Texas Treasures: Austin Hall

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Treasures-Austin-Hall-TreePhotos by K2 Images

In an age of mega buildings, reflective glass, and neo-culture, Sam Houston State University’s Austin Hall stands alone as a symbol of southern heritage, Texas pride, and strength of a community. The Greek Revival Neoclassical designed structure was dedicated by General Sam Houston in 1851, and still overlooks the rolling hills and piney woods of Huntsville in east Texas. It remains the oldest educational building west of the Mississippi. It endured the ravages of Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and World Wars. It saw Vietnam era unrest and the social changes of the 1960s. It even survived the infernal peril of the great 1982 fire that destroyed the university’s Old Main building.

To simply relay the measurements and elevation of Austin Hall would be an injustice to the community it serves. It would equate to calling a church a building or the White House a residence. The current motto of Sam Houston State University speaks to service as the true measure of value. The service Austin Hall has provided to not only the southern region of the United States, but the world, must not be underestimated. It represents the “Athens of the South.”

Treasures-Austin-Hall-FrontThe true story of Austin Hall begins curiously on two fronts that, according to so-called modern national standards, make strange bedfellows—the Church and State. The pivotal time was 1849 and 1850.

Huntsville, fondly embraced as more of a community than a town or city, was well established and strategically located for 15 years by the beginning of 1850. With a growing number of professionals and merchants, along with being chosen as the site for the Texas State Penitentiary, the region appeared to be rising in importance. It was described by The Galveston News as among one of the most enterprising and improving places in the state. Expectations were high for Huntsville to increase in political influence. The Texas Constitution set 1850 as the year voters would determine the location of the state capital. Influential local citizens drafted a proposal for the location of the potential seat of government, along with $40,000 and five acres of land. In December 1849, Washington-on-the-Brazos pledged another $50,000, and the matter was delivered promptly to the Secretary of State.

Meanwhile (and virtually simultaneously), the Presbyterian Church was actively in pursuit of establishing academies and colleges in Texas. Led by dedicated minister Daniel D. Baker, the church set out to find a location between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers for the founding of a Presbyterian College.

Treasures-Austin-Hall-Sam-StatueOn March 4, 1850, the dreams of Huntsville were shattered. Voters decided Austin would be the capital of the state. While having an impressive proposal, Huntsville finished fourth in the voting process. Although hearts were broken, the spirit of the Huntsville community gained greater strength and momentum by focusing on becoming the state’s most important center for education.

By April 1850, the Board of Trustees of the new Austin College passed a motion for a permanent building south of Huntsville’s downtown square. The location was called “Acropolis” or “Capitol Hill” and was to symbolize the highest in educational and cultural aspirations. Austin Hall was ordained to be the concrete manifestation of will of the local citizenry to the world. The two story building was 80’ x 50’ with ten rooms. Eight of the classrooms were 22 and one half square feet, with the other two 35’ x 40’ for assembly purposes. The balcony on the north front was supported by four large Tuscan columns. The flat roof supports a cupola (small dome), with a pinnacle 70 feet high. It overlooked Huntsville in the valley just to the north and could be seen up to a mile away. To the south, it could be seen from as far away as nearly 20 miles. Historian P.E. Wallace later wrote, “It was the most handsome college edifice in the state of Texas.” It became the pride of Huntsville, the joy of the religious community, and the wonder of visitors.

The “Hall of Learning” has served vital functions in the state over its 166 years. In 1855, the first law school in the state began under its dome behind its Tuscan columns. Prior to Austin Hall, the venerable profession of law had no home. Training was provided through apprenticeships. It also served as one of 600 weather reporting stations around the country, a request of the Smithsonian Institute’s meteorological project in Washington D.C., which later developed into the National Weather Service.

Treasures-InsideDuring the War of Northern Aggression, “The Hall” suffered neglect due in part to financial and enrollment problems, coupled with dual-pronged difficulties of the 1867 Yellow Fever epidemic and problems associated with the period of Reconstruction. By 1876, Austin College relocated to Sherman, Texas; however, the people of Huntsville convinced Professor Charles P. Estill to remain in Huntsville and continue to conduct classes in 1876-77. The Methodist Church purchased Austin Hall for the purpose of housing the Mitchell College for Boys. The following year would again prove to be a pivotal moment in the history of “The Hall.”

It’s hard to believe that tuition-free public education was never a priority during the Antebellum or pre Civil War period. By 1870, the legislature of Texas put forth a statute that said “all children from ages 6-18 must attend school.” The measure went largely ignored until the end of Reconstruction. By 1876, a provision was in place within the state constitution that provided a “perpetual public school fund.”

As support for the new public educational system grew, rumors abounded that the state would establish a school to train high school graduates to be teachers. The purpose was to establish standards of teaching, or teaching norms, hence the name normal institutes. The Huntsville community jumped at the opportunity by informing the legislature that a campus with a building was ready for use. Senator James R. Burnett of Huntsville introduced “an Act to establish a state Normal School to be known as Sam Houston Institute located in Huntsville.”

On April 21, 1879, then Governor Oran Roberts signed the act. Thus, the third oldest college (behind Texas A&M and Prairie View Normal Institute for Negros) was born. With Austin Hall once again the beacon of light, the area began to recover from the crippling economic effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Many of the teachers educated at the new institute would return to their hometowns to teach at local public schools. For the first 11 years, Austin Hall was the primary building on campus, providing the location for the theoretical concept of teaching as well as other elements of a classical curriculum. On Saturdays, Austin Hall served as the stage for debates between those who loved to learn.

Treasures-Inside-FoyerBy 1916, classes for natural science (physics) and biology were held there until the Science and Administration building completed. Austin Hall was also used to house a teacher training school until 1918 when the Education Building was completed. From September to December 1918, it served as a dorm for the Student Army Training Corps during World War I. In 1919, the building was called the “Social Center,” making it the first of its kind. The first floor was a YMCA. The second floor was for literary societies and other social clubs, with a new third floor used as a chapel and office for The Houstonian, the school newspaper.

By 1923, in an effort to reflect the ever-expanding curriculum offered to students, the state legislature changed the school’s name to Sam Houston State Teachers College. The building’s interior was remodeled to include a reception hall, restrooms, kitchen, offices for the dean of women, the college nurse, and instructors. In 1927, the third floor was removed, and the building was restored to its original design. The building’s south side was furnished with columns matching its northern view. In 1936, the Texas Centennial Commission presented a plaque commemorating its historic use.

The “Old Main Pit” behind the steps of Austin Hall is all that survives of the 1982 fire.

The “Old Main Pit” behind the steps of Austin Hall is all that survives of the 1982 fire.

1952 saw Austin Hall, to the delight of many, becoming the first building on the campus to become air-conditioned. In 1964, “The Hall of Learning” was recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark. With the growth of the school, more academics were offered and the school was renamed again in 1969 to Sam Houston State University.

On the morning of February 12, 1982, this historic landmark was almost lost. The east Texas community awoke to a fire that broke out at the university’s Old Main building and spread to Austin Hall. Students formed lines to assist in the firefighting efforts. Austin Hall survived, but its roof was severely damaged. After the fire, the university chose to restore Austin Hall to its pristine, unspoiled original condition.

Treasures-Initials-on-BricksIn October 1986, it was rededicated, along with a tradition dating back to its early days of seniors carving their initials or names into its brick. Over the years, this site of pride has hosted many other functions, including the Bicentennial birthday of Sam Houston in 1993 and the 125th Anniversary Celebration in 2004. For a brief time, Austin Hall served as the site of the presentation of Sam Houston State University’s Hallowed Ring Ceremony. The likeness of Austin Hall is featured on one side of the ring, with the likeness of Sam Houston on the other. As legend would have it, Austin Hall’s dome represents a higher standard than Texas A&M, with the steps leading to the doors of Austin Hall, illustrating it as a step above all other institutions of higher learning.

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