The earliest known photograph of the University of Texas, which opened in 1883. At the time, UT inhabited a 40-acre tract of land just north of Austin, bounded by 21st and 24th Streets, Guadalupe, and Speedway.
The west wing of a still unfinished old Main Building was placed near the center (where the current Main Building and Tower stand today), while a whitewashed wooden fence encircled the campus to keep out town cows. As the “water closets” were not ready for the Main Building in time, the University had a temporary Latrine Building constructed down the hill to the east.
Because of the University’s meager finances, the Main Building wasn’t completed all at once, but had to be constructed in three segments. The $59,000 west wing was to have been ready by June 1883, three months before classes began in September, but a bricklayers’ strike and the sudden death of a contractor postponed its completion until the following January. Instead, the University spent its inaugural fall term in the cramped quarters of the temporary Capitol building in downtown Austin, then moved into Old Main in January 1884.
The campus itself was almost devoid of flora, save for a thicket of mesquite trees and a handful of live oaks, some infested with Spanish moss. Most of the trees had been removed during the Civil War to build fortifications for the city. A wide gulley extended from the top of the hill to the southeast, dry most of the time, but a quagmire in wet weather.
According to Halbert Randolph, who earned his law degree in 1885, the ornamental shrubbery consisted of “cactus sporting its full-grown fruit, looking like the ripe nose of a drunkard.” But for a few weeks in the spring, the campus was aglow with a blanket of Texas Bluebonnets.
To the east, just beyond the University grounds, lay vast tracts of pasture and open prairie. While to the west, along a dusty and unpaved Guadalupe Street, stood two grocery stores, a dry goods shop, and a saloon.
The town of Austin filled the landscape to the south, its 15,000 inhabitants still abuzz over the local telephone service that had recently been installed. Austin won the privilege to host the main campus of the University after a hotly contested statewide election, and as it was already the seat of Texas government, civic leaders predicted Austin would soon be the “Athens of the Southwest.” Fortunately, there were no proposals to change the city’s name accordingly.
Through much of the 19th century, as the United States expanded westward, colleges and universities were desired assets of newly founded, up-and-coming towns with lofty ambitions, and communities sometimes renamed themselves to reflect their goals. It’s no accident that two of Ohio’s state universities reside in towns named Oxford and Athens, that students enrolled at the University of Mississippi travel to Oxford, or that the University of Georgia is found in Athens.
Today, the main University campus sits on approximately 400 acres, on which are about 120 buildings.
Find out more about UT History at UT History Central.