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‘Ceiling Art’ Thing of Past

Most ceilings today are just ceilings–meant to hold in heat, coolness, and noise. Once though, ceilings were considered an opportunity for art, and the University owns several reminders of a more ornate time.

Chemistry Building 15 has a ceiling design that will snap a drowsy chemistry major awake if his head falls back and he looks upward. The heavy wooden ceiling beams are painted in a variety of colors and designs, from simple yellow floral patterns to orange replicas of a longhorn’s head.

In the Barker Texas History Library, the rafters of the peaked roof are exposed. The orderly network of different sized beams is painted with a light walnut trimmed with thin lines of blue. The five-painted star of Texas is painted white along the beams on circular blue backgrounds.

Probably the most spectacular are the ceilings in the two reading rooms adjoining the library on the second floor of the Main Building.

Painted in 1935 by Eugene Gilboe of Dallas, both are vast rooms, two stories high. In each, eight massive timber beams parallel each other across the full width of the ceiling.

Symbolically Decorated

The beams in the west reading room are decorated with symbols that represent 14 specific periods of Texas history. The first beam portrays the early Aztec culture with a yellow ear of corn, a young maguey plant, and the head of the god Huitzilopochtli. The last represents the first half-century of the University. Among the symbols are a wire fence and the Rose Window of the San Jose Mission.

On brackets supporting the ends of the beams are painted symbols of the Old World peoples whose descendents make up the population of Texas. Among them are the harp of Ireland, a map of Africa to represent the Negroes, and the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra of Jerusalem, to represent Jews.

‘Hall of Noble Words’

W. J. Battle, chairman of the University Building Committee in 1935, named the east reading room "The Hall of Noble Words." The ceiling beams in there bear what Battle called "notable utterances from the past that will do modern boys and girls no harm if peradventure they see them." There are quotes from Alice in Wonderland, Aristotle, and the Iliad.

It is unlikely that the ceilings of any future University building will be painted in such a spectacular manner.

Walter Moore, assistant director of the University Office of Facilities Planning Construction said newer building give more consideration to acoustical problems. "Acoustically treated ceiling material is more useful and much less expensive then the elaborately painted high ceilings," he said.

Former Student

Moore, who was a student at the University when the ceilings were painted said, "they were quite beautiful when they were done. They were considered works of art and admired by everyone; however, that type of work is so expensive it has virtually become a thing of the past."

"Even if it were practical, I don’t believe we could find anyone today who is capable of matching the work done by the original artist," he concluded.

Source Unknown. Date unknown.
Article by: Jerry Graham

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3 May 1999
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