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Austin: Walking Tours

No ivory tower, the University of Texas is as integral to Austin's identity as it is to its economy. To explore the vast main campus is to glimpse the city's future as well as its past. Here, state-of-the-art structures -- including information kiosks that can play the school's team songs -- sit cheek by jowl with elegant examples of 19th-century architecture. The following tour points out many of the most interesting spots on campus. You'll probably want to drive or take a bus between some of the first seven sights. (Parking limitations were taken into account in this initial portion of the circuit.) For a walking-only tour, begin at stop 8; also note that stops 2, 5, 6, 12, and 20 are discussed earlier in this chapter, and stop 9 is detailed in the "Organized Tours" section.

Walking Tour -- UT Austin

Start: The Arno Nowotny Building.

Finish: The Littlefield Fountain.

Time: 1 hour, not including food breaks or museum visits.

Best Times: On the weekends, when the campus is less crowded, more parking is available, and the Tower is open.

Worst Times: Morning and midday during the week when classes are in session and parking is impossible to find. (Beware: Those tow-away zone signs mean business.)

In 1839, the Congress of the Republic of Texas ordered a site set aside for the establishment of a "university of the first class" in Austin. Some 40 years later, when the flagship of the new University of Texas system opened, its first two buildings went up on that original 40-acre plot, dubbed College Hill. Although there were attempts to establish master-design plans for the university from the turn of the century onward, they were only carried out in bits and pieces until 1930, when money from an earlier oil strike on UT land allowed the school to begin building in earnest. Between 1930 and 1945, consulting architect Paul Cret put his mark on 19 university buildings, most showing the influence of his education at Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts. If the entire 357-acre campus will never achieve stylistic unity, its earliest section has a grace and cohesion that make it a delight to stroll.

Though it begins at the oldest building owned by the university, this tour commences far from the original campus. At the frontage road of I-35 and the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, pull into the parking lot of:

1. The Arno Nowotny Building

In the 1850s, several state-run asylums for the mentally ill and the physically handicapped arose on the outskirts of Austin. One of these was the State Asylum for the Blind, built by Abner Cook around 1856. The ornate Italianate-style structure soon became better known as the headquarters and barracks of General Custer, who had been sent to Austin in 1865 to reestablish order after the Civil War. Incorporated into the university and restored for its centennial celebration, the building is now used for administration.

Take Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Red River, then drive north to the:

2. LBJ Library and Museum

This library and museum offers another rare on-campus parking lot. (You'll want to leave your car here while you see sights 3-6.) The first presidential library to be built on a university campus, the huge travertine marble structure oversees a beautifully landscaped 14-acre complex. Among the museum's exhibits is a seven-eighths scale replica of the Oval Office as it looked when the Johnsons occupied the White House. In the adjoining Sid Richardson Hall are the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Barker Texas History Center, housing the world's most extensive collection of Texas memorabilia.

Stroll down the library steps across East Campus Drive to 23rd Street, where, next to the large Burleson bells on your right, you'll see the university's $41-million:

3. Performing Arts Center

This arts center includes the 3,000-seat Bass Concert Hall, the 700-seat Bates Recital Hall, and other College of the Fine Arts auditoriums. The state-of-the-art acoustics at the Bass Concert Hall enhance the sounds of the largest tracker organ in the United States. Linking contemporary computer technology with a design that goes back some 2,000 years, it has 5,315 pipes -- some of them 16 feet tall -- and weighs 48,000 pounds.

From the same vantage point to the left looms the huge:

4. Darrell K. Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium

The first of the annual UT-Texas A&M Thanksgiving Day games was played here in 1924. The upper deck directly facing you was added in 1972. In a drive to finance the original stadium, female students sold their hair, male students sold their blood, and UT alum Lutcher Stark matched every $10,000 they raised with $1,000 of his own funds. The stadium's mid-1990s name change to honor legendary Longhorns football coach Darrell K. Royal angered some who wanted the stadium to remain a memorial to Texas veterans, and confused others who wondered if Royal is still alive (he is).

Continue west on 23rd; at the corner of San Jacinto, a long staircase marks the entrance to the:

5. Art Building

This used to be the home of the Blanton Museum; now it is used for classes and to exhibit student art shows.

Walk a short distance north on San Jacinto. A stampeding group of bronze mustangs will herald your arrival at the:

6. Texas Memorial Museum

This monumental art moderne building was designed by Paul Cret, and ground was broken for the institution by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Once home to the capitol's original zinc goddess of liberty, which was moved to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum along with other historic treasures, this museum now focuses solely on the natural sciences.

Exit the building and take Trinity, which, curving into 25th Street, will bring you back to the parking lot of the LBJ Library and your car. Retrace your original route along Red River until you reach Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Drive west, and at the corner of San Jacinto, you'll see:

7. Santa Rita No. 1

No. 1 is an oil rig transported here from West Texas, where black gold first spewed forth from it on land belonging to the university in 1923. The money was distributed between the University of Texas system, which got the heftier two-thirds, and the Texas A&M system. Although not its main source of income, this windfall has helped make UT the second richest university in the country, after Harvard.

Continue on to University Avenue and turn left. There are public parking spaces around 21st Street and University, where you'll begin your walking tour at the:

8. Littlefield Memorial Fountain

This fountain was built in 1933. Pompeo Coppini, sculptor of the magnificent bronze centerpiece, believed that the rallying together of the nation during World War I marked the final healing of the wounds caused by the Civil War. He depicted the winged goddess Columbia riding on the bow of a battleship sailing across the ocean -- represented by three rearing sea horses -- to aid the Allies. The two figures on the deck represent the Army and the Navy. This three-tiered fountain graces the most dramatic entrance to the university's original 40 acres. Behind you stands the state capitol.

Directly ahead of you, across an oak-shaded mall lined with statues, is the:

9. Main Building and Tower

The university's first academic building was built here in 1884. The 307-foot-high structure that now rises above the university was created by Paul Cret in 1937. It's a fine example of the Beaux Arts style, particularly stunning when lit to celebrate a Longhorn victory. Sadly, the clock tower's many notable features -- the small classical temple on top, say, or the 56-bell carillon, the largest in Texas -- will probably always be dogged by the shadow of the carnage committed by Charles Whitman, who, in August 1966, shot and killed 16 people and wounded 31 more from the tower before he was gunned down by a sharpshooter. Closed off to the public in 1975 after a series of suicide leaps from its observation deck, the tower reopened for supervised ascensions in 1999. If you climb the staircase on the east (right) side of the tower to the stone balustrade, you can see the dramatic sweep of the entire eastern section of campus, including the LBJ Library.

The first building in your direct line of vision is:

10. Garrison Hall

Garrison Hall is named for one of the earliest members of the UT faculty and home to the department of history. Important names from Texas's past -- Austin, Travis, Houston, and Lamar -- are set here in stone. The walls just under the building's eaves are decorated with cattle brands; look for the carved cow skulls and cactuses on the balcony window on the north side.

If you retrace your steps to the western (left) side of the Main Building, you'll see:

11. Battle Hall

This building is regarded by many as the campus's most beautiful building. Designed in 1911 by Cass Gilbert, architect of the U.S. Supreme Court building, the hall was the first to be done in the Spanish Renaissance style that came to characterize so many of the structures on this section of campus (note the terra-cotta-tiled roof and broadly arched windows). On the second floor, you can see the grand reading room of what is now the Architecture and Planning Library.

Exit Battle Hall and walk left to the northern door, which faces the much newer:

12. Flawn Academic Center

An undergraduate library shares space here with exhibits from the archives of the Humanities Research Center (stop 20). Among the permanent displays in the Academic Center's Leeds Gallery is a cabin furnished with the effects of Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason's creator. In front of the building, Charles Umlauf's The Torch Bearers symbolizes the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Continue along the eastern side of the Academic Center, where you'll pass:

13. The Hogg Auditorium

This auditorium is another Paul Cret building, designed in the same monumental art moderne mode as his earlier Texas Memorial Museum.

A few steps farther along, you'll come to the trees known as the:

14. Battle Oaks

The three oldest members of this small grove are said to predate the city of Austin itself. They survived the destruction of most of the grove to build a Civil War fortress and a later attempt to displace them with a new Biology Building. It was this last, near-fatal skirmish that earned them their name. Legend has it that Dr. W. J. Battle, a professor of classics and an early university president, holed up in the largest oak with a rifle to protect the three ancient trees.

Look across the street. At the corner of 24th and Whitis, you'll see the:

15. Littlefield Home

This home was built in high Victorian style in 1894. Major George W. Littlefield, a wealthy developer, cattle rancher, and banker, bequeathed more than $1 million to the university on the condition that its campus not be moved to land that his rival, George W. Brackenridge, had donated. During the week, when the UT Development Office is open, you can enter through the east carriage driveway to see the house's gorgeous gold-and-white parlors, griffin-decorated fireplace, and other ornate details. On the weekend, just ogle the architecture and the shaggy, 35-foot-high deodar cedar, which Littlefield had shipped over from its native Himalayas.

Take a Break

O's Campus Cafe, in the A.C.E.S. building on 24th Street and Speedway (tel. 512/232-9060; www.oscampuscafe.com), is brought to you by the same folks who created Jeffrey's and Cipollina, so you know it's going to be a notch up from standard campus fare. Its gourmet sandwiches, pizzas, and muffins don't disappoint. If you haven't stopped here en route to the central campus from stop 7, head east to Speedway along 24th Street. O's has various to-go outlets and an additional sit-down location at the McCombs School of Business. Visit the website for details.

Backtrack to stop 15 and walk west about a block to Guadalupe to reach:

16. The Drag

As its name suggests, the Drag is Austin's main off-campus pedestrian strip. Bookstores, fast-food restaurants, and shops line the thoroughfare, which is usually crammed with students trying to grab a bite or a book between classes. On weekends, the pedestrian mall set aside for the 23rd Street Renaissance Market overflows with crafts vendors.

To get back to the university, cross Guadalupe at the traffic light in front of the huge Co-op, between 24th and 22nd streets. You'll now be facing the west mall.

On your left is the:

17. Texas Union Building

UT's student union building is yet another Paul Cret creation. A beautifully tiled staircase leads up to the second level, where, through the massive carved wooden doors, you'll see the Cactus Cafe, a popular coffeehouse and music venue. This bustling student center hosts everything from a bowling alley to a formal ballroom.

Immediately across the mall to the right stands:

18. Goldsmith Hall

This is one of two adjacent buildings where architecture classes are held. Also designed by Paul Cret, this hall has beautifully worn slate floors and a palm tree-dotted central courtyard.

Walk through the courtyard and go down a few steps. To your right is:

19. Sutton Hall

This hall was designed by Cass Gilbert in 1918 and is part of the School of Architecture. Like his Battle Hall, it is gracefully Mediterranean, with terra-cotta moldings, a red-tile roof, and large Palladian windows.

Enter Sutton Hall through double doors at the front and exit straight through the back. You are now facing the:

20. Harry Ransom Center

The Humanities Research Center (HRC) is housed here. The satirical portrait of a rich American literary archive in A. S. Byatt's best-selling novel Possession is widely acknowledged to be based on HRC. On the first floor of this building, you can view the center's extremely rare Gutenberg Bible, one of just five complete copies in the U.S., as well as the world's first photograph, created by Joseph NicȲphore NiȲpce in 1826.

Exit the building to 21st Street and the fountain where the tour began.

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