Austin Hall (originally the Austin College Building) is the oldest building west of the Mississippi River to have been used continuously by an educational institution. It is the oldest structure on the SHSU campus, first used as the original building of Austin College, and has served the university in multiple capacities over the years. A fire in nearby Old Main damaged this building in Feb. 1982. The National Park Service added the building to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
The Texas Constitution of 1845 made Austin the capital until 1850, after which the people chose a permanent seat of government. Like several other communities, Huntsville had high hopes for such honor and took action to add its name to the raffle. Many citizens even designated the five acres atop the highest point in the community as "Capitol Hill" in anticipation; however, when the election was over, Austin again emerged triumphant, beating out Palestine, Tehuacana, Washington-On-The-Brazos, and, in fifth place, Huntsville.
Austin College (1850-76)
After losing the capital, citizens were optimistic the hill would be a fitting place for a learning institution. Huntsville-area Presbyterians promptly secured the necessary money and land to establish Austin College in 1849.
Austin College constructed its first building of soft sand-molded bricks forged at the state prison, with the cornerstone laid on Saint John's Day, June 24, 1851. Inside were a copy of the United States Constitution, a list of the first trustees of Austin College, and specimens of currency of the 13 original colonies. Former SHSU Special Collections librarian Paul Culp noted in a 1989 article that:
"It has been traditionally maintained that Austin College was designed by Abner Cook, the master builder who created the finest residences in Texas before the Civil War (notably the Governor's Mansion and a number of other beautiful houses still standing in Austin), but evidence for this is largely circumstantial. "
Sam Houston and Anson Jones, both presidents of the Republic of Texas, were charter members of the Austin College Board of Trustees. Attending the dedication ceremony was legislator Adolphus Sterne, who Culp identifies as writing, "a hotter day we certainly did not have this Summer." Culp adds that Sterne "does not report that Sam Houston held his umbrella over the head of [Austin College] President [Samuel] McKinney to shield him from the sun during his long oration, but that story has become a fixed piece of Houston lore. "
Austin College historian P. E. Wallace said the two-story building "was the pride of Huntsville, the delight of the Presbytery, and the wonders of visitors of that locality." The brightly illuminated building was seen eighteen miles away during commencement exercises.
Austin College first occupied its building in October 1851 and completed construction the following year. In 1855, the college housed the first law school in Texas. While successful, Austin College suffered during and following the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Economic declines and the 1867 yellow fever epidemic took their toll on the school, resulting in the relocation of Austin College to Sherman, Texas, in 1876.
Mitchell College (1877-79)
The Methodist Church acquired the vacated Austin College Building in 1877 for $1,000, using it for a school for boys called Mitchell College. That effort failed within a year, and the church sold the building back to the city of Huntsville for $346.
Sam Houston State University (1879-Present)
On April 21, 1879, the Sixteenth Texas Legislature authorized the creation of Sam Houston Normal Institute was as the first tax-supported, teacher-training institution in Texas. With a $2 Million endowment from the Peabody Education Fund, money donated to southern American states to develop and improve educational facilities following the Civil War, SHNI was able to open on October 10 with 110 students, four faculty members, and one buiding: the adopted 28-year-old Austin College Building .
In 1882, SHNI added a third floor because of a leaking roof and badly needed classroom space. Though it fixed both problems, the French Modern roof architecturally clashed with the Greek Classical look of the original building. In addition, SHNI removed the original copula and Sam Houston Bell and shipped them to Sherman. The third floor had various functions over the years, including a school chapel and office space for the Houstonian and Alcalde.
During its first eleven years, the Austin College Building was the only building of SHNI until the completion of the Main Building in 1890. The building also served as home to early natural science and biology courses until the construction of the Science and Administration Building in 1916, a training school until the construction of the Education Building in 1918, and a dorm for the Student Army Training Corps from September through December 1918.
SHNI referred to the building as the Social Center in 1919, making it the first student union with the YMCA on the first floor and literary societies and clubs on the second floor until the construction of a separate Student Union Building in 1950.
Another leaking roof led to more renovations and the removal of the third floor in 1927, though SHSTC did not install a new cupola. Culp noted because the campus had developed south along the quadrangle, the college added a columned entrance to the south side of the building at this time.
The college added the Jewel Garden west of the building in 1948 and, in 1952, installed air-conditioning. The Texas Historical Commission awarded the building a State Historical Survey Committee Seal in 1964.
Culp noted in his 1989 article, "the way in which the Main Building had been sited almost on top of Austin Hall would indicate that it was thought that the small older building would be demolished in the not-too-distant future. A 1913 master plan did not include it. "
By 1982, alum offices and a faculty reception area were downstairs, with the Department of Military Science and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) occupying the second floor.
On Feb. 12, 1982, a fire broke out overnight in the Main Building and quickly spread to the neighboring Austin College Building. After first responders announced they could save only one building, students formed lines to move furniture and other items from the building to the nearby Women's Gym and Industrial Arts Building. By the end of the day, Old Main was gone, and the Austin College Building had severe roof damage, though still intact.
The fire destroyed most of the ROTC files, furniture, and equipment. SHSU President Elliott Bowers transferred the Department of Military Science headquarters to Randel House, which also had rooms available for ROTC cadets . While much was lost, charred timber taken from the building was carved and fashioned into the ceremonial mace of Austin College.
Over the next few years, SHSU restored Austin Hall, added a new cupola, and saved thousands of names carved into bricks. The university rededicated Austin Hall in October 1986 and began using the building for special university functions.
In August 2011, the Texas State University System Board of Regents approved a $2.2 million restoration of the building paid for through donations by the Houston Endowment, Inc., The Brown Foundation, Inc., and The Elkins Foundation, as well as donations from alumni and area businesses. The project included work on both the interior - including floor refinishing and new electrical and plumbing systems – and the exterior – including cupola and roof restoration, shutter damage, and masonry work.
Workers temporarily removed its red bricks to apply new mortar and replaced most bricks to their original location, save for those having deteriorated beyond use. SHSU rededicated Austin Hall in October 2012.
In 2013, the National Park Service added the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
Austin College chartered
Jun. 24, 1851:
In use by Austin College
First Law School in Texas established
In use by Mitchell College
In use by Sam Houston State University
Third floor added
Third floor removed, south portico added
Texas Centennial Commission erects plaque commemorating use
Recorded as Texas Historic Landmark
Feb. 12, 1982:
Damaged in fire
Rededicated after fire
Oct. 20, 2012:
Jan. 2, 2013:
Named to National Register Of Historic Places