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From Texas Pterosaur to Gutenberg Bible, trove of university treasures will delight the mind

You’re Invited: How about a virtual walk on the moon? Or the chance to see more than a dozen sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that have not been available for public viewing for years? Perhaps a chance to glimpse the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five complete volumes in the United States?

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How about a virtual walk on the moon? Or the chance to see more than a dozen sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that have not been available for public viewing for years? Perhaps a chance to glimpse the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five complete volumes in the United States?

Few people living in or near Austin realize they have, in their own backyard, a theme park of sorts. It offers something for everyone, young or old, rich or poor. Only catch is–don’t tell the kids–you’ll be learning while exploring its treasures.

The theme of this 369-acre plot, bordered between Guadalupe St. and IH-35 and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Dean Keeton St., is education. With museums, libraries, theatres, fountains, sculptures, ponds, green spaces, activity centers, music venues, wireless hubs and historic monuments, The University of Texas at Austin campus offers the public an intellectual oasis.

The width and breadth of an institution of higher education does not reside solely in faculty, students, rankings and sports. The physical campus–from structures and sculptures to landscapes and walkways– forms a dynamic society, weaving together people, place, traditions and cultural norms into a cohesive community.

The intrinsic value of the physical campus, often underestimated by others, is not overlooked by students and faculty. For many, the campus itself is one of the top reasons they’ve chosen to come to The University of Texas at Austin.

Whether you spend a few hours or a few days exploring the campus, the good news is that you’ll know you’ve stayed within your budget. Unless you choose to spend a few dollars on food, stage entertainment or activities, the cost of visiting the campus is absolutely free.

From the passage that graces the exterior of the Main Building “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Will Make You Free” (John 8:32) to the words uttered by J.M. Clarke, emblazoned on a ceiling in the Main Building, “Knowledge is the only instrument of production that is not subject to diminishing returns,” the university constantly reminds us and reflects upon on the perils of ignorance.

Are you a visual arts or history aficionado? Take a stroll through one of the seven museums on campus. Each museum has an online calendar listing permanent and traveling exhibitions and the options are ever changing and constantly expanding.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s birth, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum is presenting “To the Moon: The American Space Program in the 1960s,” an expansive exhibit on space which opened in late August and runs through July 2009.

At the Blanton Museum, the largest museum on a university campus and home to thousands of works of modern and contemporary art, the exhibit, “Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York,” opens Sunday, Sept. 28.

The Harry Ransom Center, one of the world’s finest cultural archives with its vast collection of rare books, manuscripts, photography and film, recently opened its exhibit, “The Mystique of the Archive,” which runs through December.

One of the most exciting recent additions to the visual arts at the university is the introduction of Landmarks, the new public art program for the main campus. The program’s first initiative is the campus-wide installation of 28 sculptures on a long-term loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The first group of 17 sculptures will be unveiled Friday, Sept. 12, with a free public lecture by Valerie Fletcher, senior curator of modern art at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.

If you have children, the Texas Natural Science Center offers an abundance of nature’s wonders from the remarkable Texas Pterosaur, a replica of the skeleton of the world’s largest-ever flying animal (found in Big Bend), to rare gems and snakes. On Sunday, Sept. 14, the museum hosts Family Fossil Fun Day, an afternoon of free admission and activities.

For bookworms (and, of course, students), the university offers more than eight million volumes, housed in 13 libraries on campus. The libraries house vast collections, including the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, the Alexander Architectural Archive and the Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection.

A glimpse into the resources at the Center for American History unveils everything from civil rights and social justice materials to research collections on energy and natural resources. Two of the center’s renowned collections are the papers of Walter Cronkite, retired CBS newsman, and the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Collection.

Perhaps you’re an aficionado of the arts? Check online calendars to see who’s performing at any of the four stages for theatre and dance or five music performance halls on campus. If you’d like to hear some local favorites perform in a cozy environment, head to the Cactus Café in the Student Union. From the intimate McCullough Theatre to the soon-to-reopen Bass Concert Hall, from student productions to Broadway shows, the options on campus are almost limitless.

Outdoor enthusiasts can trek through the centuries-old banks of Waller Creek (across from the stadium) and explore green spaces such as the turtle pond and the South Mall (fondly called the “six pack” by students in reference to the six buildings surrounding the rectangular courtyard).

Whether you spend time touring the eight historical statues and the Littlefield Fountain in the South Mall area, or enjoying a respite from the noonday heat with a picnic next to the turtle pond, take note of the 4,823 trees that shade the campus. Worth $26 million, the trees (and landscape) are an integral ingredient of the campus experience.

Texans have an affinity for Live Oak trees and if you head west from the turtle pond, just north of the Student Union you’ll see the beautiful Battle Oaks, three of the oldest and largest trees on campus that have survived for more than 300 years.

When the weather cools, you can take a self-guided tour of the 23 sculptures (plus 17 new ones from the Met) throughout the campus. A favorite for campus visitors is the Santa Rita #1 oil rig, the first rig to “blow” on university-owned property in West Texas. As you listen to the audio recording of that historic time, reflect upon the prophetic words of Dr. Ashbel Smith, a masterful proponent of public education who, intentionally or not, foretold of the importance of oil revenue on public education in Texas with his words, “Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth.”

If you need a break from wisdom, weather or wear, take a stroll to the Student Union and head to the “Underground.” The basement level of the building has a dozen billiard tables, a dozen bowling lanes, video games, air hockey and foosball. In addition, you can find a variety of fast food outlets that serve everything from barbeque to Mexican food.

While in the Union, you can also get tickets for a Tower Tour at the Information Center from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., although it’s best to call ahead to reserve tickets.

If, after a long day of exploring the interiors and exteriors of the university community, you long for a respite from the earthen offerings, reach for the stars and head to the rooftop of Robert Lee Moore Hall, where weekly public star parties are offered by the Astronomy Department.

If you visit the university, pay close attention to your surroundings as you stroll the campus. Some of the most interesting treasures can easily be missed if you are preoccupied with your destination. These building walls DO talk, only their stories are visual, rather than auditory. Traveling from one end of campus to the other, building facades, walkways, eaves, windows, doors and stairwells tell tales of Texas’ and Austin’s past and future. From Greek and Gothic iconography to cattle brands of Texas and astrological signs, the buildings are adorned with striking architectural images.

In the words of Robert M. Berdahl, former president of The University of Texas at Austin, “Above all, the university is a community striving to preserve its past, its heritage and its finest traditions and legacies, while building a bold, exciting and dynamic future.”

Plan a visit to The University of Texas at Austin campus. Relive the past. Revel in the present. Envision the future.

Genius Loci: The special magic achieved when the natural, the constructed and the interaction between the two, work in harmony

The University of Texas at Austin, celebrating its 125th birthday, is constantly evolving; yet through more than a century of constant change, the campus has managed to retain its historic character.

Michael Holleran isn’t surprised. Holleran is director of the graduate program in historic preservation in the School of Architecture and project supervisor of a campus-wide preservation plan funded by the Getty Foundation.

Michael Holleran

Michael Holleran is director of the graduate program in historic preservation in the School of Architecture and project supervisor of a campus-wide preservation plan funded by the Getty Foundation.Photo: Christina Murrey

“If you visit university campuses across the United States you will find a variety of architectural styles,” said Holleran. “Some campuses have a hodge-podge of whatever was popular in each year, strung together sometimes with happy accidents, sometimes not. Others are so tightly uniform that it’s as if the trustees just ordered buildings by the yard.

“UT Austin has had a succession of architects and administrators over the past 100 years who not only laid out a coherent vision for the campus, but also maintained and adapted that vision through all the changes of a hundred years.”

The first campus architect to conceptualize the future for the Austin campus was Cass Gilbert. Gilbert (campus architect from 1910-1920) established the Spanish or Mediterranean Renaissance style architecture seen across the campus. Gilbert created two seminal buildings, Battle Hall and Sutton Hall, to be used as models for the architectural character of future buildings. He was the first to envision a grand character or “personality” for the campus that was rooted not only in Texas’ history, but in its climate and culture.

“The Spanish Renaissance style of architecture wasn’t born out of thin air,” said Holleran. “First, Texas has a long history that includes direct ties to Spain. Before joining the Union, Texas was a Spanish colony, a Mexican territory and an independent republic. Second, this style of architecture expresses very well the climate, geology and regional identity in Texas. Gilbert’s idea was to use materials that worked well with the climate and that offered homage to Texas’ past.

“Because of Gilbert’s vision, the materials being used on campus have been consistent for a century, therefore making it a bit easier for our conservation scientist, Fran Gale, to tackle issues when they arise. UT uses Texas limestone and brick. Once we know what works well in maintaining and preserving both of these, we can apply it across campus. If you have 50 different styles of architecture on a campus, you might need 50 different methods of trying to preserve it, and you don’t really have the opportunity to research any of them in depth.”

Herbert M. Greene followed Gilbert as campus architect, holding the position from 1920-1930. In the 10 years he was campus architect, Greene fleshed out Gilbert’s vision, designing 12 campus buildings during his tenure.

Perhaps the most well-known of campus architects is Paul Cret (architect from 1930-1945). Cret’s campus master plan (created in 1930-33) contributed significantly to the future design direction of the university.

Cret’s plan recommended shaping exterior spaces into courtyards and using building walls to define large open spaces. Cret understood the changing nature of modern campuses, yet was determined to keep Gilbert’s and Greene’s vision alive. In the many buildings he designed on campus, he initiated a “flexible formality”–using classical concepts that could uphold modern functional requirements.

“Together, Gilbert, Greene and Cret created a wonderful palette for us to use in order to maintain the character and feel that was intended for the university,” said Holleran. “There have been so many changes in society since the first master plan was created that it’s amazing we are able to stay relatively true to it.

“When Cret created the initial master plan, there were no electric lights on campus, there was no air conditioning, and automobiles were just beginning to dot the landscape.

“To be able to incorporate these societal changes into the master plan of the campus and still maintain the fiber of its original intentions is remarkable. This is where UT excels–the architects and administration have remained committed to the fundamental vision for this campus, even while facing constant evolution and growth.”

According to Holleran, there are a few buildings on campus, such as the Flawn Academic Center, that have effectively espoused the character of the campus while opting for a more modern look.

“The idea is to use the same materials palette, the same design vocabulary, without being a cookie cutter campus,” said Holleran. “Architecture is constantly evolving and we have to evolve with it. We want to do that while respecting the accomplishments of those who created this beautiful campus a century ago.”

To say that the campus has changed since its inception is a gross understatement. In 1910, the campus encompassed 40 acres, had eight buildings, 1,556 students and eight faculty. Today, the campus sprawls across 369 acres, has 142 buildings, 50,000 students, and a faculty of 2,300.