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The Towers of Baylor

Story by Dr. Eugene Baker

Almost from their moment of completion, the towers atop Baylor’s first two structures became iconic symbols of the University.

Designed as unique architectural features of Main Building (1886) and Georgia Burleson Hall (1887), the black slated roofs stretched upward toward the skies as if to symbolically suggest a symbiotic relationship between the teaching of earthly knowledge and an ultimate heavenly purpose.

During the early years of the 20th century, renderings of the towers were regularly printed on student recruitment materials and various school publications. The towers seemed to excite the imagination and often were the catalyst for the creation of poetry. Verses written by both students and faculty frequently referenced the towers in glowing and endearing terms, and lyrics to Baylor-related music often focused on the towers. At the cornerstone laying of the Carroll Science Hall on March 7, 1902, the Baylor Glee Club sang a song especially written for the occasion in which the concluding stanza alluded to the towers “Enfolded by God’s kindly skies.”

An “Ode to the Alma Mater” published in the Lariat on June 18, 1904, referenced the perpetual gleam of the towers. A song entitled “Baylor,” which was written by ministerial student J. C. Daniel in 1905, expressed “boundless love” to the towers. The 1909 Round Up featured the spires silhouetted on its opening flyleaf, and later, a new publication introduced to the Baylor family was named the “Baylor Towers — A Magazine of University Life.”

With such devotion-like attention given to the towers it was only natural for students to be disturbed when an owl took up residence in the cupola of Main Building in 1914. Whether it was fear of the bird desecrating the towers or concern of the potential danger it might pose to students on the walkways below is not known, but the feathered friend was the talk of the campus until captured and made the mascot of a boarding house.

On May 4, 1931, Samuel Palmer Brooks, president of the university since 1902, lay dying at his home near the campus, he made one final request. He asked those surrounding his bed to “Lift me up, lift me up and let me see the towers of Baylor once more.” While some attached an ethereal reverence to the towers, they were not immune from the boisterous spirit evidenced in song, yells and colors among the various classes. From freshmen to seniors, each class continually attempted to outshine the others in myriad competitive events that ranged from athletics to forensics. This class pride was regularly exhibited by painting the year of expected graduation on various objects. Particularly popular was the university bell stationed between Main Building and Carroll Science Hall.

For students with braver natures and little concern for consequences of demerits or expulsion, however, the “sacred” towers proved to be the choice of backdrops. What better place for recognition than black slated rooftops adorned with large white numerals that identified a particular class? Although ascending unseen to the heights of the three-story buildings was certainly dangerous, where there was a will, there was a way — and once the dam was broached, the flood of paint rushed in.

Practically all the towers eventually fell victim to the class-spirit brush. Even so, it was not just the “tagging” that drew attention and adulation, it was the location of the graffiti. Every class wanted its identifying year placed at the highest level regardless of the difficulty of accomplishing the task or if another class year had to be blotted out to do so. Fortunately, no major accidents occurred in the engagement of these shenanigans, or at least none are preserved in official university records.

Over the years, although the acquisition of new acreage provided space for the erection of additional buildings, the towers of Main Building and Burleson Hall remained the lofty focal points of the campus. After all, they had become the generally accepted trademark for institutional publications. Furthermore, their historic status and unique appearance bathed all university life in the waters of yesteryear and they stood tall and vigilant to face the challenges of tomorrow.

That is, until May 11, 1953!

On that day, a massive tornado struck downtown Waco causing 114 deaths and injuring nearly 600 people. Heretofore, according to Huaco Indian folklore, the area was “tornado-proof” because of its location. That myth was swiftly demolished by the horrific winds as were more than 600 houses, 1,000 other structures and 2,000 vehicles.

Although the Baylor campus did not fall victim to any significant level of destruction, an examination of the towers atop the university’s first two edifices revealed that the rushing gusts of wind had substantially weakened them. Construction engineers, therefore, recommended their removal.

Baylor President W. R. White, cognizant of the emotional attachment students and alumni had for the towers, explored possibilities for strengthening them so that they could remain in place. His efforts proved fruitless, however, and within a few weeks their elimination from the Baylor scene began. As the shearing off of the towers progressed, Dr. White lamented “Although the towers have been an inspiration to us as their fingers in the sky pointed to even higher accomplishments for Baylor students and we hate to lose them, we dare not sacrifice safety for the sake of sentiment.”

Over the next couple of decades, various Baylor constituent groups debated the appropriateness and feasibility of replacing the university’s first two buildings with more modern facilities. The Board of Trustees investigated such a possibility and concluded in July 1973 to bring new life to Burleson Quadrangle by renovating the buildings instead of erecting new ones. A key component of this action was the replacement of the old towers with similar ones of lighter material.

The pronouncement was widely applauded and construction began the following spring on the return of the towers along with the development of the adjoining Draper Academic Building. By the summer of 1975, the skyline of the central core of the campus began to rise anew. Once more, the sentiment penned some 50 years earlier by long-time administrator Mrs. Lily Russell burst forth onto the hearts and minds of the Baylor family:

I saw the towers
Pointing ever to the sky;
I hoped that other people, Who looked as they passed by, Were by them thus inspired, To live as heartily as I.

Among the hundreds of symbols associated with Baylor University down the years, perhaps the most distinguishable are the towers of the institution’s first two buildings. With the exception of a brief 22-year hiatus, their captivating presence in the historical center of the campus have served as compelling and persuasive examples of the Baylor spirit striving upward toward unprecedented heights of integrity, intensity, and imagination.

No doubt, for Baylorites of yesteryear, today and tomorrow, the towers will continually represent what is good and true about the university, as well as those who walk its sacred halls preparing to make a living and make a life while making a difference in the world about them.

Written By: Eugene W. Baker, Baylor University Historian Emeritus

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