Strolling the University of Texas
No ivory tower, the University of Texas is fully integrated into Austin's economic and cultural life. To explore the vast main campus is to glimpse the city's future as well as its past. Here, state-of-the-art structures -- including information kiosks that can play the school's team songs -- sit next to fine examples of 19th-century architecture. The following tour points out the most interesting spots on campus. You'll probably want to drive or take a bus between some of the first seven sights. (Parking limitations were taken into account in this initial portion of the circuit.) For a walking-only tour, begin at stop 8.
Start: The Arno Nowotny Building.
Finish: The Harry Ransom Center.
Time: 2 hours, not including food breaks or museum visits.
Best Times: On the weekends, when the campus is less crowded, more parking is available, and the UT Tower is open.
Worst Times: Morning and midday during the week when classes are in session and parking is impossible to find. (Beware: Those tow-away zone signs mean business.)
In 1839, the Congress of the Republic of Texas ordered a site set aside for the establishment of a "university of the first class" in Austin. Some 40 years later, when the flagship of the new University of Texas system opened, its first two buildings went up on that original 40-acre plot, dubbed College Hill. Although there were attempts to establish master-design plans for the university from the turn of the 20th century onward, they were only carried out in bits and pieces until 1930, when money from an earlier oil strike on UT land allowed the school to begin building in earnest. Between 1930 and 1945, consulting architect Paul Cret put his mark on 19 university buildings, most showing the influence of his education at Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts. If the entire 357-acre campus will never achieve stylistic unity, its earliest section has a grace and cohesion that make it a delight to stroll through.
Though it begins at the oldest building owned by the university, this tour commences far from the original campus. At the frontage road of I-35 and the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, pull into the parking lot of:
1. The Arno Nowotny Building
In the 1850s, several state-run asylums for the mentally ill and the physically handicapped arose on the outskirts of Austin. One of these was the State Asylum for the Blind, built by Abner Cook around 1856. The Italianate-style structure soon became better known as the headquarters and barracks of General Custer, who had been sent to Austin in 1865 to reestablish order after the Civil War (in shape and size, it actually resembles a barracks). Incorporated into the university and restored for its centennial celebration, the building is now used for administration.
Take Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to Red River, then drive north to the:
2. LBJ Library and Museum
This library and museum offers another rare on-campus parking lot. (You'll want to leave your car here while you see sights 3-6.) The first presidential library to be built on a university campus, the huge travertine marble structure oversees a beautifully landscaped 14-acre complex. Among the museum's exhibits is a seven-eighths-scale replica of the Oval Office as it looked when the Johnsons occupied the White House. In the adjoining Sid Richardson Hall are the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Barker Texas History Center, housing the world's most extensive collection of Texas memorabilia.
Stroll down the library steps across East Campus Drive to 23rd Street, where, next to the large Burleson bells on your right, you'll see the university's $41-million:
3. Performing Arts Center
This arts center includes the 3,000-seat Bass Concert Hall, the 700-seat Bates Recital Hall, and other College of the Fine Arts auditoriums. The state-of-the-art acoustics at the Bass Concert Hall enhance the sounds of the largest tracker organ in the United States. Linking contemporary computer technology with a design that goes back some 2,000 years, it has 5,315 pipes -- some of them 16 feet tall -- and weighs 48,000 pounds.
From the same vantage point, to the left looms the huge:
4. Darrell K. Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium
The first of the annual UT-Texas A&M Thanksgiving Day games was played here in 1924. In a drive to finance the original Memorial Stadium, female students sold their hair, male students sold their blood, and UT alum Lutcher Stark matched every $10,000 they raised with $1,000 of his own funds. The upper deck was added in 1972; the end zone was enclosed and the stadium enlarged again in 2008. In the 1990s the name change to honor legendary Longhorns football coach Darrell K. Royal angered some who wanted the stadium to remain a memorial to Texas veterans, and confused others who wondered if Coach Royal was still alive (he is).
Continue west on 23rd; at the corner of San Jacinto, a long staircase marks the entrance to the:
5. Art Building
This used to be the home of the Blanton Museum; now it is used for classes and to exhibit student art shows.
Walk a short distance north on San Jacinto. A stampeding group of bronze mustangs will herald your arrival at the:
6. Texas Memorial Museum
This monumental art moderne building was designed by Paul Cret, and ground was broken for the institution by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Once home to the capitol's original zinc goddess of liberty, which was moved to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum along with other historic treasures, this museum now focuses solely on the natural sciences.
Exit the building and make your way back to the parking lot of the LBJ Library and your car. Retrace your original route along Red River until you reach Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Make a right turn, and at the corner of San Jacinto, on your right you'll see:
7. Santa Rita No. 1
No. 1 is an oil rig transported here from West Texas, where black gold first spewed forth from it on land belonging to the university in 1923. The money was distributed between the University of Texas system, which got the heftier two-thirds, and the Texas A&M system. This windfall has helped make UT the second richest university in the country, after Harvard.
Continue on to University Avenue and turn left. There are public parking spaces around 21st Street and University, where you'll begin your walking tour at the:
8. Littlefield Memorial Fountain
This fountain was built in 1933. Pompeo Coppini, sculptor of the bronze centerpiece, believed that the rallying together of the nation during World War I marked the final healing of the wounds caused by the Civil War. The fountain's style is way over-the-top in a Village People sort of way. The winged goddess Columbia rides on the bow of a battleship sailing across the ocean -- represented by three rearing sea horses -- to the aid of the Allies. On the deck are two figures representing the Army and the Navy. This fountain is at the beginning of the South Mall. Behind you stands the state capitol.
Directly ahead is the:
9. Main Building and Tower
Walking down the shaded mall, you'll pass several more bronze statues, climb a short flight of stairs, and see before you the university's famous tower. The 307-foot-high structure was created by Paul Cret in 1937. It's a fine example of the Beaux Arts style, particularly stunning when lit to celebrate a Longhorn victory. On the facade, you can read the Inscription: "Ye shall know the Truth ... and ... make you free." In the 1970s, the student council proposed that it should be changed to "Money Talks," but the Board of Regents declined. In the top of the tower is a 56-bell carillon, the largest in Texas, which is played on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for 10 minutes from 12:50 to 1pm. It was from this same tower that Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people and wounded 31 more on August 1, 1966. The shooting spree ended when he was shot by a policeman. Closed off to the public in 1975 after a series of suicide leaps from its observation deck, the tower reopened for supervised ascensions in 1999. If you climb the staircase on the east (right) side of the tower to the stone balustrade, you can see the dramatic sweep of the entire eastern section of campus, including the LBJ Library.
Sharing the South Plaza with the tower is:
10. Garrison Hall
Garrison Hall is named for one of the earliest members of the UT faculty and is home to the department of history. Important names from Texas's past -- Austin, Travis, Houston, and Lamar -- are set here in stone. The walls just under the building's eaves are decorated with cattle brands; look for the carved cow skulls and cactuses on the balcony window on the north side.
Across the plaza from Garrison is:
11. Battle Hall
This building is regarded by many as the campus's most beautiful. Designed in 1911 by Cass Gilbert, architect of the U.S. Supreme Court building, the hall was the first to be done in the Spanish Renaissance style that came to characterize so many of the structures on this section of campus (note the terra-cotta-tiled roof and broadly arched windows). On the second floor, you can see the grand reading room of what is now the Architecture and Planning Library.
From Battle Hall cross the West Mall to:
12. Flawn Academic Center
This building holds the undergraduate technology center, but on the fourth floor is the Leeds Gallery, which often has temporary exhibits. It's also the home to a replica of Erle Stanley Gardner's study. He was a mystery writer and the creator of Perry Mason. In front of the building, Charles Umlauf's The Torch Bearers symbolizes the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next.
Behind the Academic Center is:
13. The Hogg Auditorium
This auditorium is another Paul Cret building, designed in the same monumental art moderne mode as his earlier Texas Memorial Museum.
A few steps farther along, you'll come to the trees known as the:
14. Battle Oaks
The three oldest members of this small grove are said to predate the city of Austin itself. They survived the destruction of most of the grove to build a Civil War fortress and a later attempt to displace them with a new Biology Building. It was this last, near-fatal skirmish that earned them their name. Legend has it that Dr. W. J. Battle, a professor of classics and an early university president, holed up in the largest oak with a rifle to protect the three ancient trees.
Cater-cornered from the oak trees is the:
15. Littlefield Home
This mansion was built in high Victorian style in 1894. Major George W. Littlefield, a wealthy developer, cattle rancher, and banker, bequeathed more than $1 million to the university on the condition that its campus not be moved to land that his rival, George W. Brackenridge, had donated. The ostentatious mansion is flanked by a magnificent deodar cedar, which Littlefield had shipped over from its native Himalayas.
Next door to Hogg Auditorium is:
16. Texas Student Union Building
UT's student union building is yet another Paul Cret creation. A staircase leads down to the ground floor, where a long corridor passes by a large food court, eventually ending in the front lobby, where you'll see the information desk and off of which is the Cactus Cafe, a popular coffeehouse and music venue. This bustling student center hosts everything from a bowling alley to a formal ballroom.
Outside the student union is a section of Guadalupe Street known as:
17. The Drag
As its name suggests, the Drag is Austin's main off-campus pedestrian strip. Bookstores, fast-food restaurants, and shops line the thoroughfare, which is usually crammed with students trying to grab a bite or a book between classes. On weekends, the pedestrian mall set aside for the 23rd Street Renaissance Market overflows with crafts vendors.
Across the West Mall, opposite the student union stands:
18. Goldsmith Hall
This is one of two adjacent buildings where architecture classes are held. Also designed by Paul Cret, this hall has beautifully worn slate floors and a shaded central courtyard.
Walk through the courtyard and go down a few steps. To your right is:
19. Sutton Hall
This hall was designed by Cass Gilbert in 1918 and is part of the School of Architecture. Like his Battle Hall, it is gracefully Mediterranean, with terra-cotta moldings, a red-tile roof, and large Palladian windows.
Enter Sutton Hall through double doors at the front and exit straight through the back. You are now facing the:
20. Harry Ransom Center
The Humanities Research Center (HRC) is housed here. The satirical portrait of a rich American literary archive in A. S. Byatt's best-selling novel Possession is widely acknowledged to be based on HRC. Walk through the doors to the gallery to view the center's rare Gutenberg Bible, one of just five complete copies in the U.S. You can also see what temporary exhibit is on show.
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