The University of Texas: Vision and Ambition

Originally published in , 2001

During his thirteen-year tenure as campus architect, from 1909 to 1922, Cass Gilbert made a seminal contribution to the University of Texas that would have a profound and far-reaching impact on the development of that institution. From his very earliest sketches, Gilbert portrayed an image of the university that was far more ambitious and sophisticated than had been imagined previously. In his schemes for a campus master plan, his studies for a variety of campus buildings, and the two buildings he completed on the campus, Gilbert developed a fresh new architectural vision for what the University of Texas might become both as an entity and as a place. Gilbert’s vision had enormous staying power, fundamentally influencing the architects who followed him and strongly affecting a large ensemble of buildings that was completed between 1922 and 1950. This ensemble represents one of the most coherent and well-planned groups of buildings on any American university campus. Though later architects such as Herbert M. Greene and Paul Cret made important contributions, it was Gilbert’s selection of materials, his general stylistic vocabulary, and his orderly arrangement of axes and quadrangles that determined the shape of the distinguished campus that would eventually evolve.

When Gilbert’s involvement with the University of Texas began, the school’s twenty-seven-year-old campus was a hodgepodge of mismatched buildings strung across a hilltop just north of Austin’s central core. The Old Main Building, begun in 1882 and placed near the center of the forty-acre campus, had been designed by Frederick E. Ruffini in a Victorian Gothic style that was common among American university buildings of the 1870s and 1880s. Just east of Old Main was Brackentidge Hall, which originally was built as a plain-brick men’s dormitory and later remodeled to incorporate a prickly series of towers with steeply pitched caps and elaborate ornamentation. A series of three buildings designed by San Antonio architects Charles A. Coughlin and Atlee B. Ayres shortly after the turn of the century rejected the Victorian vocabulary of earlier structures in favor of a variety of more contemporary idioms. The Women’s Building (1903), the Engineering Building (1904), and the Law Building (1908), individually and taken together, failed to define any clear architectural vocabulary that might direct the future development of the campus.

Though Coughlin and Ayres had prepared a formal campus master plan for the university when they began their work in 1903, the motley collection of buildings completed by 1909 was not built in accordance with any larger planning vision. The 1903 plan depicted a row of pavilion buildings around the southern half of the forty-acre campus, with a large tree-filled commons between the peripheral structures and Old Main at the center of the campus. The scheme was rural in feeling and very unsophisticated compared with the plans that had been generated for other American campuses such as Stanford University and Columbia University a decade earlier. Little stock was put in the Coughlin and Ayers plan, even in the placement of the three buildings completed by the university between 1903 and 1908. Though the Women’s Building could have been enlarged to comply with the scheme, both the Engineering Building and the Law School were sited in locations not in keeping with the master plan.

Dissatisfied with the piecemeal and disappointing results that they were getting from local Texas architects, President David Houston and Regent George Brackenridge began in early 1907 to search (or a new campus architect who had the ability to provide greater architectural cohesion for the university and to incorporate sound campus planning principles. They settled on Frederick M. Mann, who was then head of the Department of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. That university had held a widely publicized competition for their own campus master plan in 1899, which had been won by the firm Cope & Stewardson, beating out Cass Gilbert’s own entry (see chapter 16). Mann had been involved in the implementation of that plan, establishing his own reputation as an advocate for campus design of high quality. Mann’s plan for the University of Texas, completed in early 1909, maintained a large, open green space as its central feature, just as the 1903 plan had done. Mann’s college commons, however, was open to the city on its south face and had a more strongly defined, tree-lined axis at its center, connecting the university’s main building visually with the state capitol on the hill beyond. The east, west, and north sides of the forty acres were much more densely developed than those in the 1903 plan. Uniform ranks of three-story buildings with hipped and gabled roofs defined a range of different courts and quadrangles on three flanks of the campus. Essentially walled off from the city except to the south, the scheme had a strong inward focus with specific quadrangles designed for natural sciences, engineering, visual arts, and language arts. Circulation between these tightly defined areas was minimal and somewhat mazelike.
Mann retained only the two most recent campus buildings in his own master plan, proposing the replacement of Old Main with a new structure that would become the architectural focus of the campus. The new building was capped by a monumental polygonal lantern that stood well above the roofs of surrounding buildings. University President David Houston had requested that the architectural character of the campus buildings be responsive to the Spanish legacy of Texas. The new main building met this criterion by combining a range of Spanish motifs drawn from Romanesque and baroque traditions.

Mann built only one building on the campus, the Power House at its western edge made of heavy limestone pavilions capped by red-tile roofs with very deep overhangs. He also completed, however, two private commissions across the street from the campus, the University Methodist Church to the northwest and a building for the YMCA midway along the university’s western edge. Like the Power House, these buildings had a striking Mediterranean character with strong Romanesque roots. The church even had a polygonal lantern not unlike the one depicted in the master plan for the new main buildings of the campus.

Frederick Mann’s work for the university did not provide the overall vision for the University of Texas that its leadership had sought. Even as drawings for Mann’s scheme were still being completed, representatives of the university were making queries on its behalf in search of a new architect. Gilbert would have been a logical candidate on any well-conceived short list for such a position. Though Gilbert had been unsuccessful in his submission for the comprehensive plan for Washington University, by 1908 he had bolstered his campus planning credentials by winning the well-publicized competition for the University of Minnesota. As early as February 15, 1909, Gilbert made a conceptual sketch for the Texas campus (Figure 13-1) that had strong roots in his work for the Minnesota campus. The sketch illustrated a broad mall stepping up the hill to a very grand, domed University Hall. The mall was lined on either side by perpendicular, rectangular buildings similar to those in his Minnesota master plan. A monumental University Hall with its enormous flanking towers bore a strong resemblance to a similarly domed composition that was present in early versions of the Minnesota plan.

Gilbert’s energetic early sketch, conceived almost a year before he actually won the commission at Texas, illustrates the striking difference between the vision he conjured for a new university campus and the very timid-by-comparison visions that Coughlin and Ayers and Frederick Mann had for the University of Texas. Gilbert’s sketch was influenced by the modest diagram of Thomas Jefferson’s campus at University of Virginia but was expanded into a larger-than-life ensemble full of pomp and grandeur. As he commenced discussions with university officials, it was evident from the start that Gilbert was an architect with sweeping vision who sought to create a university of the first class.

In June 1909 Gilbert responded to an inquiry from Colonel Edward M. House, brother-in-law to recently appointed university President Sidney E. Mezes. (House was also a friend and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson and the client for a distinguished Shingle-style house in Austin designed by New York architect Frank Freeman.) Gilbert outlined his ideas about campus planning and architecture in broad strokes in his correspondence with House. In October of the same year, President Mezes visited Gilbert’s office in New York, and the following month Mezes recommended that the university commence preparing a new general plan with a new architect. He advised, in fact, the creation of a new position of university architect and recommended that the best-qualified architect in the country who could be secured should be selected for the position. The following January, Gilbert made his first trip to Austin. He discussed with university officials his ideas for a new library, which was the highest priority for the university at that time. (Gilbert was, at that point, in the midst of designing both the St. Louis Public Library and the Ives Memorial Library in New Haven.) He investigated the forty-acre site, making a series of preliminary sketches for the campus and especially for a new University Hall at the top of the hill. On January 10, 1910, the Regents’ Building Committee recommended Gilbert for the position of university architect, and he commenced design officially on both a new campus master plan and a new library building.

At the age of fifty, Gilbert was at the peak of his career when he accepted the commission in Texas. Recent projects in Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri as well as on the East Coast had established him as a nationally known architect. Beginning in 1908, he started to serve a term as president of the AIA. The University of Texas, after several abortive attempts, finally had found an architect of ambitious vision and national reputation capable of creating an enduring image for the campus and for the university.

Back in 1907 Gilbert had been invited to participate in a limited competition for a new central library for St. Louis, which he won after two stages of submissions. His scheme, though quite innovative, was based significantly on McKim, Mead & White’s Boston Public Library (1888-95), which in turn had been based on Henri Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Ste.Genevieve in Paris. The libraries in St. Louis, Boston, and Paris took the Italian Renaissance palazzo as a starting point, placing more mundane library functions on a ground floor behind heavy walls with simple, spare openings. Reading rooms and other more gracious library spaces were lifted to an upper piano nobile with high ceilings, tall arched windows, and monumental exterior treatment. Having worked for McKim, Mead & White in their New York offices (1880-82), Gilbert was well equipped to elaborate on and refine the Boston scheme in his St. Louis project.

The Texas library, which Gilbert began to conceive in 1909, was much more modest in scope than either the Boston or St. Louis municipal works. The budget at St. Louis was almost two-and-a-half times that of the Texas project, and its program required four major reading/display rooms, whereas the university library needed only one. From his earliest soft-pencil sketches, Gilbert conceived the Texas library as a palazzo but of a very different sort than what might have been the prototype for St. Louis. Its smaller scale allowed the building to sit as a free-standing pavilion rather than filling an urban block. Its hipped tile roof became a distinctive cap for an object building rather than another horizontal layer in a broader composition. Deep shadowy roof overhangs distinguished the Texas library from its more northern counterparts, and a more festive, lively character-even present in early drawings-indicated a distinctly different feeling from the dour edifices in Boston and St. Louis.

A watercolor rendering of the library’s east elevation, dated March 19, 1910 (Figure 13-2), illustrates a well-proportioned, two-story building with a rusticated stone base punctuated by eight rectangular windows and an arched central entry portal. A more elaborate upper floor was articulated with a series of nine tall arched windows alternating with pilasters that supported an ornate frieze under broad eaves. Ornamental balconies topped a dominant stringcourse, which separated the two floors on the facade, and lanterns of similar treatment flanked the doorway. A later perspective drawing (Figure 13-3) indicated the same general approach but with some significant changes and refinements. The two floors received identical stone treatment without the heavier base that had been indicated in the earlier scheme. Seven, rather than nine, arched windows punctuated the facade with proportions more robust than in the previous version. The pilasters disappeared but were replaced by an ornamental treatment along the arched portion of the monumental windows, similar to that employed at the Boston Public Library (and very different from the window treatment at the St. Louis Public Library). Rondels, similar in size and placement to those employed in the entry portal at St. Louis, were located on each side of the arched openings. Terra cotta tiles were also added in the deeply recessed upper floor openings around the windows. Detailed ornament in the tiles was matched by a highly articulated, bracketed soffit under the building’s dominant roof cap. The exuberance and delicacy of the ironwork balconies and terra cotta ornament and the ornate treatment of the eaves set the Texas library apart from its counterparts in Boston and St. Louis. The cream-colored Texas limestone used for its construction was also softer and gentler than the granite employed in the earlier buildings. The feeling of this new scheme was fresh and original, more southern in character with its deep shadows and bright colors to counterbalance the bleaching effect of the strong sun; less tough and urban than its big-city precedents.

As built, Gilbert’s Texas library, named Battle Hall in 1973 after Dr. William J. Battle, longtime chair of the university’s faculty building committee, was almost identical (Figure 13-4) to the perspective rendering. The only substantial change was that the proposed balustraded terrace in front was never constructed. The terra cotta window surrounds were executed in lively greens, yellows, and blues and depicted appropriate iconographical images for a library, including open books, torches, and lamps of enlightenment. The owl, which Gilbert had used in the attic story of the St. Louis Public Library, was employed repeatedly, both in the terra cotta surrounds and to support the brackets of the deep eave overhangs. The signs of the zodiac (which Gilbert also had employed in St. Louis) provided the theme for the twelve rondels, beginning with the start of the calendar year on the south side of the building, working sequentially around the east facade, and terminating on the north face (Figure 13-5).

Inside, a low barrel-vaulted passageway led from the east entry through the front volume of the T-shaped building to a well-lit stair hall. Winding marble stairs, with a gracefully detailed wrought-iron balustrade, ascended to a compact, polygonal delivery hall. Located at the very center of the building, the delivery hall was capped by a domed glass skylight. West of the stairway and delivery hall, and completing the rear leg of the building’s T shape, were the library stacks. The most elaborate interior space was the reading room on the upper floor of the east wing behind the great arched windows (Figure 13-6). Its plain limestone walls were topped by elaborate wood-faced trusses, very similar to those Gilbert had proposed for the interior of the Finney Memorial Chapel at Oberlin College in 1907 (see chapter 14). Similar in character to many Spanish and Italian Romanesque buildings, the Battle Hall trusses employed elaborate ornamental brackets and exposed metal straps to provide a robust, tectonic feeling. They were colorfully stenciled with largely geometric patterns, including lone stars like that on the Texas flag.

The east wing of Battle Hall was constructed of load-bearing masonry walls with limestone quarried in nearby Cedar Park. Openings were filled with terra cotta tiles and wood windows. The deep eaves under the hipped red-tile roof were made of a combination of wood boards and carved wood. T he wing of the building containing library stacks was constructed as a steel cage with low floor-to-floor heights and structural marble slabs as the complete floor/ceiling assembly. The very different exterior treatment of the more utilitarian volume was evident elsewhere in Gilbert’s work. The west facade of Battle Hall (now covered) originally had vertical strips of windows alternating with stone piers, very similar to the treatment used on the north-facing stack wing at the St. Louis Public Library.

Battle Hall currently houses the Architecture and Planning Library and a portion of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas. The building’s exterior has been very well maintained and is in excellent condition, with the current paint carefully matched to the original colors. Interior functions have remained similar to those initially planned for the building, with offices, conference rooms, and special collections on the ground floor and primary library functions operating from the reading room and delivery hall on the upper floor.

By the end of 1910 Gilbert had completed and submitted the first version of his master plan for the University of Texas campus, including a sparely drawn ground plan and a bird’s eye perspective (Figure 13-7). A very similar, but more detailed ground plan is documented in a drawing dated August 15, 1914 (Figure 13-8). Unlike the Mann scheme of 1909, most existing buildings on the campus were retained and cleverly integrated into the new plan. One significant removal, however, was Ruffini’s Old Main Building, which was replaced by a new University Hall accommodating administrative offices and a large assembly room. The dominant new structure at the center of the forty acres was a linchpin for the plan, serving as the terminus of four axes that divided the campus into roughly equal quadrants. The south axis was clearly primary, introduced by a wide main plaza in front of University Hall. Gilbert’s new library created the western edge of the plaza and was matched by a projected building of similar massing to the east. Perpendicular to the main plaza was a broad tree-lined south mall that created the critical visual connection between University Hall on the north end and the dome of the state capitol on the south end of a grand urban axis.

The southwest quadrant below the new library was the only area unencumbered by existing structures. For it, Gilbert proposed an almost square courtyard with long, thin buildings on each of the four sides. The two westernmost corners were filled with small squarish structures while the easternmost corner buildings projected farther out to create anchors at the edge of the south mall. The new library and a companion structure on the north side of the quadrant similarly defined the border of the west mall that connected a major campus entry point on Guadalupe Street to the end axis of University Hall.

The southeast quadrant began with a similar approach but was altered to accommodate two very oddly positioned existing buildings. The 1908 Law Building became the centerpiece for a composition of new buildings that took the general spirit of the parallel face of the southwest quadrant and repositioned its elements slightly. The result was a well-balanced and compositionally strong southern edge of the campus with a new image that incorporated the Law Building as an integral part. Brackenridge Hall at the northern edge of the same quadrant was used similarly to create a minor north-south axis that became the focus of a new courtyard on its south side. Although the east axis of University Hall was located so as to just miss the northern end of Brackenridge Hall, it was here that the strain of incorporating existing buildings into the new plan became most evident. Dealt with very cleverly, Brackenridge Hall was still a bit awkward in relation to the east mall.

In the northeast quadrant, Mann’s L-shaped Power House formed one corner of a courtyard that Gilbert completed with two similar L-shaped structures and the existing 1904 Engineering Building. Mann’s building, in fact, became more natural and appropriate in Gilbert’s master plan than it had been in his own. The northwest quadrant similarly incorporated two existing buildings with three new L-shaped structures and one linear building to form a fourth well-defined academic court. For all three quadrants with problematic existing buildings, Gilbert created a seeming inevitability out of difficult exigencies and demonstrated his extraordinary skill in responding to local conditions without allowing them to destroy his larger conceptual framework.

The strength of that conceptual framework has proved very potent indeed. The powerful monument at the focus of well-defined linear public spaces gave an appropriate civic grandeur to the campus that the University of Texas needed. And yet, the smaller-scaled courtyards at each of the four corners, defined by a series of more modest and variable buildings, provided the campus with intimate personal spaces for individual collegiate components. Both as a whole and in individual pans, Gilbert’s master plan had great dignity and presence. It was sophisticated without being intimidating. It was visionary but also very practical. Even ninety years later, the original site remains fundamentally organized according to Gilbert’s ideas of what a campus for the University of Texas should and could become.

Active planning for the second building designed by Gilbert for the University of Texas did not begin until 1915, and it was not completed until early 1918. It was a general-purpose academic building located in the southwest quadrant of the campus on the north side of what was to be an academic court in the master plan. Although the 1914 master plan rendering indicated flanking projections at each end of the north face of the building, the final version became a simple long rectangle with a double-loaded corridor down the center and a perpendicular entry hall at its midpoint. Despite the fact that the Education Building was very near Gilbert’s recent library, there was, curiously, little functional or formal relationship between the two. The library faced east toward the proposed new main plaza, with only a basement door on the south side toward the newer building. The Education Building faced south, toward the projected academic court and distinctly away from the library to the northeast (Figure 13-9). Because of the topography in this area, the Education Building also sat a full twelve feet lower than the library, which had been placed near the top of the hill.

In an undated watercolor rendering of the elevation of the Education Building (Figure 13-10), Gilbert included nearly all of the elements that would eventually constitute the structure. These included a smooth stone ashlar first floor with arched openings; a second and third floor of contrasting material (perhaps stucco in the rendering); an even rhythm of regular rectangular windows in the center of the long facade syncopated by a more highly ornamental vertical stack of windows on each end; a colorful, highly articulated frieze of ornament under the eaves with heavy brackets; and a red-tile roof with deep overhanging projections. The building as built differed from the rendering, however, in several important ways. The material on the second and third floors of the Education Building became a distinctive textured brick of variegated color ranging from tan to ochre, orange, and brown. The number of windows in the midsection was increased from ten to eleven, and the entry portals stretched from two to three openings, creating a more classic odd number of bays. An elaborate terracotta attic treatment was created to encompass the midsection windows on the third floor, and balconies were transferred from second-floor windows up to the third floor.

Later named Sutton Hall for William Seneca Sutton (who was the first dean of the School of Education), the new building added a distinctly different vocabulary to Gilbert’s vision for the campus, beyond that established by the library. Both buildings relied on the Renaissance palazzo as a precedent but differed substantially in scale, material usage, color, and detail. Although the scale of the library was elevated by the huge double-story windows and the unified facades made of large limestone blocks, the scale of the Education Building was diminished by the use of several different wall materials, both horizontally and vertically. The brick and terra cotta as well as paint colors on the Education Building were much darker than those on the library, and the rough texture of the brick produced a ruddier, less refined building character. The stone selected was from a quarry in a different part of Texas and had a much darker, grayer hue. Even the roof tiles were a deeper red and more variegated in color than those on the library. The construction methods used for the Education Building differed as well. The exterior walls on the bottom two floors and on the ends of the third floor were load-bearing masonry, whereas the interior support of the building and the exterior support in the midportion of the third floor were provided by a reinforced concrete frame.

The School of Architecture at the University of Texas currently occupies Sutton Hall, which was renovated substantially in 1980. The general structure of rooms opening off a wide central corridor was carefully retained in that renovation, though the exact partitioning of spaces was altered. Two grand rooms with vaulted ceilings at each end of the third floor were recovered for use as open studios. The only substantial changes to the exterior were the addition of a new entry portal on the north side of the building, which generally resembles the original south-side entry, and a dormer window on the north face of the roof to provide natural light for newly occupied space in the attic. In 1998 the exterior of the building was completely restored, returning finishes and details to near-mint condition.

Several hundred surviving documents illustrate Gilbert’s various proposals for other campus buildings between 1909 and 1922. Besides the library and the Education Building, the single element most frequently depicted in those documents is Gilbert’s unrealized University Hall, which was to be the centerpiece for the campus. Three distinctly different approaches to the building were studied. In the February 15, 1909, sketch noted earlier (see Figure 13-1), University Hall was rendered as an ornate domed structure with a monumental portico on the front and enormous towers to either side. The composition was distinctly baroque at a grand scale. University Hall lorded over the buildings on the south mall below. A simpler, though still quite grand dome with more restrained classical roots capped the version of University Hall depicted in a 1911 colored cross-section drawing taken through the entire campus and indicating Gilbert’s new library beside the central monument. As late as a pencil sketch dated October 5, 1920, Gilbert revisited the dome as a focus for the campus, this time flanked again by towers.

A second approach by Gilbert created a pedimented temple at the center of the campus, a notion he had used in his entry for the University of Minnesota competition. In a sketch dated January 12, 1910 (Figure 13-11), University Hall was portrayed as a mammoth structure, three times the height of the library to its side and festooned with elaborate ornament above a giant colonnade. The temple version of University Hall was elaborated in a number of other studies, including some that depicted a two-tiered building with a large gabled volume at the scale of the city and a lower pedimented portico scaling down to adjacent campus structures.

The third distinct approach Gilbert experimented with for University Hall was a single very tall tower. In a small pencil sketch from 1920 (Figure 13-12), he portrayed a hefty shaft rising from a low, flat base not unlike Bertram Goodhue’s Nebraska state capitol that had been conceived the previous year. A similar undated sketch of probably the same period depicted a tower with a pointed peak and a prominent clock at its top. By the 1920s Gilbert had become famous for his towers. The Woolworth Building in New York, which he completed in 1913, was the tallest building in the world until 1930, and his Union Central Life Insurance Company Building in Cincinnati was the fifth tallest building when it was constructed.

Clearly, Gilbert’s studies for University Hall and also his sketches for other projects (such as a gymnasium and an outdoor amphitheater) depict a very broad architectural vocabulary that he imagined for the campus. Just as the Education Building was quite different from the library, both of them were very different from his proposals for University Hall. Gilbert’s vision for the whole campus therefore was inclusive, encompassing existing campus buildings of disparate styles as well as a range of new building expressions designed in reaction to functional and site dictates. This attitude was consistent with his work on the Oberlin College campus in roughly the same period. Gilbert portrayed the college campus, not as a cookie-cutter, military-style collection of uniform buildings but as an assemblage of diverse structures, related and carefully coordinated with each other but not constrained by an artificial stylistic code.

In 1922, the regents decided not to renew Gilbert’s contract, and for almost a decade, the role of university architect was filled by Herbert M. Greene and his firm, Greene, La Roche & Dahl, from Dallas. Greene’s excellent work in this period followed both general and specific intentions that Gilbert had established. Garrison Hall of 1925, for example, was placed opposite the library, creating the eastern edge of the main plaza as outlined in the master plan. Its architectural character was very similar to that for the Education Building, with a stone base, brick upper stories with generous terracotta ornament, and a red-tile roof. In the spirit of Gilbert’s acceptance of diversity, Greene created an iconographic palette for Garrison Hall which was very different from that of the library or the Education Building. Built for the history department, the building’s ornament depicts the heritage of Texas with names of political heroes, branding irons from historic ranches, and emblematic symbols like longhorns, bluebonnets, cacti, and lone stars. Gilbert’s hand was clear in the building’s general orchestration, but Greene had the freedom to customize as well.

In the ten or so buildings Greene designed, there is a broad range of stylistic liberty but still a conscientious effort to create a coherent whole. His men’s gymnasium of 1930, for example, was designed in a sober Lombard style with no bright terra cotta ornament, but its use of a variegated brick similar to that of the Education Building made it comfortably a part of the larger campus. Although two new versions of a campus master plan were produced in 1923 and 1926 by James M. White of the University of Illinois, the proposals were not influential. Even the Greene-designed buildings that were built after the late 1920s (e.g.,Waggener Hall and the Chemistry Building, both 1931) were placed according to Gilbert’s scheme rather than White’s. In March 1930 the university appointed Philadelphia architect Paul Phillipe Cret as a consultant to design a new library. At the time, French-born and Beaux-Arts-educated Cret was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania as well as heading a thriving practice. The university had outgrown the 250,000-volume capacity of Gilbert’s library and had decided that expansion of it was not feasible to meet long-term needs. During the 1930s Cret designed sixteen buildings for the university and in 1933 created a new master plan (Figure 13-13) that guided the development of the campus through the 1940s and well beyond the original forty acres. What Cret proposed for the area Gilbert had planned was remarkably similar to Gilbert’s own scheme, A main building of grand scale was placed at the focus of four axes, creating four roughly equal quadrants, Cret admired Gilbert’s “plaza in front of the Main Building and the South Mall approach” and reiterated these two features almost verbatim, He even lined the mall with perpendicular buildings alternating with courts, almost exactly like those Gilbert proposed in his earliest schemes but modified somewhat in later versions, In each of the four quadrants, Cret created an academic court, with each court taking its own distinct character just as Gilbert had suggested, Cret’s east mall and west mall were narrower than Gilbert’s but retained essentially the same location and role in the larger plan.

The vocabulary of Cret’s buildings certainly owes a debt to Gilbert’s in their general character and materials. But, perhaps more significantly, Cret also adopted Gilbert’s liberal attitude about the range of styles and building forms that should energize the campus and keep its development lively and progressive over time. Some of Cret’s designs, like that for the lower part of the main building, are strongly influenced by the same kind of monumental Mediterranean classicism that inspired Gilbert’s library. Others, such as the Geology Building and the Physics Building, owe a great deal to Gilbert’s Education Building with their stone base, second and third floors in variegated buff brick, and red-tile roofs. Still others, such as the Union and the Architecture Building, were rendered in more picturesque, vernacular styles with asymmetrical massing punctuated by towers and characterized by varied, sometimes irregular fenestration. Original versions of these buildings even had rubble stone walls and crafted wooden balconies, very different from, but compatible with, the clear, regular palazzi Gilbert designed nearby. By the end of the 1930s, Cret had completed an Art Deco gem, the Texas Memorial Museum, which related strongly to the rest of the campus in placement, scale, and materials. It also substantiated by its clean, modern lines Cret’s desire for the campus vocabulary to allow for progress and innovation. Cret’s centerpiece for the campus, the University of Texas Tower, also has Art Deco touches in its shaft but is crowned by a classical lantern. In its vertical punctuation atop a low horizontal base and in its bold scale, it was comfortably aligned with Gilbert’s earlier schemes for a tower as the focus for the campus.

The forty or so projects that were designed according to the intentions of Gilbert, Greene, and Cret from 1909 to the end of the 1940s represent an extraordinary campus ensemble of great character and vitality. These buildings have created a distinctive and highly valued image of the university that helps to define it to this day. Though Cret is often given great credit because of the number of buildings he had a hand in, Cass Gilbert was the seminal and sustaining design force in the development of the University of Texas campus. The vision, sophistication, and ambition he brought to his service as campus architect left an indelible mark on the University of Texas.

Thinking about Campus Architecture
Originally published in , 2001