Today@Sam Article

Remembering Old Main

Feb. 11, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Emily Binetti

By Mike Yawn for Postcards Magazine Feb '22 issue

old main

The Fire

old main fireIt was after midnight, and Debbie Pecor, an SHSU junior, was tired.  Her study session had gone late, and she was driving home on a Thursday night—or, more accurately, a Friday morning.  But even accounting for her bleary-eyed condition, she knew something was amiss. This was February 12, 1982, years before the Holliday Unit or Ravenwood Village cast an institutional glow over the town, but a glow there was, in a spot where no glow should be.  As she got closer, the glow reified into defined flames and nebulous smoke.  Old Main, a building once referred to as the “most beautiful building owned by the State of Texas,” was on fire.

Even today, 40 years later, Debbie Pecor—now Debbie Daugette—remembers the scene. “The streets were blocked by emergency vehicles; smoke filled the air.  It was chaos, and it was awful.”

Just two months earlier, Jay Letney, also a junior at SHSU, had played a concert in Old Main—one of the last such events performed in the structure.  But much had changed since that concert, and Letney was now a full-time student and a full-time jailer/dispatcher at the Walker County Sheriff’s Office.  He worked the graveyard shift, and he heard the news unfold in real time.  The first call came in at 1:17am.  The dispatchers were professional, but the tone was urgent, even frantic.  Old Main, the dispatcher noted, was aflame, and Austin Hall, located just feet away, was in jeopardy.

old main fireTom Grisham, one of three paid firefighters with the City of Huntsville (and now a retired Chief from the agency), was asleep when the call came in. He awoke at the sound of his pager, and after listening to the dispatch, moved quickly to the scene, arriving shortly after 1:30am.  Even as he approached, he could see the magnitude of the fire.  He knew it would be a long night, and he suspected Old Main might be beyond saving.  He hoped that, with the assistance of volunteer firefighters and help from Livingston’s Fire Department, the crew “could save the Austin College Building.”   It was, he said, the longest and most emotionally draining fire event to which he responded in his career—a career of service lasting more than 40 years.

Chris Tritico wasn’t a fireman, but he was an SHSU student in 1982 and, in fact, he was the student body president. He learned of the fire in the early morning by phone, and, fireman-fast, drove to campus.  He arrived in the early morning. It was still full dark except for the fire’s flames, and he saw Dean Bobby Marks and President Elliott Bowers, the latter of whom asked him to “stand guard” and discourage memento-seekers.  Tritico stood post—just southeast of Austin Hall—for the next fifteen hours, a witness to the unfolding tragedy.  Now in his 60s, he still says with certainty, “I’ll never forget Old Main, and I’ll never forget that fire.”

old main fireBill Nowlin lived in the avenues, and he and his neighbor, Professor Jimmy Dale Shaddock, had formed the “fat man’s running club,” which, either because of poor marketing or contradictory eligibility requirements, didn’t attract a lot of members. But these two were dedicated, and at 5:00am on February 12, they met for their usual run.  Even before starting, however, they knew the morning wasn’t usual: they heard sirens, saw a faint but ominous “glow in the sky,” and smelled the smoke. They strayed from their typical path and headed toward campus, where they soon realized it was Old Main ablaze. They came as close as responders would allow—close enough to feel the heat from the fire—and watched through tear-filled eyes the demise of a once-grand community landmark.

old main Jane Monday, then a City Council member and the mother of school-age children, did not hear of the fire until 5:30am. Following a regular routine of watching the news, making breakfast, and preparing for the day’s activities, she heard reports of the fire on KPRC.  “It was devastating,” recalled Monday.  Rather than take her children to school that morning, she drove them to 7th Street, behind Samuel Walker Houston Elementary School, which offered a better view of campus. And although smoke partially obscured her view, she might have been able to see Austin Hall, visible—for the first time in 92 years—behind the magnificent ruins of Old Main.

Up close, the view was grim. Grisham remembers the front wall of Old Main collapsed before dawn. The building’s interiors were mostly wood, which burned, turned to ashes, and blew away. Skeletal walls remained, teetering over a rubble of bricks, and beams, the collapsed bones of a quondam cathedral.  “It’s all gone,” President Bowers told The Houston Chronicle, “the spires, the stained-glass windows, the auditorium.”  It was, he said, the “saddest day of my life.”

The Structure

old main roofBefore the stained-glass windows were installed, before the spires were erected, before the auditorium was built, the structural concept was developing in the mind of architect Alfred Muller. Prussian-born, he immigrated to Galveston via Washington, DC and New York City, and, if his own advertisements are credible, he designed as many as 100 structures.  His body of work, according to one architectural guide, reflects “flashes of genius,” and, incontestably, one of those flashes was his 1890 design of Old Main.

The structure possessed many of Muller’s characteristic motifs, which, according to architectural historian Helen Mooty, included effusive “ornamental millwork,” “heavily embellished” surfaces, “beaded and turned spindles,” and “generous and impressive” entry stairs.  With Old Main, Muller not only found a physical scaffold for his ideas, but he was provided a budget ($40,000 in 1890 dollars), location (hilltop), and institutional setting (college campus) that afforded him the opportunity to express fully his mature architectural style.

Although Muller developed the architectural plans for Old Main, execution of the design was left largely to the “supervising architect,” Edward Northcraft.  In fact, Muller was relieved of his official duties before the project was complete.  Historian (and SHSU alumnus) Dan Utley suggests that the dispute involved the “integrity of the foundation,” but whatever the cause, it was Northcraft who completed the design, and a decade later, he designed a (suspiciously) similar building at what was then Southwest Texas University.

old main The builders of Old Main were brothers George H. and J. A. Wilson, who constructed numerous courthouses in Texas and, according to one news article, also built (unidentified) structures in downtown Huntsville. Interestingly, a descendant of George Wilson—who went by “Jerry”—wrote to President Harmon Lowman in 1963, noting that family lore had “‘Uncle Jerry’ as a wealthy man…until he started the Old Main project.” On Old Main, Wilson lost all his wealth, “because he miscalculated the number of bricks it would take.” The bricks, notably, were made from clay originating in the Huntsville area, and these bricks would, after the fire, become much sought after.

old main The structure, situated on a hill, with high ceilings, and seemingly sky-scraping spires, was imposing and created an impressive silhouette against the Huntsville sky.  Professor of Architecture Willard Robinson praised Old Main’s picturesque massing, which he described as possessing “extraordinary pinnacles, steep-pitched roofs, and pointed arches.”  Dan Utley went further, noting that the building “set a standard for other elaborate public buildings to follow.”

The rapid technological and cultural changes of the 20th century, however, brought changes even to Old Main.  The structure was equipped with electricity in 1913; the organ was removed sometime around 1925 to provide more space in the auditorium (this organ is now in the Peabody Library); Architect Harry Payne, who designed many structures in River Oaks and Huntsville, renovated the building’s exterior features, particularly along the roof and eaves; the ivy was removed in the 1950s, to prevent further damage to the building; and major renovations were made in 1966 to “modernize” the structure.  

old main Unfortunately, the building wasn’t fully modernized.  No sprinkler system, for example, was installed, and the electrical wiring was laughably problematic, so much so that people remember lights flickering in and out during stage performances. Joe Janczak, who, on February 11, 1982, stopped in Old Main at sunset to see the sun shining through the stained-glass windows, remembers noticing “extension cords plugged into extension cords,” which he described as “a violation of basic electrical standards.”  It was, according to many sources, a fire trap.

The fire, of course, was the most massive and devastating change in the structure of Old Main, but it wasn’t the last.  In the fire’s aftermath, university leaders explored building a new “Main Building,” using the Old Main design and incorporating a modern infrastructure.  This was rejected as too expensive, and, instead, a memorial was designed on the original site, one that highlighted the building’s footprint and incorporated original elements salvaged from the ruins.  It is now typically referred to as “the Old Main Pit,” emphasizing, in sculptural or architectural terms, the negative space left by the absence of the once towering structure.

The Spirit

The absence of Old Main isn’t just a physical phenomenon.  In the days after the fire, numerous students, citizens, and alumni sent in letters—some handwritten, some typed, some by telegram—expressing their sense of loss.  Bill Hall described the news as a “great shock and sadness”; Mac Woodward referred to it as a “tragic loss;” Kriss Brink likened it to someone stealing “a piece of my heart.” All mentioned a sense of grieving or loss.

old main Frank Krystyniak, then the university’s spokesperson, arrived early in the morning—possibly around 3am—and managed to hold his composure through dozens of media interviews and fact-gathering meetings.  Later that day, however, while walking across campus, he noticed that there were an unusual number of pigeons flying around campus, and it dawned on him: “They had lost their nesting place. They didn’t know where to go.” Confronted with this poignant observation, his eyes filled with tears.

For a while, students may also have felt they didn’t have a place on campus.  For more than nine decades, Old Main was the natural gathering spot for students, where they played frisbee, sat, conversed, flirted, and made friends. That happens much less frequently at the Old Main Memorial today, but the spirit of sociability and friendliness hasn’t departed or declined, it has simply found new sites and means of expression. Mostly, it has moved eastward, toward the middle of campus, where the Blatchley Clock Tower reminds students that they are—following a well-documented SHSU student tradition—late for class. 

More importantly, the students have continued to work toward achieving the best of the university’s traditions, that of defining a life by its service. In so doing, they, too, have helped the university maintain and renew its identity.

This identity was perhaps best expressed by alumnus Esteban Gonzales on February 20, 1982, when he wrote to President Bowers, and observed that the conflagration “both took away and added to my life. In concrete terms, [the fire] took away a building that was both beautiful and special to me. In abstract terms, it added a spirit that will always live in my memory and my heart.” 

old main 8Like Gonzales, other alumni have Old Main memories that live on in their hearts. Bill Nowlin recalls proposing to his wife, Debbie, on the steps of Old Main in 1970. This memory is much clearer than the classes he took inside the structure, as it should be. Bill and Debbie were married in 1971, and they recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. 

And Nancy Patrick, who began attending classes at SHSU in the 1960s, still has a vivid impression of Old Main.  Following a nice first date with her soon-to-be boyfriend, Jim, she agreed to meet at Old Main to discuss the logistics of a second date, a costume party. Many nice dates followed, and in 1964, the two married, and she became Nancy Gaertner.

Today, many students and alumni attend events in one of the campus’s newer—and most attractive—buildings: the James and Nancy Gaertner Performing Arts Center.  Each time they do, they strengthen University traditions, while also forging new memories, which, in turn, they will likely share with others in future years.

AHMainRenewal comes from rediscovery, too.  Four decades ago, Paul Culp sought solace after coming to work and seeing Old Main reduced to rubble.  But in an eloquent letter to President Bowers, he suggested that in the face of such a “tragedy,” a restoration of Austin Hall might bring forth a “new symbol of the university.” He observed that, “for the first time in nearly one hundred years, Austin Hall is visible from the…foot of the hill,” and he openly hoped that its renewed profile would again be recognized for its preeminence “both in age and in beauty among educational structures west of the Mississippi…”

Most on campus would agree that Austin Hall has fulfilled Culp’s hope and, in doing so, these onlookers are implicitly thanking those firefighters who, for 17 hours, fought and contained the flames of Old Main on February 12, 1982.  Their efforts salvaged Austin Hall, allowing this building’s restored beauty to be seen on campus today—and from diverse vantage points across the community, including on the 7th Street hill, where, forty-years ago, Jane Monday and her children watched the Old Main fire.  

SHSU archivist Barbara Kievit-Mason was instrumental in providing information for this article, and she generously shared artifacts, photos, and knowledge about the University and Old Main.  Any person with Old Main artifacts—letters, photographs, bricks, histories, shards of glass, etc.—is encouraged to consider donating these to the SHSU Archives.

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