The Myth of the UT Tower

The UT Tower stands tall on the west side of campus at The University of Texas at Austin. It rings its bells every 15 minutes to tell the time at one of the best higher education institutions in the world.

The French-born architect, Paul Philippe Cret, designed the Tower in the 1930s with the help of Dr. William Battle and Robert Leon White. The construction of it finished in 1937, proving the campus with a much-need new library. However, the Tower is far more famous for being the main symbol of The University of Texas at Austin, rather than its function as a library.

 

UT Tower Myth

If you have ever taken a campus tour in the past you should remember a story about the reason why the Tower stands where it does. The story goes something like this:

In the 1930s, Austin was full of short, small buildings, keeping a relatively low prominence for a city in those days. Its reputation came from the city's status as the capital of Texas with the gorgeous Texas State Capitol as the main attraction. Because of that, the Capitol stood as the tallest building in Austin at the time. And the government officials wanted to keep it that way.

 View from the (uncompleted) UT tower looking towards the texas state capitol building, Alexander Architectural Archives, 1936.

View from the (uncompleted) UT tower looking towards the texas state capitol building, Alexander Architectural Archives, 1936.

 
 

Thus, when the original designs for the UT Tower drafted it to be taller than the Texas Capitol, the Austin City Council was less than pleased. They told the architects that no building in Austin could stand taller than the Capitol. Grudgingly, the architects complied and redesigned the Tower to be shorter, but only a single foot shorter, than the Capitol.

Instead, the architects found an opportunity to get back at the government officials in a cunning way. Having completed their new blueprints, they decided to put the Tower on top of College Hill to distort reality a little bit. By putting the Tower on a hill they could elevate its height using natural surroundings and make it appear to be the taller of the two buildings, even if the Capitol held that title officially.

Unfortunately, that’s not what actually happened.


 
 

Intended Functions and the Original Design of the UT Tower

Shortly after construction, the Tower served as a closed-stack library, which meant that students would request books downstairs and librarians would go and fetch those books for the students. But by the 1960s enrollment increased to the point that students were waiting up to half an hour to get a single book. So, once again, the campus needed a new library and to accommodate that a new building (today's Flawn Academic Center) opened in 1963.

Today, the Tower mainly serves as office and storage space, but its symbolic function as the icon of the university is much more prominent. It’s a popular attraction for people looking to take pictures on campus; it lights up burnt orange to celebrate student accomplishments; and it is the place of university-wide graduation ceremonies.

When Cret was designing the Tower, he knew that he had an opportunity to not just make a library, but to create a new symbol for the university. He said that he designed the Tower wanting the image to be “carried in our memory when we think of the place.” So, he certainly recognized the power that his architectural creation would carry.

 UT Tower shortly after its COMPLETION, Alexander Architectural Archives, 1937.

UT Tower shortly after its COMPLETION, Alexander Architectural Archives, 1937.

And that is where the above myth starts running into problems.

Because Cret wanted the Tower to become a campus symbol, he knew that he needed to place it somewhere where it would be easily seen. Somewhere where the surrounding architecture would support the Tower and let it become the sole symbol of the UT Austin campus.

And placing the Tower on a hill made the most sense to accomplish that. The architects working with Cret completed a study of several potential places on campus where the Tower could be placed. They concluded that College Hill would be not only the most logical place to put it but also the least expensive one.

So the Tower was placed where it was not because of a squabble with the city council, but because that’s where it was meant to be placed all along.

And there is not much evidence to suggest that the Tower was ever designed to be taller than the Texas Capitol either. There are several drawings and designs of the Tower which actually point to the contrary—that the Tower was originally designed to be shorter than it was actually built. 

View a collection of alternative schemes for the Tower here.

 Alternative design of the ut tower, Alexander Architectural Archives.

Alternative design of the ut tower, Alexander Architectural Archives.

Controversy of the UT Tower

It is suspicious that the Tower is only just shorter than the Capitol, however. The Texas Capitol, depending on the source of information, is either 308 feet or 311 feet tall. Most websites, including the Texas State Historical Association, say that it is 311 feet tall (probably because that is the higher number). But I have found a few sources that say it is actually only 308 feet tall. The UT Tower is 307 feet tall. 

It’s certainly possible that somebody suggested making the Tower taller than the Capitol at some point. And it very likely that the government officials in Austin would not be happy at such a prospect (the first building to surpass the height of the Capitol was built in the 1970s). But it appears that such a plan, if it ever existed, was never given much serious thought.

The Tower was controversial though. It was controversial because the university would have to tear down the Old Main Building in order for the Tower to stand on College Hill. Many of the alumni were not happy that the oldest building, and the campus symbol of the time, would be torn down and replaced. And they could make a strong case for that because the Old Main was quite a pretty building in itself.

 postcard with the picture of the old main BUILDING, 1908. 

postcard with the picture of the old main BUILDING, 1908. 

But in the end, the Old Main Building relinquished the symbolic responsibility of being the icon of the University of Texas to its tall successor. All that remains of the Old Main are its carillon bells, which stand on permanent display outside of the Bass Concert Hall.

So that is why the story you hear on a campus tour about the Tower is not true. It was always meant to stand where it does today and was probably never planned to be taller than the Texas State Capitol.

 

Finishing Note

It's hard to get a clear picture of the Tower and the Capitol together today, because downtown Austin is full of skyscrapers that get in the way. But I did manage to put a few pictures together into an imperfect panorama anyway, which you can view my clicking here. 

I'm closer to the Tower here than I am to the Capitol and the shots don't line up perfectly, so this by no means should be taken as conclusive evidence. However, it does show that the Tower and the Capitol rival each other in height and you could guess the Tower to be the taller one from the right perspective.
 

 


Sources:

The University of Texas Tower

http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2017/02/27/ut-celebrates-80-years-of-its-most-prominent-symbol-the-tower

https://jimnicar.com/2014/02/05/views-from-the-tower-then-and-now/

https://jimnicar.com/2015/09/25/how-to-build-a-tower/

https://tower.utexas.edu/history/

The Texas State Capitol

https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ccc01

https://medium.com/save-texas-history/map-of-the-capitol-land-reservation-26b7e66f6024