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Culture of Old Main:
Steeped in Traditions

Beautifully designed wide corridors, high rotundas, artistic towers, and large halls; the roof a high arched truss and large windows reaching from the floor to the ceiling.

This was a romantic description of the "Old main"--the gothic structure that once stood on the present site of the modern sky-scraper that is the Main Building and Library of the University of Texas.

Old Main stood as a symbol of the University for 50 years. The west wing of the T-shaped building was finished in 1883 and the rest of the building was completed in 1889. During the time the west wing was being built, classes for the first University students were held in a temporary Capitol building, located between the governor's mansion and the old Court House.

Old Main -- The Parthenon of the University's Acropolis

Old Main -- The Parthenon of the University's Acropolis

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Old Main was the first, and for a time the only, building on "College Hill," the forty acres in the northern part of Austin set aside by Douglas Lamar and other men with the hope of a University for their state. "The Parthenon of the University's Acropolis"--as the Parthenon was the cultural and educational center of ancient Greece, so was Old Main the center of learning and intellectual activities in Austin for many years.

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Here noted figures spoke and performed for the massed student body. It was in the auditorium of "Old Main" that orange and white were selected over orange and maroon as the University colors. Below the auditorium was the "English Channel," a long hall lined by English classrooms on one side and English professors' offices on the other. "Old Main" lay steeping in traditions and bat nests.

The "English Channel" was one of the noisier places in Old Main. Then any conference would disrupt the entire hall. One professor remembers the worst time of all was when a faculty member developed a habit of whistling while working.

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The old auditorium in the center section of the landmark was the site of many a concert, lecture, and rally that are now a part of Austin's , Texas' and the nation's history. It was here that internationally known concert artists such as Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heinck and Marcella Sembrich performed. President Theodore Roosevelt once addressed a gathering of students in the old auditorium, as did another president of the United States, William McKinley, and several Texas governors.

The first library contained only 1,330 volumes and moved from place to place in the building as the number of volumes increased. One time it was located immediately under the engineering laboratory. A faucet in the lab was left running all night and the next morning every book in the library was swollen to twice its size.

When plans were announced in 1932 to tear Old Main down and replace it with an immense modern building, there was a near revolt among ex-students.

University architect R. L. White remembers taking some of the louder lamenters through the old building's upper floors and showing them the construction up close. "That changed many minds who wanted to keep the building," says Mr. White.

This, then, was "Old Main"--stones, bricks, glass, professors, students, and memories. Small, in comparison with the 28-story structure now dear to the hearts of University students, it held a mountain of memories for students who saw it as the only building on "College Hill"--Texas' center of culture.

Daily Texas. March 27, 1958.
Article by: Jim Holman

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3 May 1999
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