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