Five Things every UT Freshman should Know

In just a few weeks, the freshman class of 2021 will arrive in Austin and become a part of the University of Texas. Before the fall semester begins and schedules get busy, here are five things every UT freshman ought to know.

1. Know Your Forty Acres

Above: The UT campus at 21st Street and Guadalupe in 1899.

The city of Austin was founded in 1839 as the capital of the Republic of Texas. Surveyors laid out a series of city blocks between Waller and Shoal Creeks, set aside land at the top of a hill for a “Capitol Square,” named east-west streets for Texas trees, and north-south roads for Texas rivers.

A year later, in 1840, additional land was surveyed to the north, and a square, forty-acre plot was informally labeled “College Hill,” (photo at left) bounded today by 21st and 24th Streets, Speedway to the east, and Guadalupe on the west. At the time, there were no firm plans to establish a university, and the people of Austin made no claims to the land. They built their homes and businesses around College Hill, and used the area as a favorite spot for weekend picnics. There is, in fact, no legal deed to the plot.

The Texas Legislature created the University in 1881 and Austin, by way of a controversial state-wide vote, won the main campus. Having waited decades, College Hill was at last put to use when UT was formally opened on September 15, 1883. Though the University grounds have expanded ten-fold, the campus is still known as the Forty Acres.

Above right: The Victorian-Gothic old Main Building, UT’s first campus structure, where the Tower stands today. (Explore the early UT campus here.)

2. Know Your Colors

It was a gloomy Tuesday morning, April 21, 1885, when UT’s first baseball team, along with most of the student body, arrived at the downtown Austin train station at Third Street and Congress Avenue. The group had chartered passenger cars bound for Georgetown, thirty miles north, where UT was to play its first-ever intercollegiate baseball game against Southwestern University. Just as the train was ready to depart, Miss Gussie Brown from (of all places) Orange, Texas, urgently announced the need for some ribbon to identify everyone as from the University of Texas.

Today, college fans show support for their teams by donning t-shirts, jackets, and caps. But in the 1880s, colored ribbons were worn on lapels. An enterprising male student often sported longer ribbons so he’d have extra to share with a pretty girl who had none.

Gussie’s two friends – Venable Proctor and Clarence Miller – always eager to impress the ladies, jumped off the train and sprinted north along Congress Avenue to the nearest general store. They asked the shopkeeper for three bolts of two colors of ribbon. “Which colors?” the merchant inquired. “Anything,” the students replied. After all, the train was leaving the station, and there was no time to be particular.

The shopkeeper gave them the colors he had the most in stock: white ribbon, which was popular for weddings and parties and was always in demand, and bright orange ribbon, because few bought the color, and the store had plenty to spare.

Right: The Austin railroad station at Third Street and Congress Avenue.

Loaded with supplies, Proctor and Miller ran back and boarded the moving train as it left for Georgetown. Along the way, the ribbon was divided and distributed to everyone except for a law student named Yancey Lewis, “who had evolved a barbaric scheme of individual adornment by utilizing the remnants.”

Unfortunately, it rained in the afternoon, the pitcher’s curve ball curved not, and Texas outfielders ran weary miles in a lost cause as they fell to an experienced Southwestern squad 21–6. The colors, though, had made their debut. There would be challengers, including gold and white, royal blue, and (most popular) orange and maroon, but a 1900 vote by students, faculty, and alumni settled the matter for orange and white.

Read the full story here: Orange and White

3. Know Your Mascot

University of Texas athletic teams have been known as the “Longhorns” since 1904, but in the mid-1910s, a growing number of UT alumni wanted to see if a live longhorn mascot might be able to attend football games. In the fall of 1916, Texas law grad Stephen Pinckney, working for the U.S. Attorney General’s office, discovered what he thought would be the perfect candidate in West Texas. With $1.00 donations from 125 alumni, Pinckney arranged to purchase the steer and have it transported to Austin in time for the Thanksgiving Day football game between the University and Texas A&M.

The longhorn made its debut at halftime and was presented to the students (photo above left), then taken to a South Austin stockyard for safe keeping and a formal portrait. He was named “Bevo,” thought to be derived from the word “beeve,” the plural for beef, and a slang term for a cow or steer. (Think of the name as “Beef-o.”)

The University community, though, wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their new addition. The gift had been made, but without any formal plans for feeding, caring, or transporting the steer. Besides, UT students already claimed to have a live mascot in Pig Bellmont, (right) a dog owned by Athletic Director Theo Bellmont. Pig lived on the Forty Acres, had a daily routine of greeting students in classrooms and in the library, and went to home and away football, baseball, and basketball games.

Texas had won the football game 21-7, and some students pushed to have the steer branded with the score. Others thought it was cruel. As the campus community debated, a group of Aggie pranksters visited Austin in the wee hours of Sunday, February 12, 1917, broke in to the South Austin stockyard and branded the steer “13-0,” the score of the 1915 football bout A&M had won in College Station the year before.

Above: Bevo was branded “13-0” in February 1917. 

A few days later, amid rumors that the Aggies planned to kidnap the animal outright, Bevo was safely transported to the Tom Iglehart ranch west of Austin. Six weeks later, the United States entered World War I, and the University transformed itself to support the war effort. Out of sight and off campus, the branded steer was all but forgotten until the end of the war in November 1918.

Since Bevo’s food and care cost the University sixty cents a day, and as the steer wasn’t believed to be tame enough to remain in the football stadium, it was fattened up and became the barbecued main course for the January 1920 football banquet. A delegation from A&M was invited to attend, “and the branding iron was buried and the resumption of athletic relations, after an unhappy period… duly celebrated.”

For the full story and more photos, see Bevo.

4. Know Your Hand Sign

Above: Harley Clark (right) and the 1955 UT cheerleaders.

Harley Clark was a head cheerleader in search of an idea. It was the second week of November, 1955, and the Texas Longhorn football team was getting ready to host sixth-ranked TCU in an important contest at Memorial Stadium. A torchlight parade across the Forty Acres and football rally in Gregory Gym had been scheduled for Friday night, November 11th, but Harley was looking for something to make it extra special and rouse a little more of the University of Texas spirit.

A few days before the rally, Harley was in the Texas Union (photo at right) when he saw fellow classmate Henry “HK” Pitts, who suggested that a hand sign with the index and little fingers extended looked a bit like a longhorn, and might be fun to do at rallies and football games. The Texas Aggies had their “Gig ‘em” thumbs-up sign, inspired while playing the TCU Horned Frogs. (“Gigging” is a term used to hunt small game – including frogs – with a muti-pronged spear.) With the TCU game coming up on Saturday, why can’t Texas fans have their own hand signal?

Harley liked the idea, and decided to introduce it at the Gregory Gym rally. He demonstrated the sign to the crowd and promptly declared, “This is the official hand sign of the University of Texas, to be used whenever and wherever Longhorns gather.” The students and cheerleaders tried it out, and Harley led a simple yell, “Hook ‘em Horns!” with hands raised. (In this case, a tradition has two founders. HK Pitts was in charge of “research and development,” and Harley Clark took on “marketing and sales.”)

Above: A tradition is born. The moment in Gregory Gym when the “Hook ’em Horns” hand sign was first introduced to UT students. Click on an image for a larger view.

Immediately after the rally, Harley was confronted by a furious Arno Nowotny, the Dean of Students. “How could you say the hand sign was official?” the dean wanted to know. “Has this been approved by the University administration?” Harley admitted that the idea hadn’t been approved first, but the cat was already out of the bag – or the longhorn was already loose in the pasture. At the football game, the student section practiced what they’d learned the night before, and the alumni were quick to follow. By the end of the game, the stadium was full of “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signs.

The full story is here: Hook ’em Horns

5. Know Your Tower

The Main Building, with its 307-foot Tower, is the definitive landmark of the University. For eighty years, it’s quietly watched over the campus bustle, breaking its silence every quarter hour to remind everyone of the passing of the day. Bathed in warm orange lights to announce honors and victories, crowned in fireworks at the climax of spring commencement ceremonies, it’s been a backdrop for freshman convocations, football rallies, concerts, and demonstrations. Architect Paul Cret intended it to be the “image carried in our memory when we think of the place,” though author and UT English instructor J. Frank Dobie, incensed that a state so rich in land would build something better suited to New York City, branded it a “toothpick in a pie.”

Opened in 1937, the Main Building was created to house the University’s central library. Along the east and west sides of the building, a pair of spacious reading rooms, labeled the “Hall of Texas” and the “Hall of Noble Words,” were connected to a great central reference room. Made with liberal use of oak and marble, the room was decorated with the six seals of Texas. (A life sciences library is still housed in the Main Building, and a visit to see these great halls is highly recommended. The Hall of Noble Words is a popular study place for students.)

Above: The ceiling of the Hall of Noble Words. 

Rising twenty-seven floors above the reading rooms, the Tower contained the library’s book stacks. Made of Indiana limestone, it was financed through a grant from the Progress Works Administration, a New Deal program created during the Great Depression. As a closed-stack library, its patrons searched an immense card catalog to identify their selections, and then requested books at the front desk. Orders were forwarded upstairs to one of the Tower librarians, who sometimes wore roller skates to better navigate the rows of bookshelves. Once found, books were sent downstairs in a special elevator to be checked out.

As both enrollment and the library’s holdings grew, the waiting time for a book extended to more than half an hour. The need for an open-stack library led to the construction of the Undergraduate Library and Academic Center in 1963 (now the Flawn Academic Center), and the Perry-Castaneda Library in 1977.

Symbolically, architect Paul Cret intended the Tower to be the University’s iconic building, and sought to give it an “appropriate architectural treatment for a depository of human knowledge.” The ornamentation on the building was meant to convey its purpose as a library as well as to the mission and aspirations of the University. Names of literary giants – Plato, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, among them –  were carved in limestone under the tall windows along the east and west sides. Displayed in gold leaf on the north side of the Tower were letters (or cartouches) from five dialects that contributed to the development of English language: Egyptian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The biblical quote inscribed above the south entrance, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” was selected by the Faculty Building Committee as suitable for those who came to use the library. “The injunction to seek truth as a means to freedom is as splendid a call to youth as we can make,” explained committee chair William Battle. (See: The Inscription.)

Placed alongside the literary images were familiar Classical symbols. The lamp of learning, the face of Athena as the goddess of wisdom, and rows of scallop shells – associated with Venus as the goddess of truth and beauty – were all added to the south façade, carved in place by Italian stone masons. Learning, wisdom, truth, and beauty: values long associated with the purpose of higher education.

The most colorful decorations were hung along the east and west sides of the building, just below the broad eaves, where artful representations of a dozen university seals (above right) were meant to convey a history of higher education, as well as proclaim UT’s own aspirations to be a “University of the first class.”

At night, the Tower takes on a different symbolic meaning when it glows orange to announce an athletic victory or an academic achievement. In the case of a national championship, a number “1” is displayed in the windows – a favorite sight for every Longhorn fan.

Above: An orange Tower with a “1” on all four sides for a national championship.

For more reading and photos: How to Build a Tower, The Main Building Seals, and UT Tower Lighting Configurations

Also see: Advice for UT Freshmen

How to Build a Tower

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Main Building and Littlefield Fountain

It’s the Tower, the definitive landmark of the University. For more than three-quarters of a century, it has quietly watched over the daily campus bustle, breaking its silence every quarter hour to remind everyone of the passing of the day. Bathed in warm orange lights to announce honors and victories, crowned in fireworks at the climax of spring commencement ceremonies, it’s been a backdrop for freshman convocations, football rallies, concerts, and demonstrations. Architect Paul Cret intended it to be the “image carried in our memory when we think of the place,” though author J. Frank Dobie, incensed that a state so rich in land would build something better suited to New York City, branded it a “toothpick in a pie.” While academia has sometimes been called a metaphorical “ivory tower,” the University of Texas doesn’t settle for expressive substitutes. We have a tower all our own.

Old Main Library.1902.The Main Building with its 27-story Tower was to be the long-term solution to a problem that had plagued the Board of Regents for decades: how to increase the size of the library. The University library was initially housed on the first floor of the old Main Building (Photo at right. Click for a larger view.), but as its holdings increased, the space needed for additional bookshelves literally squeezed the students out of the reading room. The problem was temporarily relieved with the construction of a separate library building in 1911 (now Battle Hall), but by 1920, its quarters were again hopelessly overcrowded. A new library was needed, but where to place it?

1908 Postcard.Old Main with bluebonnets

Above: The old Main Building, surrounded by Texas Bluebonnets in the spring.

While the crest of the hill at the center of the Forty Acres was the obvious best setting for such a monumental building, it would have meant the destruction of the Victorian-Gothic Old Main. As the first structure on the campus, it was the sentimental favorite of both of faculty and alumni, and its offices and classrooms couldn’t be easily moved elsewhere. There simply wasn’t room.

Proposals included the addition of a new library north of Old Main, or, perhaps, to the south, where it would have sat in the middle of today’s South Mall and prevented the development of a grand main entrance to the University. A third scheme was to expand the existing library, double the size of the front façade, and add a 16-story tower for book stacks. All of the proposals either placed the library in an inconvenient spot or were too expensive.

Paul CretIn 1930, the Board of Regents hired Paul Cret as Consulting Architect for the University. Born in in 1876 in Lyon, France, Cret had graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, at the time considered to be the world’s best university for architecture instruction. He immigrated to the United States early in the 20th century and was the head of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania when he was agreed to take on the consulting position for UT. Cret was to design a new master plan for the campus, and among his first priorities was the solution for a new library.

Cret quickly realized that the library belonged on the top of the hill, and as he developed his master plan, the library building became the focal point of his designs. Because the plan was to be a guide for campus construction over several decades, Cret proposed building the library in parts, both to reduce costs – especially important during the 1930s and the time of the Great Depression –  and ease the pain over the removal of Old Main.

The back, lower half of the building was to be constructed immediately. It required only the destruction of the little-used north wing of Old Main, and a hallway would connect both structures. Officially it was to be known as the “library annex,” though at some point in the future it would assume the role as the primary University library. It was important for Cret to get at least part of the building on top of the hill, as it was the lynch pin for the rest of his plans.

Cret imagined that after 20 years or so – in the 1950s – when additional structures had been built to compensate for any space lost with the destruction of Old Main, UT’s first building could be finally retired, and the South façade and stack tower added to complete the library.

Main Building Construction.1.

Above: The back, lower part of the current Main Building was completed first, in 1934. Officially named the “library annex,” it was connected to Old Main, which can be see on the right. The Life Sciences Library, along with the Hall of Texas and the Hall of Noble Words, is still here.

The Board of Regents approved the plan in 1933, and construction for the north annex was finished the following year. It boasted a new Loan and Catalogue Room, also known as the Hall of the Six Coats of Arms. Two stories high, framed in marbles from West Texas, New York, Vermont, and Missouri, with walnut doors and screens, and illuminated by bronze light fixtures, the room featured the coats of arms of the six nations of which Texas has been a part: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States, and the United States.

Hall of Noble Words.2Two spacious reading rooms were placed on either side of the Catalogue Room. To the east was the Hall of Noble Words. (Photo at left.) The ceiling featured a series of heavy concrete beams painted to look like wood. Each side of a beam was decorated with quotes within a specific theme, among them: friendship, patriotism, freedom, wisdom, and truth. It was hoped that the students studying below would occasionally glance upward and be inspired by the exhortations above them. The Hall of Texas opened to the west. The beams here depicted periods of Texas settlement and history, from the times of Native Americans up to the opening of the University. While the Plant Resources Center takes up part of the Hall of Texas, it and the Hall of Noble Words are still open to the public, used by UT students for almost eight decades.

Main Building Construction.2..

Above: In the summer and fall of 1934, Old Main was demolished, and by the following January, steam shovels had arrived to dig out a foundation for the new Main Building’s facade. Battle Hall can be seen on the left and the West Mall in the distance. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

Once completed, the library annex was to have hidden behind Old Main for decades. But as the Great Depression worsened, UT sought ways to minimize the number of unemployed in Austin. The University’s ever-growing building program brought with it construction jobs that helped soften the economic blow. Robert Leon White, an alumnus who was also the University’s Supervising Architect, approached UT President Harry Benedict about finishing the library sooner. Money through the Available University Fund wasn’t available, but White wanted to apply for a loan through the newly created Public Works Administration, one of many New Deal programs initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt. Benedict was skeptical, but allowed White to try.

Main Building Construction.3.

Above: With Old Main razed, work begins in front of the “library annex.” This was the view from Battle Hall on a cold, cloudy day in January 1935. Boardwalks were constructed for students to change classes. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

White filed an application with the PWA for a $2.8 million loan, $1.8 million to complete what was labeled the Main Building and Library Extension, and the rest for three men’s and three women’s residence halls. White was optimistic, in part, because one of his childhood friends was Tully Garner, son of then Vice President John Garner from Uvalde. Using these connections, White arranged a meeting with the vice president for him and Beauford Jester, chair of the Board of Regents. The meeting was a positive one, and Garner agreed to give his support to the University’s application.  A few months later, UT received the funds it needed, and the early completion of the University’s new Main Building and Tower was guaranteed.

Main Building Construction.4.

Above: With work well underway in front of the Main Building, the Tower, which will serve as the book stacks for the library, begins to rise from the one-time “library annex.” From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

The formal dedication ceremony was held Saturday, February 27, 1937. President Benedict, and Regents Beauford Jester and Lutcher Stark made appropriate remarks. A sealed box filled with papers pertaining to the construction of the new Main Building was placed inside a cornerstone next to the south entrance in the building’s loggia.

Main Building Construction.5.

Above: By the end of 1935, the Main Building and its Tower are taking shape. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

Designed as a closed-stack library, the Tower was intended to store the University’s general collections. Sheathed in Indiana Limestone, its infrastructure was built by the Snead Stack Company of New Jersey. Patrons entered the building through the south loggia, climbed one flight up the central staircase, and entered the Catalogue Room. After searching an immense card catalog, readers requested books at the front desk. Orders were then forwarded upstairs to a Tower librarian, who often navigated the rows of bookshelves in roller skates. Once found, books were sent downstairs in a special elevator, then to the main desk to be checked out. Newspapers and magazines were stored on the ground floor, and special collections, including rare books and Latin-American literature, were housed in separate rooms in the building. For a while, it was informally dubbed the Mirabeau B. Lamar Library, but the name wasn’t very popular. Students and faculty preferred a remembrance to Old Main that had once inhabited the spot, and simply called the library the new Main Building.

Main Building Construction.8.

Above: Exactly one year away from its dedication, the Tower is more than halfway complete. From the Alexander Architecture Archive.

Main Building.Littlefield Fountain.1938

Above: Officially opened on February 27, 1937, the Main Building and Tower served as the University Library until the 1960s, when higher enrollment and greater usage meant more than a half hour wait to retrieve a book from the Tower stacks. In 1964, the Undergraduate Library – today’s Flawn Academic Center – was opened with direct access to the bookshelves. 

Photo credits: Many of the images in the post come from the University of Texas Buildings Collection, Alexander Architecture Archive, University of Texas Libraries.

Audio Comes to the UT History Corner

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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.

How “Texan” is the UT Tower?

City Hall.Camden NJ.4.

Above: Does this building look familiar? Brace yourself…

The Tower. It’s the signature, iconic symbol of the University of Texas. Bathed in warm orange lights to announce academic honors and sports victories, crowned in fireworks for spring commencement, it’s been a backdrop for freshman convocations, football rallies, concerts, and demonstrations. Architect Paul Cret intended the Tower to be the “image carried in our memory when we think of the place,” though author J. Frank Dobie, incensed that a state so rich in land would build something better suited to New York City, branded it a “toothpick in a pie.” While a college is sometimes described as being housed in a metaphorical “ivory tower,” the University of Texas doesn’t settle for expressive substitutes. We have a tower all our own.

What will surprise many is that the Main Building and its 27-story Tower, now so identified with Texas, is actually a blend of many sources, most of them not from the Lone Star State. And the proudest of Longhorns may cringe to learn that part of the inspiration for the building’s design came from, of all places, New Jersey.

Paul CretThe building’s designer was Paul Cret (pronounced “Cray”). There’s a persistent campus myth that he attended Rice University in Houston (more on that here), but Cret was born in Lyon, France, graduated from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and immigrated to the United States. When he was hired to be the consulting architect for the University of Texas in 1930, Cret headed the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and maintained an active private practice. His office was on Market Street downtown.

Completed in 1937, the Main Building was both the University’s central library and focus of Cret’s campus master plan. As the monumental structure on the Forty Acres, the architect was careful in his choice of materials and talent. Some of this was recruited from Texas, but much of the building, both physically and conceptually, arrived from beyond the state’s borders.

Visitors to the Main Building will likely recognize the Austin shell stone – locally quarried limestone packed with fossilized shells – used to frame the doorways in the building’s front loggia. Inside, the Magnolia Gray marble along the walls of the “grand stairway” was shipped from West Texas. And some of the bricks from the old Main Building, made in Austin, were recycled for the inner walls and air shafts of the new structure.

Robert Leon White, a UT graduate and member of the architecture faculty, contributed to the design of the interior of the building, and served as supervising architect for its construction. Peter Mansbendel of Austin, an internationally-known master artisan in the first half of the 20th century, was responsible for most of the elaborate wood carving in oak and walnut.

Aside from those few native sources, much of the rest of the building is from outside Texas. The walls of the Main Building and Tower were constructed of Bedford, Indiana limestone, known for its hardness and durability. The Mediterranean red-tiled roof, a defining characteristic of most UT buildings, was authentic, as the tiles were shipped from Spain. Marble used for the steps, floor, and benches in the loggia, the steps of the grand stairway, and even the water fountains, is from Tennessee. In the reading rooms, a variety of other marbles, from light grey to rose to charcoal, were imported from such faraway places as Missouri, New York, and Vermont. The ornate brass light fixtures found throughout the building were designed by Edwin Cole of Chicago.

Tower Consruction 1935.A

Above: Construction of the Main Building in 1935. The Tower’s book stacks were designed by Snead and Co. Ironworks from New Jersey.

The Tower itself was initially intended to house the library’s book stacks, and Cret hired Snead and Co. Ironworks from Jersey City, New Jersey to design and construct them. The company was world-famous for its innovative approach to library shelving and published two books on the subject. Its clients included the Library of Congress, Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell Universities, along with the Vatican Library. Built of cast iron, the Tower’s infrastructure supported the 27-floors, four-faced clock, and belfry, as the Indiana limestone was wrapped around it.

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Above: One of several proposed versions UT’s Main Building and Tower. Copies are on display in the Tower’s observation deck. The originals are preserved in the Alexander Architecture Archive in Battle Hall.

What of the Tower’s design? Cret sketched several possibilities, including a Tower that was a short, wide, solid mass (pictured). But the version most popular with the Board of Regents happened to be one that was, in part, inspired by the newly completed city hall building in Camden, New Jersey.

That the appearance of the Main Building was influenced by other structures shouldn’t be a surprise. As with writers, artists, or musicians, it’s not unusual for architects to be inspired by ideas from colleagues or predecessors. The University’s first library building, created by Cass Gilbert and today known as Battle Hall, took its cue from the Boston Public Library.

Camden, New Jersey sits directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, and the Camden City Hall building was constructed from 1928 – 1931, just as Paul Cret was hired by the University of Texas. The architects for Camden’s building, Alfred Green and Byron Edwards, learned their trade from the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in Philadelphia, founded by graduates of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to train American architects in the French method. Cret was both a patron and guest lecturer of the Institute, and interacted regularly with Green and Edwards throughout their careers.

Made of light gray granite, the City Hall was (and still is) the dominant sight on the Camden skyline. It was an object of great interest during its construction, and Cret was able to view its progress from his Market Street offices as he contemplated the plans of a new library in Austin.

City Hall.Camden NJ.3.

 Above: A post card view of Camden’s City Hall. The physical similarities between it and the UT Tower are too numerous to dismiss. Along with the general shape of the tower, clock, and belfry, the massing of the lower part of the building – even the rustication of the first two floors – resemble the Main Building in Austin. 

UT Tower and Camden City Hall

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.

1937-ut-tower-aerial-view

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