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Main Building:
monument to learning

Main Building used to what its name implied. As the home of the central library and the Board of Regents, it was, indeed the main building of the University. But the regents moved downtown and just last fall the central library moved to the new Perry-Castaneda building, leaving the old building with not much more than its symbolic value.

Its imposing reading rooms lie empty. Its book stacks are being turned into offices. Its interior spaces are being remodelled. Still, its exterior continues to dominate the University.

The building remains as a sturdy monument in limestone, granite, terra cotta and marble, but to really understand the structure’s time and place one must be aware of not only the building itself but also its history on paper—design renderings, working drawings and correspondence between architects and patrons.

THE ART DEPARTMENT had planned for this spring an exhibit on the history of the Main Building, but the exhibit has been delayed both by the difficulty of finding materials and by the appalling state in which some of the material were found.

Main Building was the central element of a campus development plan by the nationally prominent architect Paul Phillipe Cret. Its completion in 1937 was the grand achievement in the lifelong career at the University of William James Battle, professor of classics.

These two men are more responsible than anyone else for making the Main Building what it is, Cret for the building’s basic design, Battle for the symbolic content of its decorations.

Battle, while chairman of the Faculty Building Committee, agreed with Cret that a university’s library should be its most monumental and imposing structure.

IMPOSING MAIN Building is. It was such a grand scheme that the University could not afford to build it all at once. The first unit was completed in 1934 at a cost of $1 million. It was designed by Cret in the manner of the great civic libraries of Europe, with hugh reading rooms and special collection rooms arranged around a central core of book stacks.

Cret composed Main’s exterior in the subdued but powerful classical manner he had used in the Pan American Union (1907) and the Folger Shakespeare Library (1929), both in Washington, D.C. These buildings had made Cret famous, both for their exterior sculptural effect and for the practical planning of their interiors. Cret was a master of the ideals of rational planning, and also of the rendering techniques, espoused by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he had been teacher.

One of Cret’s first tasks for the University was to supervise the drawing of a panoramic view of the campus. The regents paid more than $1,000 for this drawing which once hung in the president’s office, but which is now lost.

REPRODUCTIONS OF this drawing fail to transmit the quality of the original. The drawing was an example of the beautifully meticulous rendering style taught by the Ecole des Beaux Arts for more than two centuries.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Beaux Arts style, and architectural drawings are now joining painting, sculpture and other forms of visual art as works to be exhibited, collected and valued.

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Another large campus perspective, the original also apparently lost by the University, shows what shape the campus might have assumed had Cret and Battle not directed the course of University expansion during the 1930s. That drawing was by James M. White, consulting architect to the University prior to Cret; White did not believe as Cret and Battle that a library should be the central building of a university campus.

WHILE CRET’S SCHEME made the library the center of two major axes with secondary buildings arranged around intimate courtyards, White’s plan emphasized a linear development with a large central square. Only a bell tower stood in the middle of this square, where Cret’s tower now stands.

Battle and Cret shared a common vision. From 1933 to 1937, when the second unit of Main Building was completed with the assistance of the Public Works Administration, letters passed weekly, and sometimes daily, between the two men. Battle originated the decorative schemes for the building, and Cret drew them.

The exterior was finished with words and emblems symbolic of the history of knowledge—alphabets, seals of universities, names of men of letters. Painted phrases and signs on the interior reading room beams showed the progress of mankind in general and Texas in particular. The completed structure stated that Texas was now a civilized place where education could flourish.

A reproduction of an early design drawing shows that Cret’s idea was for a more stocky tower than the one chosen by the regents. Cret’s design was crowned by details more in keeping with the Spanish Renaissance theme of other campus buildings. Instead, the Tower was capped with a classical "templetto."

Design sketches such as these clarify the role played by the regents and the Faculty Building Committee in the development of University architecture. These drawings ought to be preserved in an archive available to historians, interested members of the public and architectural firms that renovate old buildings and design new ones for the campus.

INSTEAD, SOME OF these drawings are scattered across campus and others are stored with no regard for their value. The bulk of architectural drawings and prints done before 1950 is housed in a small room in the Service Building. This room is also used by University employees for lunch and break-time domino games. Discarded soft drink bottles in the room collect mold and attract insects. The drawings are stored in among this clutter, stacked on crowded tables or stuffed into drawers. Only a very few drawings are protected in the plan storage room of the Construction and Maintenance Office.

It is time to gather these architectural works, catalog them, and store them in a protected place, as other archival collections are housed at the University. A fitting place fro them might be in Battle’s 27th floor suite in the Tower, which is now empty. Those rooms would provide ample storage area as well as fine exhibition space.

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Daily Texan. February 20, 1978.

Article by: Carol McMichael

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3 May 1999
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