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How to build a Tower

In celebration of the Tower’s 75th anniversary, take a trip back to the 1930s when the iconic landmark began its days as the university’s central library

Feb. 20, 2012

Behold the Tower, the definitive landmark of The University of Texas at Austin. For 75 years, it has 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 light to announce honors and victories, and crowned in fireworks at spring commencement ceremonies, it has been the backdrop for freshman convocations, football rallies and concerts.

Construction of the Tower in 1935
Construction of the university’s iconic Tower, Nov. 22, 1935.

Originally, the Main Building and its 27-story Tower were 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, which was housed on the first floor of Old Main. As the library’s holdings increased, the space needed for additional bookshelves literally squeezed the students out of the reading room. A new library was needed, but where to put it?

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, the first structure on campus and a sentimental favorite of both faculty and alumni.

In 1930, the Board of Regents hired Paul Cret, head of the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, as a consulting architect for the university. Cret was to design a new master plan for the campus, and among his first priorities was creating a solution for the new library.

Cret quickly realized that the library belonged on top of the hill, and as he developed his master plan, the library became the focal point of his designs. To reduce costs — especially important in the 1930s, the height of the Great Depression — and to ease the pain over the removal of Old Main, he proposed building the library in parts.

Paul Cret
Paul Cret, consulting architect for the university, designed the master plan for the campus. Among his first priorities was to create a solution for the new library, which resulted in the Tower and Main Building.

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. 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.

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, and two spacious reading rooms that are still open to the public today: the Hall of Noble Words to the east, which featured beams decorated with inspirational quotes, and the Hall of Texas to the west, which depicted periods of Texas history.

As the Great Depression worsened, Robert Leon White, a UT graduate who was also the university’s supervising architect, approached university President Harry Benedict about finishing the library sooner. The university’s ever-growing building program brought with it construction jobs that helped soften the economic blow. Though skeptical, Benedict allowed White to apply for a $2.8 million loan through the newly created Public Works Administration.

Thanks to White’s connections to the son of then-vice president John Garner, the university received the funds it needed a few months later: $1.8 million for the Main Building and library extension, and the rest for three men’s and three women’s residence halls — funds that guaranteed the early completion of the new Main Building and Tower.

At the formal dedication ceremony on Feb. 27, 1937, 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, and President Benedict and Regents Beauford Jester and Lutcher Stark made appropriate remarks.

North facade of the Main Building
The north facade of the Main Building was constructed prior to the Tower’s construction and while the Victorian-Gothic Old Main was still in place. A gable of Old Main is visible in the top right corner of this photograph.

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 and 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, the building was informally dubbed the Mirabeau B. Lamar Library, but the name wasn’t very popular. Students and faculty preferred a remembrance to Old Main and simply called the library the new Main Building.

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 and the Perry-Castañeda Library in 1977. Today, while much of the Main Building is used for administrative offices, students can still study in the grand reading rooms, which now contain the Life Science Library.

Want to Experience More?

For more information, contact: Jim Nicar, director of the UT Heritage Society, Texas Exes.

26 Comments to "In celebration of the Tower’s 75th anniversary, take a trip back to the 1930s when the iconic landmark began its days as the university’s central library"

1.  SUNGRYONG LIM said on Feb. 21, 2012


2.  David Mireles, Jr. said on Feb. 23, 2012

As a student, I have always enjoyed walking to campus and seeing the tower grow and grow as I get close, like a beacon. Through the years as I drive to Austin or pass by on I-35, I still enjoy seeing it and my heart beats faster as I glance at the tower and campus…….”Hook ‘em Horns”.

3.  Harold Rutz said on Feb. 23, 2012

Will there be no Tower carillon recital during the ceremonies? It is one of the premier carillons in our country and should be heard at this event as well as on a regular basis.

4.  Tim Hurst said on Feb. 23, 2012

Great building and complex. Too bad the original Old Main was destroyed (typical Texas).
At a time when most of the new construction on campus looks so temporary and lacks inspiration, the Tower will always be. Hook em

5.  Margaret Tate Waring said on Feb. 23, 2012

As a pre-school youngster I was impressed at an opportunity to see The Tower when I attended commencement in 1937. The building was overwhelmingly gorgeous to me. I met Dr. W. J. Battle who, in visiting with me, said he hoped I would come to the University when the time was right. I did. We visited again in his superb top of the Tower office when I was a student. Treasured memories. Burnt Orange blood does not fade.

6.  Marc West & Mason West said on Feb. 24, 2012

We attended The University from 1979 and graduated in December 1984. We used the card catalogue to find articles for our science and pharmacy classes. We would go up to the Stacks and study with total silence. One could smell the odor of old books and study without interruption. We are lucky to have been there. Long live The Tower. Hook’em, Marc and Mason

7.  Charles Davis said on Feb. 24, 2012

The Tower means so many special things to our alumni and students. To some, unfortunately, it represents terror but to the vast majority it represents all that is good, stable and truly important, prestigious and impressive about UT. The orange lights will always be a symbol of achievement for Texas. We’ll love our Tower: “Till Gabriel blows his horn.” Charles Davis (’56)

8.  Cetin Dogan SUM said on Feb. 24, 2012

With my best wishes for the future of UT
Best regards

9.  William T. Barnhouse said on Feb. 24, 2012

I watched it being built as a student at the University Junior High School from room T-1, Mr Fehr, instructor. That is the only room on the 3rd floor and has a beautiful view of the Tower. What a thrill to watch it being built. Then to graduate from there with a BBA degree and a USN Comission from the Naval ROTC.
What an honor. William T. Barnhouse

10.  Nicholas Gerow said on Feb. 24, 2012

Since this is a big celebration, is the Tower going to be illuminated orange with the number “75″ in the evening? If so, it would be beautiful and majestic to commemorate 75 years of an iconic building.

11.  Dorothy Derapelian said on Feb. 25, 2012

When I attended UT, I used to live in Carothers. I have very fond memories of the Tower’s chimes alerting me to get up and hurry up to class. Hook’em

12.  Jackson Woodrow Wilson said on Feb. 25, 2012

When I arrived on the Forty Acres in the fall of 1934, the old Main Building lay as a pile of bricks as I walked across campus. Thinking to own a piece of history, I picked up a brick which, covered with padding, has remained a family treasure, reminding me of my happy and fruitful years studying the classics in the New Library Building and the Tower, which went up while I was a student under Dr. Battle et al.

13.  Cathy Bontley Brown said on Feb. 25, 2012

I absolutely love the Tower. Even though I was a rising senior in August 1966, nothing has changed the reverberations I feel whenever I drive by on I 35 and see that magnificent identifier of my school. My first dorm room in Andrews faced the tower and because it wasn’t air-conditioned, the open window most of the year brought the carillon up close and personal. Cheers to you, you wonderful icon of our campus, and happy birthday!

14.  David Baker said on Feb. 25, 2012

I too watched the tower as it was being built. The numbered stones for the tower facade were laid out along the walkway from the building site to Guadalupe past the Union building. I have two special connections to the UT library. Robert Leon White was my uncle and Miss Lorena Baker was the Head Librarian for many years until her retirement. It was an exciting time.

15.  Peggy Mayfield Wilson said on Feb. 26, 2012

Playing in my front yard on old Red River St. when I was 4-6 years old, I watched the beginning of the Tower. When the campus was crowded with our honored WW II veterans returned from war, I studied between classes, sitting on the floor of the quiet carillon deck. Now, I feel at home when I see it loom up from I-35. Thanks to the courageous people who planned and built our symbol.

16.  Nora McCullough said on Feb. 26, 2012

Happy Birthday to the Tower! As a student, I loved walking past the Tower and especially loved it lit up after a football game win. Every time I am in Austin, I am looking for the Tower and am so thrilled to spot it from many, many places in Austin. I hope the landscape never changes as to block it’s view. I took my daughter on a Tower tour one day while she was attending UT. That was great fun!

17.  John D. McEachran said on Feb. 27, 2012

Based on an article I read in the Austin Statesman (03/01/83) I was under the impression that the UT Tower along with the Prather, Roberts, Andrews and Brackenridge residence halls were constructed by the Works Progress Administration. The information provided above states that funds were provided by the Public Works Administration but there is no mention of the WPA. Any thoughts?

18.  Andy said on Feb. 27, 2012

“How to build a tower”*

*Legal Notice: Building a tower like the UT Tower will result in prosecution, even if it’s a loving tribute.

19.  Letty Fernandez said on Feb. 27, 2012

My favorite place on campus when I was a student and even today, as a graduate of this great university. Happy Anniversary and Hook em!
Letty Fernandez, ’78

20.  Chris Fernandez said on Feb. 27, 2012

The UT Tower has two amazing meanings in my life. It is a symbol of most challenging, most rewarding, and ultimately some of the most memorable moments of life. It is also an iconic piece in the romance of my life. I meet my wife during a Spanish course in Garrison Hall. Every day in the Spring Semester of 2005 I spent an hour of my day courting my beautiful future wife, in a room with a spectacular view of the UT Tower. I proposed to Devin in May 2008 on top of the UT Tower, and have been splendidly married ever since. Every time we get an opportunity to visit campus again, Devin and I always take the opportunity to look up at the UT Tower and remember all the amazing memories we made under its graceful watch.

21.  Geof Sloan said on Feb. 27, 2012

Hook em’ Horns to the UT Tower in celebration of it’s Diamond Anniversary. My grandfather was attending UT in the late 30′s during the construction of the Tower and he used to tell us grand stories of Old Main and the new Tower. Ironcially, it was during a dark day in the 60′s when my father was detaned inside the Tower while a madman was shooting from it’s observatory deck. I grew up admiring the Tower with all it’s fabulous architectural design and symbolism for the University of Texas. May it stand as a beacon of strength, hope and enlightenment. We Are Texas.

22.  Nancy said on Feb. 28, 2012

John @ 17 To answer your question:
The Tower was built with Public Works Administration funding. The construction photographs are stamped with PWA Project # 2257. According to Wikipedia the “PWA was part of the New Deal of 1933, was a large-scale public works construction agency…It built large-scale public works such as dams and bridges, warships, hospitals and schools… and the WPA engaged in smaller projects…”

23.  Miroslav Synek said on March 1, 2012

For biography see, e.g., “Who’s Who in America”, 2010.

24.  Brandon Kraft said on March 1, 2012

Does that “special elevator” for books still exist? My freshman year, I tutored foreign grad students who wanted to improve their English so they could TA on the 21st floor.

This was when there was a security concern and I had to be screened by UTPD before going up the Tower elevator.

25.  Sheryl Sarytchoff said on March 2, 2012

I was born and raised in Austin and the Tower was always special to me. My grandfather was a bricklayer and worked on building the tower, so we had many family stories from that era.

26.  Bob Stoller said on March 27, 2012

I attended UT during two of the Tower’s more significant events: the Charles Whitman sniper shootings, and the first UT national football championship, so my memories of the Tower are intense in two different directions.

On August 1, 1966, I was getting ready to leave my desk at the Co-Op to go to lunch when the Whitman madness started, and there were dead bodies lying on the sidewalk in front of the store. After that, we never saw the Tower in the same light again.

But now, when I approach Austin on I-35 from either direction, I still get a lump in my throat when the Tower comes into view. For many, many thousands of us, the Tower is part of our DNA. Hook ‘em, Horns.