The University of Texas

Chemical Laboratory, 1892-1926

In 1890 the Legislature appropriated $25,000 for the construction of a new Chemical Laboratory building. The third permanent building on campus, it was occupied in January 1892. The Chem Lab was built on a site northwest of the Old Main, more or less where the Biology Greenhouse now stands, just north of the present Flawn Academic Center. Designed by Burt McDonald, it was an unassuming two-story brick building in typical Victorian style: high-pitched roof, tall narrow windows, and an abundance of gables.

Great care was taken to provide proper ventilation in the building's fifteen rooms, and when equipped UT boasted that "the laboratory is probably the best in the South and will compare favorably with others elsewhere in the country." [2] One small room upstairs was allotted to the fledgling chemistry library. Some 500 volumes were in the collection at that time, a facility of which the chemists were justly proud.

The labs were remodeled in 1901 and 1910, to keep the facilities up to date, but the space crunch afflicted the new building almost from the start, as the student body grew steadily after the turn of the century.

Chemical Laboratory
The Chemical Laboratory in the 1890s.
(Photo courtesy of the Center for American History.)

Chemical Laboratory
Old Chemistry Laboratory, viewed from northeast

Ground Floor Laboratory
Main Laboratory, on the ground floor.

The Fire of 1926

Fire Ruins
The burned-out shell of the Chemical Laboratory, the day after the fire.

Chemistry was and is a volatile science. Brick floors and walls had been incorporated into the building to reduce the ever-present fire hazard, and separate storerooms were on each floor to hold dangerous chemicals out of harm's way. But it was probably inevitable that the Old Chem Lab met a fiery end.

Early in the morning of October 16, 1926, a short circuit in the building's old wiring started a blaze that was accelerated when it reached stored chemicals, resulting in a series of colorful explosions. Firefighters, under the energetic direction of Dr. Harry Lochte, labored valiantly to save what they saw as the department's most prized asset: the library. Flames were held at bay while firemen ventured into the building to remove or cover the books and journals, which were irreplaceable. Some were thrown out of the windows in damp or singed condition, but the bulk of the library was saved. It was fortuitous that Drs. Felsing and Lochte had insisted that the library be moved from its dangerous room on the second floor down to a room near the ground floor east exit -- a move only carried out in the summer of 1926.

Unfortunately, the rest of the building and its contents were a total loss. Over $150,000 worth of instruments, research notes, and equipment was destroyed, and the Department of Chemistry found itself homeless. [3]

"Homeless" 1926-31

While plans were being made to construct a new chemistry building, the classes and labs of the department were dispersed to various buildings on campus, including the vacated Engineering Experiment Station and the old heating plant. The library was moved into quarters on the third floor of the "fireproof" Biology Building (BIO), which had been built in 1925 on 24th Street, just north of the old Chemistry Laboratory.


Perry-Castañeda Library
101 East 21st St.
Austin, TX. 78713

Phone: (512) 495-4250

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