly non-alcoholic. Soft drinks and milkshakes were sold for a dime a glass. But it sparked the creation of a new concoction called “Kickapoo Joy Juice.” Made from orange juice, ice cream, coconut, and milk, it was “guaranteed to lift the drinker by his shoelaces, set him on a little pink cloud, and let him down easy.”

The Longhorn Room continued in the Union for the duration of the war and attracted national attention. National periodicals Downbeat, PIC and Mademoiselle printed features, while Downbeat judged the Longhorn Room as “one of the most unique entertainments in American colleges.”

Audio Comes to the UT History Corner


With a battered and worn cover after more than seven decades, Songs of the University of Texas contains early recordings of UT favorites, along with some tunes that haven’t been heard on the campus since the 1950s.

The UT History Corner is more than a blog; it’s intended to be an expanding resource for those interested in exploring the University’s past. To compliment the traditions, images, and resource areas already on the web site, a new audio section has been added.

Songs of the University of Texas is a three-record set of 78rpm discs recorded sometime in the mid-1940s. Curiously, the songs weren’t performed by a UT student group, but arranged and recorded in New York City by the Republic Glee Club, whose members were often heard on popular national radio shows. E. William Doty, the first dean of UT’s College of Fine Arts (and who held the post for 34 years), is listed as “Musical Advisor.”

A pair of tunes will be familiar: The Eyes of Texas and Texas Taps (better known today as Texas Fight!). While the songs were arranged specifically for the New  York performers, the age of the recording still might tell us a little as to how the songs were initially sung.

The other three selections are: The Clock on the Varsity Tower, Hail to Thee our Texas, and The Victory Song. John Young, a 1940 fine arts graduate, wrote Clock as a ballad to his sweetheart. The two met on the Main Mall in front of the Tower, and the clock chimed just as they were introduced. The composer of Hail to Thee is unknown, though the song has the feel of a traditional, Ivy League college piece, sung by an a Capella choir in a grand auditorium. The upbeat Victory Song by George Hurt was used as a second UT fight song, and was a staple at football rallies and games into the early 1960s before it disappeared.

1940 Songs of the Forty Acres

Along with the recordings, a 4 x 6 inch pamphlet, titled Songs of the Forty Acres, was printed at about the same time. It contains about 20 tunes, many of them Texas folk favorites – including Git Along, Li’l Dogies – but the music and words to the UT songs on the records are also included. Those pages have been scanned and posted to the audio section, so listen, sing along, or find a piano and play these old college songs yourself!

To listen to Songs of the University of Texas, click here.

The Bluebonnets are Blooming!

UT Bluebonnets.Feb 2013

Winter seems to have skipped Austin this year. Except for a few cool days around the start of January, the city has managed to avoid the heavy dousings snow and ice that have created havoc farther north.

Spring usually arrives around Valentine’s Day, when the Texas Ash trees – always the first to bloom – just begin to show new leaves. But this year, the trees have gotten off to a three-week head start. Some trees were sprouting growth by the last week of January, and already have enough foilage so that’s it’s not possible to see through the once bare, wintry branches.

The greatest surprise is on the UT campus, where mature bluebonnets are already in full bloom. The photo above was taken this past week at the head of the East Mall, next to the Main Building. Bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers traditionally arrive in mid-to-late March, which make these a full six weeks early.

It’s good to see the Texas Bluebonnet on the campus again. For years, the Texas state flower has been scarce on the Forty Acres, but recent efforts by the staff who take care of the grounds have made a special effort to guarantee the bluebonnet’s return.


Old Main in the spring, around 1900.

Such efforts weren’t always needed. For the University’s first half century, the campus in springtime was awash with bluebonnets, along with poppies, yellow daisies, and the bright red blossoms of the prickly pear cactus. The old Main Building was a golden island in a blue sea, and the wildflowers were an invitation to campus picnics.


On a campus overflowing with bluebonnets, UT co-eds enjoy a picnic in 1899. The Woman’s Building, the first residence hall for co-eds (where the Flawn Academic Center is today), is in the background.

In the 1910s, the abundance of wildflowers helped create an annual tradition among University co-eds. Inspired by a similar rite at then women-only Vassar College, graduating seniors passed an immense, handmade chain of real bluebonnets, representing tradition and responsibility, onto the shoulders of junior girls who were dressed in white.

By 1922, the ceremony became known as “Swing-Out,” and was organized by Cap and Gown, a women’s student organization. The event was intended to recognize women leaders on campus, and to formally transfer the mantle of responsibility to the junior class. It was a prominent part of the annual Senior Week, which featured activities for all graduating seniors, both men and women.

Originally, a chain several hundred feet in length was made from bluebonnets attached to Spanish moss, but as more buildings appeared on the campus, the supply of both flowers and moss didn’t last. In 1928, a reusable chain of paper bluebonnets was created, and thereafter maintained by the sophomore class.

Swing Out.1920s

The Swing Out ceremony in the 1920s, on what is today the South Mall. Senior girls in caps and gowns have passed the bluebonnet chain, representing the ties of leadership and tradition, on to the shoulders of the junior class, dressed in white.

In 1955, Cap and Gown agreed to expand the ceremony to include both women and men, and Swing-Out evolved into an event to honor current student leaders and announce the leaders for the following year, including the new student body president. But the event grew less popular in the 1960s, and the 1964 edition was the last for several decades.

In the 1990s, a new version, called the Swing-Out Awards, was created to honor outstanding accomplishments and contributions by student organizations on campus. The awards are presented in April, but if the bluebonnets are going to start blooming earlier in the year, the ceremony might need to be rescheduled…

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.


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.


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.

Of Regents and Women

Combing through the minutes of the UT Board of Regents can be a tedious process. They’re a great resource for University history, though all too often, what had to be some lively and animated debates are either boiled down to a few dry sentences, or only the final decision was recorded. But sometimes, there’s a peek into the manner and attitudes of the regents, and of their times.

On July 12, 1917, the regents met in Austin to, among other things, meticulously review the University’s budget. The United States had entered World War I the previous April, and the Board was looking to financially trim what it could to help with the war effort. Most salary raises were placed on hold for the duration. Before the war was over, UT would partner with the War Department to host three military schools. The School for Military Aeronautics (SMA) was stationed at the Little Campus. Hargis Hall and the Nowotny Building just north of the Erwin Center are all that’s left of a larger complex. The SMA was called the “West Point of the Air,” and was a prototype for the Air Force Academy. The School of Automobile Mechanics was stationed at Camp Mabry, where instructors included members of the UT faculty. And the School of Radio Operators was located on campus and set up shop in rows of canvas army tents that lined what is today the South Mall.

While meeting in the old Main Building – in an Austin summer and without air conditioning – the regents’ review came to the Department of Home Economics, today’s School of Human Ecology. The department’s proposed budget for the 1917-18 school year was $13,800, most of which went to faculty salaries. (Department chair Mary Gearing was to be paid $3,000.) Two of the regents, John Mathis and William Love, moved to eliminate the department outright. Regent George Littlefield spoke up to defend it, but thought “the salaries were too high for women.” His fellow regents must have agreed. As a compromise, the Board decided to reduce all of the teaching slaries by 20 per cent.

Four years later, Governor Pat Neff appointed Mary McLellan O’Hair as the first woman regent. A vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, and an active member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Mrs. O’Hair would likely have had her own opinion on how much women should be paid.

Photo above: The 1923 Board of Regents meets on campus. Mary McLellan O’Hair, the first woman on the Board, is fourth from left. UT President William Sutton is seated on the far left.