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UT to reopen observation deck on tower

Satisfied that safety can be ensured, the University of Texas System regents voted Thursday to reopen the observation deck of the flagship school's 28-story clock tower.

The move caps months of debate and some objections. Some students, alumni and others fear it could ignite such horrors as sniper Charles Whitman's deadly 1966 attack, one of the worst mass slayings in U.S. history, as well as student suicide jumps at the Austin campus.

The open-air deck has been closed to the public since 1974, but could reopen, with a metal grille-like enclosure, in time for next spring's commencement.

"The tower has enormous symbolic value to the students and to the citizens of Texas," said UT President Larry Faulkner, who was a graduate student on campus
at the time of Whitman's attack.

"I don't believe (the reopening) washes away the bad memories, but the tower is the most important symbol of the university," Faulkner said. "With the current situation of the tower being closed, the main conversation point is remembrances of its negative history."

The 307-foot tall landmark is UT's nerve center. It houses administration offices, a library, archives and a public information center. Known as the Main Building, students go there to pay tuition, and they rush to class after hearing the tower bells toll, marking the time. The outside plaza is the site of rallies as well as commencement ceremonies.

Built as part of the state's centennial festivities, the tower opened in 1937. Just a few feet shorter than the nearby Capitol, it became a top tourist spot and offered a panoramic view of Austin and the Hill Country.

But the building gained notoriety on Aug. 1, 1966, when Whitman lugged a locker of ammunition to the top floor and fired rifles for more than an hour. Whitman killed 16 people and injured 31 before police fatally shot him.

Over the years, nine people have jumped to their deaths from the top.

Since the observation deck's closure to the public, students have appealed many times to reopen it, but proposals didn't take root until this year.

William Cunningham, UT system chancellor who was UT president from 1985-1992, said prior pleas to reopen the deck "were not well-outlined." For instance, an earlier Plexiglas suggestion was rejected because of concerns about stability amid high winds and harsh weather, he said.

However, Annie Holand, UT student body president, called this year's proposal more organized and detailed, with suggestions to discourage suicides and to limit operating hours. Student leaders approached Faulkner, who was hired from the University of Illinois, before he officially started as UT president last April, Holand said.

"This is the best birthday present anyone could give me," said Holand, who turned 22 Thursday. "It's a symbol of moving on."

During the regents' meeting in Houston, Holand said most students "aren't as lucky as me" to have close ties with top UT officials who work in the tower building. Instead, most students' only connection to the tower is "once a semester, they pay their tuition there," she said.

"Instead of thinking what a great time college was in their lives, they think of the tower as the place that took their money," Holand said.

Regents approved the deck's reopening with little discussion, but board chairman Donald Evans said he hopes the move sends a welcoming message to current and prospective students.

"It's a wonderful statement to say we welcome you and we open ourselves up to you by opening up the tower to you," Evans said.

Plans call for installation of a metal barrier to enclose the deck, modifications to provide wheelchair access, elevator modifications and renovating public areas. No metal detectors are planned. Visitors will be allowed to carry only small items such as cameras and binoculars. The deck will be open to the public only on weekends at first.

Faulkner estimates the project's costs will run as high as $ 500,000, with annual operating costs of about $ 86,000.

To help defray costs, an admission charge of $ 5 or $ 6 is expected for nonstudents, with student admission to cost about $ 2 or $ 3, officials said.

Regents urged UT officials to try and avoid charging students for admission to the deck. UT, the nation's largest school with 48,917 students, has been criticized for its size and not giving enough personal attention to students.

"I wouldn't like this to be another opportunity where it looks like we're just taking money from students," regent Tony Sanchez said.

Faulkner said, "We would like for student admission to be as close to free as possible, but the money has to come from somewhere, and the original proposal to charge (admission) came from students."

GRAPHIC: Photos: 1. UT Officer Ken Williams stands outside on the observation deck of the clock tower. The deck has been closed to the public since 1974. (p. 20); 2. Built as part of the state's centennial festivities, the University of Texas tower opened in 1937. The 307-foot-tall landmark houses administration offices, a library, archives and a public information center. (p. 20); Photos by Associated Press

Houston Chronicle. November 13, 1998.
Article by: Lydia Lum

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3 May 1999
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