Texas Tidbits

The element most conspicuously absent from our tour of the University of Texas Tower was any mention of sniper Charles Whitman.

August 2006By Comments

On my way to take a tour of the University of Texas Tower, I admit that my mind was dwelling on the structure’s more menacing character. I had brought along my father, a Longhorn who hadn’t been up in the Tower since 1966, when his underling at a small loan firm decided to barricade himself in the top with a telescopic rifle. Once on the ground floor of the Main Building, we waited for things to get started and found that this coincidence greatly interested some of our fellow visitors, who questioned my dad about Charles Whitman’s apparent mental health.

Many of the folks around us were grads who had never gotten the chance to ascend the Tower until now. It was closed in 1968, reopened for a short time, and then closed again in 1974 after a series of suicides. The observation deck was reopened for small regularly scheduled tours in 1999 after repeated student and faculty appeals to the Board of Regents. The engagements are limited and security is tight, as the University cannot afford another “accident.” Two guards, with the utmost gusto of Homeland Security agents, oversaw airport-style metal detection of all visitors. By the end of our line, though, things had loosened up a bit. The detector itself was somewhat questionable, going off inexplicably accompanied by, “Must be the plate in my head!” Two more guards were waiting for us at the observation deck.

Before we could go there, though, our two friendly tour guides treated us to a ten-minute educational speech. They explained how the Tower wasn’t always administrative offices. Originally, the structure was intended to be an innovative library, where students would browse the card catalogue (remember that?) on the bottom floor, send up their requests via dumbwaiter, and promptly have their books lowered to them by a staff of student librarians, all efficient as a Ford assembly line. Despite myths that the student librarians employed roller skates to speed them on their way, the system proved disastrous, with students waiting 45 minutes for a book or two. Ever since, most of the school’s volumes have been distributed among the other libraries on campus.

In a few crowded shifts we rode the elevator to the top, accidentally stopping on two floors where the elevator opened to reveal closed white doors concealing the origins of strange thuds. When we reached our twenty-seventh floor destination, we were told that the auxiliary elevator that normally takes visitors up the three remaining floors was closed. Were we all okay climbing 33 steps to the observation deck? Guess so. Actually, this turned out to be a special treat, as the stairs offered us a narrow glimpse downward through the stairwells, a rare and dizzying internal idea of the tower’s height.

After everyone waited through a thirty-second safety speech and nodded at the guards, we were free to roam about the deck. It was a clear day, and I saw Austin as I never had before: The Capitol and the Frost Bank Building were dutifully present, but I saw mostly trees, really, with downtown’s modest skyscrapers standing out among what we could see of the Hill Country. Living thirty stories below, you forget how much undeveloped land exists, and how solidly green it is.

In our direct vicinity was UT’s campus, dominated for decades by Paul Cret’s Spanish Renaissance style buildings—limestone walls and red terracotta roofs that reflect diffuse sunlight up at the Tower. Cret, a Frenchman-turned-UT-architect-in-residence, created a master plan for the campus in 1931 and had a hand in about twenty of UT’s buildings, including the design of the owlish 307-foot Main Building Tower on which we stood.

For the middle of July, it was surprisingly cool and windy up there, but we negotiated the deck’s uneven pavement without fear as we were held in by considerable caging around the edges. I expressed surprise that there was a time before this barrier existed, and my dad reminded me that students used to come up there to eat lunch, their legs dangling over the edge as they checked their watches or looked behind them for the next fifteen-minute interval of ringing bells. My dad admitted that in his day he threw cigarette butts over the edge and tried to spit on people.

I notice alternating white and orange spotlights (all aimed at the top of the Tower) along a pipe that runs the full way around the observation deck. Carl J. Eckhardt Jr. was a UT engineering professor in 1931 when appointed to the head of the UT Physical Plant. As he oversaw construction of the Tower, he concocted his special lighting system that first came into play in 1937, when the Tower was flooded in orange to celebrate a football victory over Baylor. In 1947, Eckhardt helped the University develop detailed standard guidelines for using the lights, in effect to this day: If you see the Tower with an orange top and white shaft, UT has just won a regular season football game (it’s a different story with the Aggies—victory over Texas A&M means the whole Tower is flooded in orange); the Tower entirely orange also denotes Big 12 Championships, UT’s birthday on September 15, Texas Independence Day on March 2, and commencement; an entirely orange Tower with number one displayed signals national championships for any sport, or just bowl championships for football; a darkened Tower with a white top marks significant solemn occasions such as the dedication of the Tower Garden in remembrance of Whitman’s victims, and the annual UT Remembers memorial service; finally, an orange shaft with a top split orange and white is reserved for Gone to Texas, the official welcome to new students every fall.

Of course, a tour of the Tower wouldn’t be complete without a mention of its carillon of 56 bells—the state’s largest—that hangs in the distinctive columned belfry at the top of the edifice. Installed in 1936 (with more bells added as the years wore on), the first song the bells played was none other than “The Eyes of Texas.” The bells peal the Westminster Quarters every fifteen minutes during classes, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 12:50 p.m., the current carillonneur, Tom Anderson, treats students to ten-minute bell concerts. Playing the Tower bells since 1967, Anderson has dished out ringing renditions of everything from Egyptian folk songs to head-banging numbers by Metallica to personal requests from Lady Bird Johnson the day her husband died. Students can even call Anderson at his home to request songs. If he doesn’t know one, he’ll learn it. Mixed in with requests, the tour guides told us, are perennial favorites like “Let It Snow” on extremely hot days. Anderson plays the bells with a keyboard and foot pedals, each note attached to a clapper inside the assigned bell. The tour guides told us all about the bells, from the three-and-a-half-ton weight of the B-flat bell to rumors that Anderson must play in a soundproof booth and never gets to hear his own music. Yet the closest we got to see any of his hardware was when a maintenance crew unlocked a door that revealed a brick-and-wood-enclosed staircase straight out of Notre Dame.

The element most conspicuously absent from our tour was any mention of Whitman. Visitors commented on the view here and there, sure, but people mostly speculated about the details of the 1966 tragedy. Speculation wasn’t hard; bullets from the rifles of Austinites gouged the walls around our heads. Some wounds were plastered over; other sections, most notably the wall facing the Drag (storefronts along Guadalupe Street) looked like they were grafted from the Alamo. One visitor, peering down through a storm drain—maybe the very drain Whitman famously fired from, as it allowed him maximum cover—observed to my dad and I, “No wonder it was so hard to get him. I’m surprised they ever did.” A group of us asked the guides, “Where did they get him?” and they sheepishly pointed through the Tower to the opposite corner from where we were standing.

Though the guards defer inquiries about Whitman to the guides, and the guides politely tell all they know, not once is Whitman mentioned in the official tour. When I later asked tour coordinator Charles Locke about this, he sounded like he had repeated this answer a thousand times on behalf of his occupation: “[The Whitman tragedy] was not the reason the Tower was built. It was built as a symbol of academic excellence, and the University is reclaiming it as that.” The calming constancy of the wind kept my mind off Whitman more than I had expected, but eventually I too became infected with a temporary mania about that hour-and-a-half of several decades ago. As we descended the 33 steps to the working elevator, I remembered pieces of the story, how police had to hold back the father of a child whom Whitman had just killed. “This is where people were lying dead,” my dad whispered to me at that moment, and our tour ended with those clean white stairs in that silent well.

Tours are $5, Thursday through Saturday. For tickets, call 512-475-6633 or 877-475-6633 at least a week in advance.

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