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University of Texas Libraries
Celebrating the Life
Cass Gilbert

 The Architect

 

"The architect should be chosen as the President of the University is chosen, because after careful consideration by the authorities, it is understood that he—by training, experience and temperament—is the best man possible to obtain for the work in hand, and the authorities should maintain that point of view or should release him immediately from connection with the work."

 

Cass Gilbert to Edward M. House, June 22, 1909

 

In 1909, the library area of Old Main, UT’s principal academic building, was overcrowded and regarded as a firetrap. The university’s enrollment had tripled to 1,500 since Old Main’s completion a decade earlier, and students required access to larger and more diverse collections of library materials and places to study. The time had come to build a freestanding library building worthy of the “university of the first class” envisioned by the Texas Constitution.

Although the university was already working with an accomplished architect from St. Louis, Frederick M. Mann, who built a power plant on campus (1910, demolished 1977) and several buildings on the periphery for other organizations, including University Methodist Church (completed 1909), President Mezes and influential friends of the university looked elsewhere for the library commission. The search led them to Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), one of the nation’s most prominent architects. Based in New York, his portfolio included the Minnesota State Capitol, a master plan for the University of Minnesota, and the St. Louis Public Library. Today, he is remembered best as the architect of the Woolworth Building in New York, the world’s tallest building when completed in 1913.

In selecting Gilbert, the university sought more than competency and a familiar name. The campus, like the library, was suffering growing pains. Its haphazard collection of buildings was inadequate and failed to project an enduring image for the institution. Gilbert was more than up to the task of creating such images, and the university charged him to design a comprehensive development plan for the campus. The new library was to be the first component.

Appointed University Architect in January 1910, Gilbert held the position until 1922. Limited funds (the oil under the university’s lands in West Texas had yet to be discovered) prevented implementation of his master development plan beyond the construction of the library (Battle Hall), completed in 1911, and the Education Building (Sutton Hall, built seven years later). Nevertheless, these two buildings established a standard of architectural quality, an expressive character, and a vocabulary of building materials that constitute a benchmark for architects today. Moreover, their strategic siting provided the skeleton upon which Gilbert’s successors, Dallas architect Herbert M. Greene, and Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret, filled out the Forty Acres. Photo credit: Portrait of Cass Gilbert, 1907, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Gallery of buildings that existed when Gilbert came to UT.
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Elevation study

A Vision for the Library

From the first published accounts of Cass Gilbert’s design in 1911, Battle Hall has been described as Spanish Renaissance in style, characterized by its broad, red-tile roof, the detailing of the brackets under the eaves, and the use of ornamental wrought iron. This look was seen as fitting for the University of Texas because of the state’s Spanish heritage and perceived similarities of climate. The allusion was superficial. Battle Hall’s underlying pedigree is rooted in the more generalized classicism practiced by Gilbert and his contemporaries at the turn of the twentieth century.

Gilbert’s touchstone for the library’s exterior elevations was the Boston Public Library, designed by McKim, Mead & White and built between 1888 and 1895. Gilbert had worked for the firm in the early 1880s, and the building was among the nation’s most celebrated works of public architecture. His definitive scheme for the much smaller Battle Hall adopts the Boston library’s solid base punctuated by rectangular openings and its upper level composed of an arcade of round-arched windows separated by prominent piers and roundels.

Gilbert planned Battle Hall as he was building the St. Louis Public Library. Echoes of it in his design for UT may be seen in the round-arched windows and in the balustrade that was to have enclosed a terrace around the ground floor. Image credit: Study for main elevation, C. G. L. [Charles G. Loring], delineator, undated, reproduction from the Cass Gilbert Architectural Record collection, Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Contemporary libraries that might have inspired Gilbert's work and the renderings he prepared for UT's Library building.
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Proposed Library Building elevation rendering
Study for main elevation, C. G. L. [Charles G. Loring], delineator, undated
This scheme proposed a larger and more ornate building than the final version. Notable features include an elaborate portal, wrought iron balcony railing, pilasters between the arches, and a frieze with metopes, inscriptions and medallions.

Proposed Library Building elevation rendering with terrace
Study for main elevation, undated
This version has the proportions and dimensions of the final design but includes pilasters between the arches and a much simpler treatment of brackets supporting the eaves.

Perspective Library Building of the University of Texas with terrace
Final design, H. R. Johnson, delineator, date illegible [1910]
The rendering in gray tones likely was intended for reproduction in print media. It depicts the library as built except for the balustrade, which was never realized. The Woman’s Building appears in the background.

Bird's eye view, master development plan

A Vision for the Campus

Drawn while the library was under construction, this view demonstrates how Gilbert planned to reorganize the Forty Acres with a cruciform scheme that located the library, a new main building, a museum, and malls along the principal axes and academic buildings grouped around courtyards in the quadrants. The arrangement provided a combination of monumental ceremonial spaces along the axes and less formal areas within the quadrants for the daily activities of study and recreation. Gilbert considered the replacement of Old Main essential and urgent and made no place for it in his plan, but he accommodated other existing structures, such as the Law School, B. Hall, the Engineering Building, the Woman’s Building, the Chemistry Laboratory, and the Power Plant until future circumstances permitted their removal. Image credit: Master development plan, bird’s-eye view, C. G. L. [Charles G. Loring], delineator, January 12, 1911, reproduction courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Plans Gilbert's team prepared.
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Birdseye sketch of proposed new layout for the University of Texas and Preliminary block plan, University of Texas
The master development plan (section along the north-south axis) and preliminary block plan (delineated by C.G.L. [Charles G. Loring] and Phillips, respectively) show a variant scheme for the new main building, labeled University Hall. They illustrate how the library anchored the west side of the main plaza and how the location of what is now Sutton Hall (occupied in the plan by a fine arts building) demarked an edge for the southwest quadrangle. By realizing just these two buildings, Gilbert established a skeleton for the future development of the campus.

1933 University of Texas Perspective for Future Development
Cret's master development plan (1933) built on the quadrangle scheme initiated by Gilbert and loosely continued by Herbert M. Greene. The addition to Battle Hall shown here on the site of the present West Mall Office Building was intended to house a university museum.

Sketches highlighting the architectural vocabulary he set for the campus.
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Gilbert planned to apply certain architectural features of the library, such as the broad, red-tile roof, bracketed eaves, and the composition of upper stories set atop a solid base story, to other campus buildings. These features established a strong visual identity for the campus while allowing variety in the specific treatment of each building.

UT campus sketch, elevation of proposed gym
Sketch for the gymnasium and stadium, June 5, 1913
The university’s first permanent sports fields were on the south side of Speedway near the location of the ACES Building today. Gilbert proposed replacing the existing bleachers with a stadium terraced into the hillside crowned by a gymnasium.

Preliminary Study for Educational Building University of Texas elevation-rendering
Study for the Education Building (Sutton Hall), July 12, 1916
Sutton Hall, completed in 1918, was built to house the education department. For it, Gilbert introduced the combination of Leuders limestone base and a ruddy blend of brown, tan, and ochre bricks that his successors have repeated on classroom buildings throughout the Forty Acres.

Design details incorporated into the building.
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Main Floor Plan

Main Floor Plan

As was customary in most libraries at the time, access to the book stacks was restricted to staff and a limited number of advanced students. Library patrons turned left at the top of the stairs and entered the Reading Room, which provided access to the Catalogue Room where they would request the books they needed from pages working in the Delivery Space. The pages would collect the books from the Stack Room and deliver them to the patrons at the counter facing the Reading Room. The ground floor was intended for various library services, but university administrators occupied it for a number of years after the building’s completion.

 

 

 

Image credit: Main Floor Plan Library Building University of Texas, undated, reproduction courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.