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