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Happy 100th Birthday to SMU’s Dallas Hall

Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University

Darwin Payne, SMU journalism professor emeritus, wrote and presented the following on the 100th anniversary of the laying of the Dallas Hall cornerstone.

By Darwin Payne
SMU Professor Emeritus

Darwin PayneOne hundred years ago today, just before 3 p.m., several thousand enthusiastic people were gathered here to see the cornerstone laid for this building—a building that from its first days has been such a cherished symbol for Southern Methodist University. That cornerstone, of course, is still there today. You can see it at the southwest corner where the broad front steps meet the building. Words chiseled on it say simply, “Dallas Hall, A.D. 1912.”)

On that day, only the concrete basement had been completed. Building materials were scattered about the surrounding ground, delivered here by train on a track that came up nearly to the southeast corner of the building site and that would be useful for several more years. There were a few scattered trees along the creek that cut across the proposed campus.

Fund-raising was, had been, and continues today to be a huge and necessary priority. Donors of certain amounts back then had been rewarded in August in an imaginative and surprising way—an exciting camping trip to far-away Yellowstone National Park, the guests taken there in a special five-car passenger train.

Now, they and others at last could see the cornerstone placed on SMU’s first building.           

Spectators that afternoon included many dignitaries—Methodist churchmen (including some 300 Methodist ministers), prominent Dallas businessmen, and SMU’s founding president, Robert S. Hyer. A large number of these dignitaries spoke, predicting that SMU would become one of the great universities of this nation. Several of them mentioned confidently that it would open in 1913, missing the mark by two years. This was by no means a Methodist-only group. The businessman who had led the drive to raise $300,000 for Dallas Hall, H.H Adams, was a Presbyterian. Robert S. Munger, the man who had given the most money, $25,000, was a graduate of a Presbyterian university. Alex Sanger of Sanger Bros. Department Store, who gave the second largest amount of $16,000, was a Jew. Religious preference did not matter so much to them—SMU was a feather in the cap for all of Dallas, not just for Texas Methodists.

A score of Masonic officials ceremoniously set in place the cornerstone, made of high-quality Bedford or Indiana limestone.  Space had been chiseled out for a metal box containing numerous mementoes: a Bible, a New Testament, that morning’s edition of the Dallas Morning News; a copy of SMU’s charter, three issues of the Methodist publication the Texas Christian Advocate, a prospectus of the university, a copy of a local religious publication entitled The King’s Messenger, a Founder’s Medal given to large contributors, a bulletin of Southwestern University in Georgetown and of Polytechnic Institute in Fort Worth (both also Methodist institutions), and a catalogue of SMU’s medical college (yes, SMU already had a downtown medical college which Southwestern University had been struggling to keep open and simply gave to SMU—it lasted only a few years). There were several other printed items, and an unexplained oddity—a powder puff  belonging to the wife of the Dallas businessman H.H. Adams. If all those paper documents have disintegrated by now, I’ll bet that powder puff is still there. 

The crowd that day arrived from downtown Dallas, coming by train, automobiles, and horse-drawn buggies. On this day, though, the railroad, instead of carrying building materials, ran  a special passenger train carrying almost a thousand people.  Others had come in a parade of automobiles and horse-drawn buggies from downtown Dallas.

Dallas had competed hard with its rival Fort Worth for the university that would become SMU. Fort Worth earlier had topped Dallas in the effort to win TCU from Waco. Another loss to Fort Worth seemed unthinkable. Only a last-minute gift of additional property from W.W. Caruth—a half-interest in 722 acres—had persuaded the Methodist Educational Commission to choose Dallas, even though the announced deadline had expired the previous evening.  Fort Worth protested about the deadline violation, and its leaders walked out in anger when their arguments failed. This Caruth property, extending to Northwest Highway, would be sold off gradually in the years to come to raise money. The original Armstrong and Daniels property would be used for the campus proper.

Months before the cornerstone was laid, new President Robert S. Hyer ’s wife Margaret (known as Maggie) and the two children still at home finally had moved from Georgetown to join Hyer in Dallas. You’ll remember, Hyer was Southwestern’s president. Maggie had not wanted to move here; the Hyer family was like royalty in Georgetown. Now, though, Hyer drove his family to this site in the new Cadillac touring car given him by the Munger Cadillac Co. There was nothing really to show on this undeveloped property that was six miles from downtown Dallas. Reaching this place over a narrow dirt road, President Hyer stopped on this very small incline (that is, this soon-to-be famous Hilltop—a hilltop it was no matter what scoffers may say!), and proudly exclaimed: “This is where Dallas Hall will stand.” Maggie, looking about at the wide expanse of Johnson grass and seeing little else but a deserted mule barn and shack nearby, burst into tears. “You have lost your mind,” she cried, “you can’t build a university in the middle of this prairie.” The moment was shattered. Nobody spoke on their ride back into Dallas to their rented house. Maybe she was right.

Earlier, a Southwestern University professor had asked Hyer if he truly thought the Methodist church could build a “real” university in Dallas. Hyer had answered: “Yes, but it will just about kill the man who does it. Nevertheless, I am willing to try. I know my limitations—I am not a money raiser. I also know my qualifications. I know how to select a faculty, and a great faculty makes a great school. Therefore, if the money is provided, I believe I can do the job.”

President Hyer preferred that this new university be named for Dallas—the University of Dallas. But naming it was not his prerogative. He prematurely revealed his preference, though, in a speech at a Dallas Chamber of Commerce luncheon a few weeks before a name was to be chosen. A week after his speech the small Catholic institution here, Holy Trinity College, obviously inspired by Hyer’s idea, jumped the gun. It changed its name to the University of Dallas.

So that naming possibility was gone when the Methodists’ educational commission soon met to pick a name. They chose Texas Wesleyan University, a name which lasted less than twenty-four hours.  That choice, as the Rev. Horace Bishop later related, “had fallen with a thud on Dallas ears.” (Bishop, by the way, Maggie Hyer’s uncle, became the first chairman of SMU’s trustees. Our Bishop Boulevard is named for him.) Wesleyan, some said, had been used too often. Furthermore, the abbreviation “TWU” might lead to the nickname of “Tight Wad University.” Broader names were placed into nomination as substitutes: Southland University, Trans-Mississippi University, Central Methodist University, and Southern Methodist University. The final choice, selected on the first ballot, was Southern Methodist University.

Even this name did not entirely please Hyer, although he kept quiet about it for some time. He foresaw that the Northern and Southern branches of the Methodists would unify in a few years, which they did in1939. He did not prefer “Southern” in the title. Moreover, although a devout Methodist, he believed that even a Christian university should not have a denominational name.

Now, back to Dallas Hall.  This building first had been conceived for Southwestern, then the primary Methodist college in the state, as a monument for early Texas Methodist bishops. But this proposal for such a fine building in little Georgetown had led to a debate. Maybe Southwestern should be moved a bigger city such as Fort Worth or Dallas. Eventually the decision was made to leave Southwestern where it was and to build a new university. Hyer, chosen as the new university’s president, brought the building plans with him.

As Dallas Hall went up, no detail was too small for his attention. He selected the bricks from Kansas; he approved samples of the finish for the interior trim, he lowered the heights of the risers on the stairways (thankfully) to make it an easier climb, and many such details. Correspondence in the archives today between him and the well-known Chicago architects in Chicago reveal the extent of his involvement. His insistence on certain standards sometimes irritated them. They advised him that yes they were willing to increase the depth of the piers by one foot as he requested, but their experts assured them that this was not necessary and that he would be “throwing away” his money. Unpersuaded, Hyer said do it anyway.

In July 1914 Dallas Hall was ready for Hyer and his small staff to move in, even though there was no running water, no sewage connection, and no sidewalks.

In the fall of 1915 the first students arrived. The only sidewalks were boards laid between Dallas Hall, the Women’s Dormitory (now Clements Hall), and three hastily constructed and temporary dormitories for men.

Dallas Hall was the center for everything. In the east end of the basement were a bookstore, soda fountain, hamburger grill, and barber shop. The science laboratories were on the west end. Administrative offices, classrooms, and the library were on the first floor—the library taking the east wing. Hyer and his secretary Dorothy Amann (whom he soon named librarian, a position she would fill with honor until retiring in1949), were in this office [pointing], but it was said that he mostly carried his correspondence in his coat pocket. Professors’ offices and classrooms were on the second floor. Theology and music took up the third floor, and up here, too, was the auditorium where daily chapel services were held in what is now McCord Auditorium. An apartment up in the dome had been expected to provide housing for the new football coach, Ray Morrison, but nobody knew that he was married until he arrived, and he and his wife opted to take a rented house on Haynie Street.

President and Mrs. Hyer lived in a five-room first-floor apartment on the southeast side of the women’s building, moving there from a rent house in Oak Lawn.  Mrs. Hyer served as the official hostess in the dormitory.  The couple personally selected the china, glassware, linen, and furnishings, including a grand piano, for the dormitory. In 1919 they built a house on Haynie Street and moved there.

Herbert Gambrell, then a student and later a well-known history professor, described Dallas Hall this way: “It all seemed pretty grand, that university under a single roof. Of course, fumes from the chemistry laboratory and hamburger grill in the basement had a way of rising and penetrating; and the sounds of pianos and brass instruments at work on the third floor floated downward. Odors from the cooking laboratory beneath the library made hungry students drool, and some complained that the embalming fluid in which biology specimens were preserved was unpleasant to smell in adjacent rooms. But it seemed all right and proper to us pioneers.”

Gambrell, who transferred to SMU from Baylor, said he was surprised to see that SMU was a “singing campus” marked by spontaneous harmonizing everywhere he went. Perhaps the hymns sang in daily chapel inspired the students. Students sometimes parodied the words of familiar hymns. “Amazing Grace, How Sweet It is,” became “Ah, Mazie Grace, How Sweet She Is.” “Gladly the Cross I Bear” became “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.”

Dallas Hall, so named because of the city’s generous financial contributions, would become a building that for a century now has been a beloved, iconic symbol for tens of thousands of SMU alumni and Dallas residents. Just as planned, it continues to dominate our campus with its beauty and commanding location.

Precious few of the young students who arrived in1915 for the beginning of classes—numbering 706 by the end of the first academic year—had ever seen such a building with such massive columns, its beautiful dome, and classic proportions. Their letters home and the oral histories they later gave provide unmistakable evidence of its tremendous impact.

It was a grand time, too, for SMU and for Dallas Hall and for the city of Dallas. So much excitement. So much promise. So much to do. And so much accomplished since then in these hundred years in a campus that now has more than a hundred buildings. But Dallas Hall, as we can see, is as beautiful and inspiring as it was then! It stands as a remarkable testament to the wisdom and forward-thinking President Hyer, trustees, architects, and many others.  

November 29, 2012

By Nancy George
SMU News

DALLAS (SMU) – On a chilly Thanksgiving Day in 1912, several thousand people gathered on a hill six miles from downtown Dallas. They had traveled by car and chartered train to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of Dallas Hall, an event The Dallas Morning News described as “a day of jubilation.”

SMU celebrated the centennial of the laying of the Dallas Hall cornerstone Nov. 28, 2012, at a ceremony for the Dallas Hall Society in the Rotunda of Dallas Hall. The Dallas Hall Society recognizes those who contribute to SMU’s future through planned gifts. In a 30-day countdown that began Homecoming weekend, alumni, students, faculty and staff signed giant Dallas Hall birthday cards and enjoyed birthday cupcakes.

For nearly 100 years, SMU’s elegant first building has served as a symbol of the University, a standard of its classic collegiate Georgian style, home to intellectual discourse for generations of students, and center of SMU’s liberal arts tradition, now Dedman College. Named in honor of the Dallas citizens whose contributions funded the building, Dallas Hall also serves as a symbol of the close relationship the University shares with the city.

The crowd gathered to witness the laying of the cornerstone waited three years for the completion of the grand building, inspired by the Roman Pantheon and the library Thomas Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia. Construction was delayed by the bankruptcy of the original contractor. When Dallas Hall opened in 1915 for SMU’s first classes, it housed the complete university including classrooms, offices, a library, a hamburger grill, science labs, piano practice rooms, a chapel, an attic apartment, a barber shop, a post office and a mummy.

In 1915, a Christmas tree that reached to the third floor of Dallas Hall was displayed in the Rotunda. Several years later, the Arden Club began presenting its annual Commencement Shakespeare play in front of Dallas Hall.

For its first 10 years, Dallas Hall hosted all classrooms on campus. After 1925, with the construction of other classroom buildings, it remained the home of liberal arts classes and a popular gathering place for students. Authors Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost visited English classes in Dallas Hall in its first decade.

Dallas Hall’s careful design continued to serve the campus well until it was closed in 1970 for a $1.9 million renovation. It reopened in 1971 with major changes to classrooms in the east and west wing interiors. The chapel on the third floor was replaced by the 196-seat Arden Playhouse (now McCord Auditorium). Dallas Hall’s first elevator replaced one of the double stairways on the east end of the building and restrooms were added on each floor.

The seal on the marble floor of the Rotunda was added in the 1970 renovation. Tradition holds that students who step on the seal will not graduate.

Perhaps the most meaningful part of the renovation was the restoration of the office of the SMU’s first president, Robert S. Hyer. Partitions in the southwest room off the oval of the Rotunda were removed and the office was restored to its original size. The oval oak table first used in 1915 in the president’s office was returned, and the room was named the Robert S. Hyer Seminar Room.

Celebration of Lights, which students now call their favorite SMU tradition, began in 1977 as a way to thank SMU donors and spread holiday cheer. Strings of lights decorated the columns of Dallas Hall at the first celebration. The event, still held on the steps of Dallas Hall, now heralds the arrival of the holidays with carols, candles and thousands of tiny lights decorating the main quad.

Students now begin their academic careers at SMU with Rotunda Passage, a procession through Dallas Hall, onto the main quad and into McFarlin Auditorium. After Baccalaureate, graduates make the same journey in reverse, from McFarlin Auditorium, through Dallas Hall and, symbolically, out into the world.

In 2000, a time capsule was buried just south of Dallas Hall, a project of a history class, “Millennialism Through the Ages.” It contains 1999-2000 academic catalogs, Homecoming memorabilia, an issue of The Daily Campus, and top-selling 1999 compact discs, the movies, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Apocalypse Now,” among other items.

Preservation Dallas honored SMU in 2006 for its restoration and renovation of Dallas Hall’s rotunda and dome, recapturing their original 1915 grandeur. Restoration artists removed layers of paint from the rotunda ceiling and gilded the ornate plaster carvings with 23-karat gold leaf. The stained glass oculus also was restored and reinstalled with new lighting.

One hundred years after its cornerstone was laid, Dallas Hall remains the symbol of SMU and home to University traditions. Generations of alumni have been influenced by the intellectual activities housed within its corridors. The stone pediment fronting Dallas Hall continues to proclaim SMU’s motto, Veritas Liberitat Vos, “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”

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Historic Dallas Hall Photos

Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University

Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University



Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University

Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University

Dallas Hall at SMU

Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University

Dallas Hall at Southern Methodist University

Dallas Hall Rotunda

Dallas Hall Rotunda
Looking Up

Dallas Hall Rotunda Stained Glass
Stained Glass Oculus at the top of the Rotunda

Related Link:

The Dallas Morning News:
SMU’s first building celebrates 100 years