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Peabody Exhibit Celebrates
Sesquicentennial of Austin Hall Event

On a warm day in June 150 years ago Sunday (June 24) General Sam Houston traveled up the hill a short distance from his Woodland Home to help mark the beginning of construction on Austin Hall, which has become Sam Houston State University's architectural symbol.
Sam Statue
General Sam Houston's statue stands near Austin Hall, also near where he stood for the building's cornerstone setting 150 years ago.

To honor this sesquicentennial occasion, the Peabody Memorial Library and Archives is presenting an exhibit of memorabilia relating to Austin Hall's history. Peabody is located a few feet east of Austin Hall, in the university's historic Quadrangle, and is open from 1-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The exhibit is scheduled to run June 25-July 13.

"Please come and enjoy a collection of photographs, manuscripts, blueprints, renovation specs and other related material that honors the rich history of this unique building," said Barbara Kievit-Mason, Peabody archivist.

Austin Hall was built for the Presbyterian-backed Austin College. Construction was begun in 1851, the building was occupied even before it was finished, in 1852, and it was completed in 1853.

Newspaper accounts of the cornerstone setting on June 24, 1851, indicate that the event was attended by a "large and respectable number of visiting ladies and gentlemen." General Houston, who was also an Austin College trustee, rose to hold an umbrella over the head of Samuel McKinney, first president of Austin College.

The building they dedicated that day was abandoned by Austin College when that school moved to Sherman, Texas, in 1874. The building was bought by the Methodist church for a school for boys, but that was not successful.

Huntsville citizens then bought Austin Hall, after campaigning to have the state capital located where the university now sits, but settling instead for the first teacher-training institution in the southwestern United States. The first classes at Sam Houston Normal Institute were held in October, 1879.

Sam Houston Normal Institute (1879) became Sam Houston State Teachers College (1923), Sam Houston State College (1965) and Sam Houston State University (1969). The Sam Houston Memorial Museum, which is a part of the university campus, was built in 1936.

Today we know that "Sam Houston slept here," in his Woodland Home. We know he attended meetings in Austin Hall. We know where he is buried, in a Huntsville cemetery north of the campus. But we can't find the Austin Hall cornerstone, and it too may be buried.

Austin Hall has been changed. Its cupola was removed so that a third floor could be added, and then taken off. The Old Main Building was built nearby, in 1889. The most recent work was completed in 1986 after the building was damaged by the 1982 fire that destroyed the Old Main, returning it to its pre-1881 appearance.

Somewhere along the way the cornerstone was covered, by earth or bricks. A pre-1881 photograph of the building, which is part of the Peabody exhibit, shows a white area on the northwest corner of Austin Hall, which might be a cornerstone.

Old Austin Hall
Is that a cornerstone on the lower right corner of Austin Hall?

But Ralph Spencer, an architect who is completing his third master plan for the Sam Houston State campus, said that "Masons always place the cornerstone at the northeast corner. I do not think one is there."

The Greek Revival structure, nevertheless, has served the people of Texas for almost a century and a half. When first built, and before being upstaged to the north by Old Main, it was said that it could be seen at night from 18 miles away--a true beacon of knowledge.

Austin College historian P. E. Wallace wrote: "It was the most handsome college edifice in the State of Texas until after the close of the (Civil) War and possibly had no peer in the Southwest."

Jack W. Humphries, a former SHSU vice president and Sul Ross State University president, added a more contemporary perspective in his 1986 speech at the building's re-dedication.

"Today, resplendent, elegant, revitalized, Austin Hall faces the future," said Humphries. "The burden of its mission is weighty. Its dedication is to what education can do for the improvement of the human condition. Its commitment is to learning and how it may change lives."

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
June 22, 2001
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