A Blight on the Icon

Is this the shade of burnt orange we want the Tower to be?

If the University of Texas Tower were a man, he would turn 72 this year — elderly yet sturdy, silver-haired but still formidable. He would be standing tall despite having seen nine suicides and a deadly shooting spree carried out before him in the years since he came into being in 1937. He would have endured as a famous symbol of one of the nation’s largest universities, glowing orange in victory hundreds of nights after its athletic and academic triumphs.

But to stay distinguished, his aging body would need some attention.

Only in the last couple years has the Tower begun to show its age. Look 303 feet up, and look closely. That’s not dirt you’ll see down its three columns of windows — it’s corrosion. The air, rain, and other elements of weathering have gnawed away at the cast-iron windows and spandrels, the rectangular panels that separate the panes. Corrosion’s unsightly byproduct, rust, has moved in to those holes.

“People look at it and think it’s so wonderful, but they don’t realize we’ve got problems,” the School of Architecture’s Frances Gale says of the Tower. “It’s really a stewardship issue.” Gale directs the Architectural Conservation Laboratory for the school’s graduate program in historic preservation. A $175,000 grant from the Getty Foundation is enabling a study of the Main Building, the Tower, and other venerable buildings on the Forty Acres, giving Gale’s students a chance to study how the structures have held up. But a scholarly examination is only a first glance, and it’s sustained attention — and many dollars — the Tower will need.

The University just launched a tremendous capital campaign, but Tower restoration is not among the planned uses for the $3 billion that administrators intend to raise. Fact is, no one is certain yet whether the windows and spandrels can be repaired or will need to be replaced, though repairing would be the preference. Eventually, a professional feasibility study will need to be commissioned, a route recommended, a plan paid for and enacted. No one knows how much all that will cost. The one certainty: “It won’t be cheap,” Gale says.

How It Was Built

Architects naturally want their great works to stand for centuries as monuments to their talent. For this they employ the best builders and materials they can afford. Beyond that, they can only trust that the buildings’ future stewards will devote the proper care and funding to their preservation.

Paul Cret, architect of the Main Building and Tower, had to argue artfully — and against alumni sentiment — to create his campus monument. The University already had its Victorian Gothic Main Building atop College Hill overlooking the Capitol. With its architecture soon out of fashion, that building needed to be replaced entirely, Cret argued. “Outside of its sentimental appeal to the ex-student, there is little in its architecture to create a desire to preserve it from this fate,” he wrote to the Board of Regents’ building committee in 1930. And in another letter: “Public opinion can be educated in time; a wrong building policy will be with us forever.”

A university’s library should be its most prominent building, Cret believed, and should stand at the center of its campus. On the Forty Acres, he saw the logical site as the top of the slope overlooking the Capitol. The former Main Building, he thought, would simply need to be dismantled in stages. A well-schooled product of France’s preeminent École des Beaux Arts, Cret had his way within three years. Construction on the Main Building began in 1932, and on the Tower about a year later. A $1.8 million loan from the Works Progress Administration, rare then for a university, helped enable the work.

Cret experimented with styles, such as a low, squat tower without windows, or a tall, skinny one with a single small bell instead of a clock at the top. He believed that public buildings should feature classical elements anchoring them to the Greek and Roman traditions; at the same time, he needed the UT Main Building and Tower to fit in with the campus’ dominant Spanish style. He settled on a design he thought would lodge itself n the memories of beholders, with a red tile roof, Spanish loggia, and formidable height. The Tower did have its detractors, though. In the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, Texas folklorist and prominent UT faculty member J. Frank Dobie famously declared its height a waste of wide-open Texas space. The Tower, he said, ought to have been laid on its side with a long gallery stretched around it. He compared the tall structure to a “toothpick in a pie.”

For a “toothpick,” however, Cret enlisted awfully durable materials: Texas gray granite for the foundation, steel for the windows, cast iron for the spandrels, copper for the gutters, bronze for the clock elements, gold leaf for the clock rim, and hard Indiana limestone for the brick-backed veneer. The architects passed up the local choice — the soft, creamy Cordoba limestone that had been quarried from Cedar Park for Battle Hall — in favor of the more durable Indiana variety.


How It’s Held Up

Importing the Indiana stone paid off, in one Tower scholar’s view. Casey Gallagher, graduate student in the historic preservation program, chose the Tower for in-depth study under Gale’s instruction last fall. She presented her preliminary assessment of the structure’s condition to her fellow graduate students in November. In a remodeled room of the West Mall Office Building, Gallagher clicked through slides of Cret’s drawings, construction photos, and contemporary rough spots. But acknowledging the lightning, hailstorms, wind, and other Texas elements the Tower has faced, Gallager said the Indiana limestone facade has weathered well, avoiding discoloration almost entirely. “I think in general, the Tower’s exterior is actually doing pretty well for its stature and how large it is,” she said.

But those dratted windows and spandrels. What, Gallagher’s classmates asked, caused the building’s north side to corrode more than any other? Because the north side remains in shade, moisture takes longer to dry there, she said. And what caused the middle row of windows and spandrels to rust worse than the side rows? Gallagher couldn’t quite answer that one, theorizing that a leak or an architectural feature up top could cause water to run down there. She’d found out the company that produced the steel windows promised to add more copper so they would be extra rust-resistant. While the cast-iron spandrels were special — 113 of them were cast with a letter of the ancient Greek, Latin, Egyptian, Phoenician, or Hebrew alphabet — no such promise was made for their rust-resistance, she says.

The construction drawings called for two coats of shop paint on the windows and spandrels, and Gallagher can’t find any evidence that they were ever repainted. Certainly, no scaffolding has been erected around the Tower since its construction to enable such work. But a couple apparent “test panels” are in perfect condition near the base of the tower. They look, unlike the other spandrels, as if they were repainted somewhere along the way — examples, perhaps, of what could have been if all the spandrels had gotten similar treatment.


Turning the Gilded Clock Backward

About a year and a half ago, the Texas Exes’ 600-member UT Heritage Society formed an Architectural Heritage Committee at the behest of Architecture alum Chris Hooks, Bar ’89, Life Member. It quickly came to the committee’s attention the Tower would see its 75th anniversary in 2012. The group’s dream would be to see a Tower restoration project done, or at least launched, by then, Heritage Society staff director Jim Nicar says.

To that end, the committee isn’t embarrassed to point out the rusty patches on a powerful symbol. Raising consciousness of the Tower’s worn spots is the first step toward getting them fixed up, Nicar believes. “You can’t help that buildings begin to weather with age — we just want to call attention to it so people will rally around it and we can get this fixed,” he says.

Once deterioration happens, however, the logistics of reversing it can rocket upward. That’s what Pat Clubb, vice-president for campus and employee services, sees as she looks at the issue. Clubb’s own office is on the third floor of the Main Building, the grand portion below the Tower that includes the president’s office. Rather than Main’s high ceilings, Clubb says, many of the offices farther up in the Tower are cramped, with low ceilings, because the Tower originally served as the University’s closed-stacks library. A number of the windows up there don’t open. But fixing the windows might necessitate moving those staff members out for a time, in Clubb’s view. And if they’re already out, that might be the most logical time to gut the interior and raise the ceilings. And if expensive scaffolding already is being erected, that might be the time to do all the exterior work necessary on the Tower. It’s easy to imagine such a project running in the many, many millions.

Many other campus buildings need work just to remain functional, Clubb says, and the fact that an issue is highly visible doesn’t necessary vault it to the top of the list. While the windows don’t open, the corrosion hasn’t led to leaking, at least yet; if it did, the potential for water damage would require quick action. And so Clubb is direct about where the Tower’s deterioration currently stands. “That is not on the list,” she says. Although private funds, she adds, could perhaps rearrange that list.

For now, Clubb says, administrators and facilities managers will continue to watch the Tower, weighing its restoration against creaky cooling systems, leaky roofs, and other such structural issues around campus. The top priority is to keep classrooms and labs in good working order. “When I look at the physical part of the campus, that teaching-research requirement for the buildings is always paramount,” she says.

Meanwhile, Gale’s students’ work is being be used to develop the final report on preserving the historic structures of the Forty Acres, due out by the fall. It will lay out options for removing old coatings on the windows and spandrels and applying new ones to prevent future corrosion. But the rusty Tower will likely remain as is for a few years yet —its elegance easy to see, its tough spots hard to touch.



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