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A Battle for the Ages

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Former First Lady Laura Bush tours Battle Hall and the West Mall Office Building.

Tony Chase, Dina Alsowayel, Johnnie Beatrice Van Dyke, Laura Bush, Brenda Peters-Chase, John Chase Jr., Drucie Chase, Saundria Chase Gray, and Jerome Gray.

 

Laura Bush spearheads a campaign to rehabilitate one of UT’s most important buildings and honor a Texas pioneer.

By Jamey Smith

Predating the UT Tower by a quarter-century, Battle Hall stands, stately and majestic, as a reminder of the university’s early commitment to creating a campus environment that inspires excellence. But after continuously serving untold thousands as a library and far more since its 1911 debut, this redheaded beauty could use a helping hand.

Cass Gilbert was one of the nation’s most celebrated architects, known for designing public spaces such as museums and state capitols, when UT leaders gave him carte blanche to build a new main library. Employing a Spanish-Mediterranean revival style that spoke to its Texas surroundings with deep, richly adorned eaves and thick limestone walls, Gilbert produced an instant landmark.

Battle Hall is UT's first architectural masterpiece.

Battle Hall has been a campus fixture since 1911. Named one of America's favorite buildings, it has been called UT's "first architectural masterpiece."

The exterior would strongly influence the look of the campus for the next century and inspire generations of architects beyond the Forty Acres. Inside, vaulted halls draw you upstairs to the prize within: an expansive reading room, grand but not fussy, that has long been a favored study area for discerning students.

University architecture professor David Heymann calls Battle UT’s “first architectural masterpiece.” His sentiment is reflected in the building’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places and its selection as one of America’s Top 150 Favorite Works of Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.

Today, Battle Hall (named in 1973 to honor William James Battle, UT’s sixth president) aptly houses the Architecture and Planning Library, the Center for American Architecture and Design, and faculty for the School of Architecture. Having been put to use over the years not only as a library and archive but also hosting dean’s and president’s offices, art studios, Board of Regents meetings—even the Longhorn Band—it’s fair to say that these various incarnations have taken a collective toll.

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“A rehabilitation of Battle Hall is long overdue,” says Architecture Dean Fritz Steiner. “This building, the way our students inhabit and learn from it, supports the school in an integral way, and we want it to continue as a resource for knowledge and inspiration. But like the archives and manuscripts it houses, it is fragile and requires our careful preservation.”

Such a big undertaking calls for a big-name spokesperson, so it is fitting that Distinguished Alumna Laura Bush, MLS ’73, has offered to chair a fundraising effort to address Battle’s preservation and improvements. Acknowledging the former first lady for her commitment to the project, Steiner notes that her enthusiasm stems from “a commitment to history, an appreciation for architecture, a devotion to Texas, a love of libraries, and a fondness for this university.”

For her part, Bush says Battle Hall represents the coming together of several of her interests. “My dad was a builder, I’m a proud graduate of the Library School, and my home was designed by a School of Architecture faculty member. I’m thrilled to be involved and to help show the world how we value the history of this building and all that it means to us as Texans.”

John Chase 1996

A planned addition to the West Mall Office Building could be named for pioneering Texas architect John S. Chase.

In addition to refurbishing Battle, an essential component of the project will renovate and expand the adjacent West Mall Office Building, which houses a materials lab and other School of Architecture facilities. When the campus post office, currently in the building’s lower southern end, relocates in 2016, a loading dock and nondescript parking area will make way for an attractive addition along Inner Campus Drive.

A proposed naming of this West Mall addition, which also will face the well-used pedestrian conduit between the building and Goldsmith Hall, would honor the late John S. Chase, Distinguished Alumnus. Chase was the first African American to enroll at UT and the first African-American registered architect in Texas.

“I am privileged to have known Mr. Chase,” Steiner says. “We very much valued his leadership and ongoing relationship with the School of Architecture. To build an addition in his name as part of this project would be very meaningful to me, to President Powers, and the entire campus community.”

The total project cost is an estimated $70 million, half of which will be paid by university funds to cover health, fire, and safety renovations. The other half, it is hoped, will come from alumni and friends who wish to step up and help preserve and enhance this significant piece of Texan heritage.

Learn more about the Battle Hall campaign and how to get involved at soa.utexas.edu/battle.

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