It was finally time for the big nostalgia visit to the UT campus! I have to admit, I was a little nervous about returning to my alma mater after, oh, 45 years at least. How much would be the same? Would ANYTHING? Would I feel at home or like a foreigner? As it turned out, the answer to the last question was: a little of both.
After parking in a nearby garage, we had some time to kill before our tower-tour appointment, so I took Mike for a short walk along The Drag next to campus, Guadalupe Street. Right off the bat, I spotted the old Varsity Theater sign and was amazed it was still there. However, I should have known better -- the glass doors were blacked out and covered with graffiti and only the sign remained. In fact, there was a lot of graffiti around; it shocked me a bit and reminded me this was a different world, as did the strolling gaggles of scantily-dressed girls that looked about twelve years old to my ancient eyes.
(Side note: a bit of internet research revealed that the movie theater had closed in 1990 and the building became a Tower Records, until that closed in 2004. Then the building briefly housed a bookstore, then a food court; that revival included a restoration of the original marquee sign outside. But now it seemed closed for good.)
Next stop: one block to the University Co-Op, a.k.a. bookstore. The view just across the street was achingly familiar, that iconic tower apparently growing from the roof of the student union building. Perhaps I might recognize the old place after all?
But the Co-Op, not so much. The main floor -- once a warren of book stacks at semester-beginning -- is now mostly clothing and souvenirs. Textbooks have been consigned to the basement and ordering is done via computer terminal. At least I could still find the stairs.
Back at ground level, I browsed among the many orange-and-white t-shirts and sweatshirts on display, but those days were behind me now. However, I hadn't yet acquired my usual one-per-trip stuffed animal to take home, and wouldn't you know it -- I found the perfect thing!
The time had come to cross the street and face my past. The student union building was a familiar old friend, with the exception of the umbrella-covered patio tables; the old cafeteria has been replaced by a Starbucks and other fine dining. The inside, though, looked much the same -- the dark carved paneling, the old bannisters with wrought-iron grilles. In my brief exploration, I found one notable difference -- or at least I thought it was different. In the hallway lined with rooms where I once attended student organization meetings, it seemed as if the exterior wall had been pushed out and replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass to create an attractive lounging/reading area. Or was it that way before? Hmmmm.
As we left the union building, I stopped to admire a model of the tower and main building. Was it here in my day? It seemed vaguely familiar, but it looked too new. Perhaps just recent paint?
We moved up the west mall toward the tower, passing another surprising sight: a few crudely-painted signs advertising activist causes. Activism was pretty unknown in my day, and in any case signs like that on the mall would not have been tolerated.
Next door to the student union is the building that was a brand-new central library in my time. The building is still the same, but according to the sign on the door it is now the Flawn Academic Center. I flashed briefly on the moment during my freshman year when I was studying in this building with my boyfriend, and a staff member came to give me the news that my grandmother had died. I have no idea how they knew where to find me.
Finally we reached the main plaza, a vast expanse of pavement that leads away from the tower and toward the state capitol building in the distance. During my years here, the capitol dome was the only thing on the southern skyline. Now highrise buildings were on all sides, muddying the view. I wondered if anyone had protested when the encroachment began.
But the tower view was still gloriously the same. Naturally we had to photograph it from all possible angles, until at last it was time to go inside for our tower tour. .
It was the summer of 1966 following my sophomore year at UT when Charles Whitman carried his guns up the tower elevator to the observation deck, where he then shot 45 people and changed UT history. I was not on campus that summer, but my two roommates had been and told me their stories. After that the observation deck was closed for two years. But I knew I had been up on the observation deck, so I must have visited before that, perhaps during my first two years or even during a band clinic I attended while still in high school.
Back then, there wasn't a no-bags policy or a metal detector or a tour guide. Our "guides" -- more like babysitters -- were two impossibly young, attractive, confident students who talked a little about the tower and explained where we would be going. I envied them and hoped they appreciated how special this time is in their lives.
I remembered well the long, echoing tiled basement hallway leading to the tower elevator, the two flights of stairs to reach the very top, and the old windowed door to the viewing area. There was a new addition at the top -- a steel latticed enclosure. I learned from a security guard that while the observation deck reopened for a few years post-Whitman, it was closed again in 1975 in the wake of several suicides. It remained closed until 1999, when the protective barrier was installed and the tower re-opened to guided tours only, with tight security.
It was fascinating to look down on the campus after so many years. I spotted my two former dormitories right away; that area looked largely unchanged. The big light-colored building near the top of the picture is Kinsolving dorm, where I lived my first semester. Running perpendicular underneath that building is Blanton dorm, where I lived for a year and parked my little Chevy Corvair in the small lot out front.
A bit to the west of the dormitory area rose the Victorian spires of the historic Littlefield House, built in 1893 by Civil War veteran George Littlefield. He was a major benefactor of the college and his widow bequeathed the home to the University.
It was easy to identify the new buildings that had sprung up over the years. Their roofs were generally flat and gray, shoe-horned in and around and between the pitched terra-cotta tile roofs of the older, original campus buildings. Several were joined to the older buildings, like parasites that had sucked dry their hosts. This odd diamond-shaped monstrosity was the strangest of them.
Just north of the tower building, I looked down on the UT turtle pond. Over at the south end of The Drag, I considered the irony of the Church of Scientology building being right across the street from the University Baptist Church. When did THAT happen?
We were allowed about twenty minutes on the observation deck. Back inside, I noticed two old black-and-white photographs on the wall, one of Memorial Stadium as I knew it, and another taken toward The Drag. I snapped them quickly, then went back outside to recreate the same views from today before returning to the elevator for the trip down.
I wanted to see a few more old haunts before we left campus. First I took Mike down the south mall to Littlefield Fountain. I thought about an old poem I wrote while sitting near here one sunny day. I noticed that the view of the tower from the fountain was more obscured than I remembered; it seemed the mall oaks had grown a bit in 50 years.
We strolled back up the hill and I lingered a bit on the plaza in front of the tower, snapping a few more pictures. I was reluctant to leave, realizing I will probably not pass this way again.
Finally we left the plaza, walking around the main building to the turtle pond; I'd read about it and also seen it from atop the tower. I certainly didn't know about this place if it was here during my years. There were no markers at the pond to indicate when or why it was built.
I blundered my way around an unfamiliar building to the front of Blanton Dormitory, where I once lived. I would have liked to see the lobby once again, but things had changed here as well. Understandably, there was a keypad lock on the front door so yahoos like me can't just walk in. I had to settle for peering in the small windows at the top of the door. The front desk, where a watchful matron once enforced curfew, was gone, replaced with what looked like a closet or cabinet. Beyond that, I couldn't see any further. How I would have loved to see what the rooms were like now!
I had one last goal, to see if I could find the chemistry building where I spent so many hours. My instincts took me east of the dormitories, navigating around a then-non-existent building to one of the older structures. And sure enough, there it was, carved above the old wooden door: CHEMISTRY.
I walked up the familiar steps, continued up the interior staircase, and entered...a completely foreign, redecorated hallway. Oh well. At least I found the building!
The Littlefield House was on the way back to our parking garage. I don't remember ever seeing the inside, or even walking by it in those days. But now, I was able to admire the beautiful Victorian style which probably didn't rate a glance from my 20-year-old self.
It was a fitting end to a satisfying visit -- one antique appreciating another.