"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 and leaders in the profession, and known as the architect of the Woolworth Building in New York (the world's tallest building at the time), the Minnesota State Capitol and the US. Supreme Court building. During work on Battle Hall, his office, based in New York, was working locally on the Woolworth Building, all while concurrently working nine other active projects including a master plan for the University of Minnesota, the Arkansas State Capitol, the St. Louis Public Library and preparing for the competition for the Detroit Public Library, which he won.

Cass Gilbert
Portrait of Cass Gilbert, 10/3/1907.

The Architect

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.

B. Hall
UT Old Main
UT Woman's Building
UT Engineering building (now Gebauer Building)
UT Law Building (later known as Pearce Hall)
University of Texas Old Main Building (Austin, Tex.)
Campus panoramic

Gallery of buildings that existed when Gilbert came to UT

The Campus panoramic shows existing buildings and the Library building under construction in 1911.