UT celebrates 80 years of its most prominent symbol: The Tower


Built literally on metal bookshelves and wrapped in limestone, for 80 years the University of Texas Tower has been keeping track of time for students and reminding them of who they are—Texas Longhorns. 

Monday, Feb. 27 will mark the 80th anniversary of the UT Tower. To celebrate, the Architecture and Planning Library and the Alexander Architectural Archives will feature the UT Tower as the fifth part of their “To Better Know a Building” exhibition series. It will include original architectural planning documents. 

“You can see around the edges of the drawings little scratches, bubbles and little tornadoes where they are getting their pen working the way they wanted,” said Nancy Sparrow, curatorial assistant for public services for the Alexander Architectural Archive at the APL. 

Sparrow said most of the designs were originally made by the three architects who were responsible for building the Tower and many of the buildings on campus. Paul Cret was the consulting architect for UT who created the development plan, Robert Leon White was the university architect who oversaw construction on the ground and Dr. William Battle held the chair of the faculty building committee that made recommendations to the regents.

Cret was tasked with the challenge of building a larger library after the campus had outgrown its previous one, said UT historian Jim Nicar. Nicar said Cret knew this would be the emblem associated with the University of Texas, so it had to be at the center of campus, upon the hill where the Old Main Building then stood. This immediately caused an uproar among alumni, who were not only fond of it, but were also putting a large effort into expanding the University during the Great Depression. 

“The alumni built four buildings in the middle of the Great Depression,” Nicar said. “They are people who skipped meals to pay a dollar a year, so the last thing you want to tell the alumni is ‘Oh hey, we are going to tear down Old Main, your oldest building on campus.”

Despite much debate, Nicar said it was finally decided they would build an annex expansion area onto Old Main, and in 20 or so years they would revisit the idea of tearing it down. Fueled by the New Deal grant, they completed the new library and Main Building in 1937.  

The Tower’s engraved details exemplify its essence as a library, with symbols like the Lamp of Learning, Athena and the names of prominent historical authors.

“You have got learning and wisdom, truth and beauty, so these are the values of high education,” Nicar said.

In the end, architecture professor Richard Cleary said the intricately designed, completed building ended up being much taller than anticipated. 

“This idea of making it taller and taller had a lot to do with the growing sense of the University as a great institution, proud in its own terms, proud of its place in Texas, proud of its complex relationship with the state Legislature down the way,” Cleary said.

Currently, parts of the UT Tower and Main Building are being used as office and library space. Cleary said the future of what may be housed here remains uncertain. 

“If I had  a wish for the Tower, it would be that it has a use that continues to draw students and others into that building for an academic purpose,” Cleary said. “Not just a tourist point, not just an office space, but some reason about why we are all here.”