Austin Hall

Location

1741 University Avenue
Map | ID#: 0002


Timeline

1849:
Austin College chartered

Jun. 24, 1851:
Cornerstone laid

1851-77:
In use by Austin College

Mar.17, 1855:
First Law School in Texas established

1877-79:
In use by Mitchell College

1879-:
In use by Sam Houston Normal Institute

1882:
Third floor added

1927:
Third floor removed, south portico added

1936:
Texas Centennial Commission erects plaque commemorating use

1964:
Recorded as Texas Historic Landmark

Feb. 12, 1982:
Damaged in fire

1986:
Rededicated after fire

2001:
Sesquicentennial celebration

Fall 2011:
Restoration begins

Oct. 20, 2012:
Re-dedication ceremony

Jan. 2, 2013:
Named to National Register Of Historic Places


News


Demographics

Namesake:
Stephen F. Austin

Architect:
Unknown (1851)
Ford, Powell & Carson (2012)

Contractor:
William M. Barrett (1851)
Whiting-Turner (2012)


About

Austin Hall is the oldest building west of the Mississippi River to have been used continuously by an educational institution. It is the oldest structure on the Sam Houston campus, first used as the original building of Austin College, and has served the university in multiple capacities over the years. It was damaged by fire in 1982.

Pre-History: Capitol Hill

The Texas Constitution of 1845 identified Austin as the capital until 1850, after which the location would be chosen by a vote of the populace. Huntsville, like many other communities, had high hopes for such honor and action was taken to add Huntsville's name to the raffle. Many citizens even designated the five acres atop the highest point in the community as "Capitol Hill" in anticipation; however when the election was over, Austin again emerged triumphant, beating out Palestine, Tehuacana, Washington-On-The-Brazos, and, in fifth place, Huntsville.

Austin College

While disappointed with the outcome, Huntsville was optimistic that the hill would be a fitting place for a learning institution. Huntsville-area Presbyterians promptly secured the necessary money and land to establish Austin College in 1849.

The first building was constructed of soft sand-molded bricks forged at the state penitentiary, with the cornerstone laid on Saint John's Day, June 24, 1851. Inside were a copy of the United States Constitution, a list of the first trustees of Austin College, and specimens of currency of the 13 original colonies. Former SHSU Special Collections librarian Paul Culp noted in an 1989 article that:

It has been traditionally maintained that Austin College was designed by Abner Cook, the master builder who created the finest residences in Texas before the Civil War (notably the Governor's Mansion and a number of other beautiful house still standing in Austin), but evidence for this is largely circumstantial.

Sam Houston and Anson Jones, both presidents of the Republic of Texas, were charter members of the Austin College Board of Trustees. Attending the dedication ceremony was legislator Adolphus Sterne, who Culp identifies as writing, "a hotter day we certainly did not have this Summer." Culp adds that Sterne "does not report that Sam Houston held his umbrella over the head of [Austin College] President [Samuel] McKinney to shield him from the sun during his long oration, but that story has become a fixed piece of Houston lore."

Austin College historian P. E. Wallace said the two-story building "was the pride of Huntsville, the delight of the Presbytery, and the wonders of visitors of that locality." During commencement exercises the brightly illuminated building could be seen eighteen miles away.

The Austin College Building was first occupied in October 1851 and completed the following year. In 1855 it housed the first law school in Texas. While successful, Austin College suffered during and following the Civil War and resulting Reconstruction. Economic declines and the 1867 yellow fever epidemic took its toll on the school, resulting in the relocation of Austin College to Sherman, Texas in 1876.

Mitchell College

The Methodist Church acquired the vacated Austin College Building in 1877 for $1,000, using it for a school for boys called Mitchell College. That effort failed within a year and the church sold the building back to the city of Huntsville for $346.

Sam Houston Normal Institute

On April 21, 1879, Sam Houston Normal Institute was authorized by the state legislature as the first tax-supported, teacher-training institution in Texas. With a $2 Million endowment from the Peabody Education Fund, money donated to states across the American South to develop and improve educational facilities following the Civil War, SHNI was able to open on October 10 with 110 students and four faculty members. The 28-year-old Austin College Building was adopted for the new teaching institute.

In 1882, due to a leaking roof and badly needed classroom space, a third floor was added to the building. Though it fixed both problems, architecturally the French Modern roof clashed with the Greek Classical look of the original building. Also, the original copula and Sam Houston Bell were removed and shipped to Sherman. The third floor had various functions over the years, including school chapel and office space for the Houstonian and Alcalde.

During the first eleven years, the Austin College Building was the only building of SHNI and housed everything until the Main Building was completed in 1890. It served as home to early "natural science" and biology courses until 1916 with the creation of the Science and Administration Building, a training school until the creation of the Education Building in 1918, and a dorm for the Student Army Training corps from September through December 1918. The building was dubbed the Social Center in 1919, making it the first student union with the YMCA on the first floor and literary societies and clubs on the second. A seperate Student Union Building would not be constructed until 1950.

Another leaking roof led to more renovations and the removal of the third floor in 1927. Culp notes that because the campus had developed south along the quadrangle, a columned portico was added the south side of the building. The cupola was not returned at this time.

The Jewel Garden was added west of the building in 1948.

Austin Hall was first air-conditioned in 1952 and awarded a State Historical Survey Committee Seal in 1964.

Culp further notes in his 1989 article that:

the way in which the Main Building had been sited almost on top of Austin Hall would indicate that it was thought that the small older building would be demolished in the not-too-distant future. A 1913 master plan did not include it.

By 1982, alumni offices and a faculty reception area were located downstairs with the Department of Military Science and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) occupying the second floor. On the morning of February 12, 1982, Huntsville awoke to find Austin Hall ablaze. A fire had broken out in the Main Building overnight that quickly spread to the neighboring building. When it was announced only one building could be saved, attention was turned to salvaging the furniture of Austin Hall. Students formed lines to move items from Austin Hall to the Women's Gym and Industrial Arts building. By the end of the day, the Old Main was gone and Austin Hall had severe roof damage though fortunately still intact.

The fire destroyed a majority of the ROTC files, furniture, and equipment as well as wiping out almost all archival information. SHSU President Elliott Bowers transferred the Department of Military Science headquarters to Randel House, which also had rooms available for ROTC cadets [1]. While much was lost, a charred timber taken from building was carved and fashioned into the ceremonial mace of Austin College.

Over the next few years Austin Hall was restored, complete with a new cupola and thus thousands of names carved into its bricks were saved. The building was rededicated in October 1986 and is today used for various special university functions.

Approval was granted in August 2011 for a $2.2 Million restoration of Austin Hall paid for through donations by the Houston Endowment, Inc., The Brown Foundation, Inc., and The Elkins Foundation as well as donations from alumni and area businesses. The project included work on both the interior - including floor refinishing and new electrical and plumbing systems – as well as to the exterior – including cupola and roof restoration, shutter damage, and masonry work. Its prominent red bricks featuring names of students carved into them were temporary removed; new mortar was applied and most bricks were then replaced – save for those that had deteriorated beyond use. Austin Hall was rededicated in October 2012.

In 2013 Austin Hall was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Photographs


Austin College Building

The Austin College Building upon completion in 1853.


Austin College Building

The Austin College Building added a third floor in 1882.


Austin College Building

This photograph shows how close Austin Hall and the Main Building sat next to each other. Closeness like this didn't help when the Main Building caught fire in 1982.


Austin College Building

When the third floor was removed from the Austin College Building in 1927, a columned portico was added to the south side of the building, allowing it to "face" the quadrangle. This photograph shows the south side prior to the columns. The south side of the Women's Gym and the roof of the Administration Building are in the foreground.


Austin College Building

A photograph of the quadrangle about a decade before the Old Main fire: Austin Hall's roof is flat and columns have been installed to face south.


Austin College Building

The morning of February 12, 1982 as the roof of the Austin College Building is destroyed.


Austin College Building

The Austin College Building in the midst of its refurbishing a year after the fire.  Note the sloped ground to the building’s southwest: the Industrial Arts Building had been razed by this time.


Austin College Building

It's been a tradition of graduating seniors - or anyone with a sense or mortality - to etch their name in the red bricks of Austin Hall. The sides of the 150-plus year old building are something of a permanent yearbook of names and initials...


Austin College Building

...including Jeff, JT, Reba, Melissa, and look - there's Barrett! Awesome!


Austin College Building

Construction lingered inside and outside of Austin Hall during Spring Break, 2012.


Austin College Building

A plaque commemorates the Board of Truestees of Austin College establishing the first law school in Texas in March, 1855. The plaque was presented in 1977 by the Captain John McAdams Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.


Austin College Building

A plaque commemorates the Charter Trustees of Austin College, among them Sam Houston, Henderson Yoakum, and college president Samuel McKinney.


Austin College Building

The Texas Historic Landmark plaque, added in 1964.


Austin College Building

A plaque identifies the structure as being used continuously by educational institutions since its construction in 1851, including Austin College (1851-1876); by a private academy [Mitchell College] (1876-79); and Sam Houston State University (1879 to present). The plaque was added in 1956.


Austin College Building

A plaque commemorating its 2013 naming to the National Register of Historic Places. No word on whose autographed bricks the new plaque covers.



Links

Historical Marker Database

Sources

Vision Realized (1970)
"Austin Hall: SHSU Landmark" (The Coranto, 1989)
[1] - Department of Military Science, 2009

Comments

comments powered by Disqus

About the site

The Buildings of Sam Houston State University website documents the physical changes of the SHSU campus in Huntsville from its inception in 1879 through tomorrow. The alumnus-run site details changes to the academic, residential, and historical buildings and other prominent landmarks.