In the midst of the Great Depression, two architects transformed the campus of Texas A&M University with 10 new buildings in just five years. The resulting architectural legacy has received less attention than it deserves, particularly in comparison to the acclaimed campus of the school’s rival, The University of Texas at Austin.
The two universities were in fact founded together. In 1839, plans for a state university were originated by the Republic of Texas, but it was not until 1876 that land grants and an endowment finally facilitated the official opening of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in College Station. That same year, the legislature provided a second land grant of 1 million acres in West Texas, and in 1923, the state universities struck black gold as the Santa Rita oil well gushed. It took eight more years before UT Austin and Texas A&M finished negotiations that split the revenues 2:1 in favor of UT Austin. All of this set the stage for the 1930s expansion of the Texas A&M campus.
Wunderkind Dr. Frederick E. Giesecke played a pivotal role in the development of both institutions as an educator and as an architect. Giesecke graduated first in his class from Texas A&M in 1886 and joined the faculty that same year, at the age of 17. He later studied at Cornell University and received a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from the University of Illinois. He returned to Texas A&M in 1905 to develop the first architectural engineering curriculum in the state. In 1910, he designed the first campus plan and introduced classicism as the preferred style for campus buildings, replacing the earlier Victorian style, red brick structures. In 1912, he left for Austin to serve as the second head of the architectural engineering program at UT Austin, where he remained for 15 years. In 1927, with the oil revenue available for a building program on the campus of Texas A&M, Giesecke returned to College Station.
In 1928, Samuel C. P. Vosper, who taught architecture with Giesecke in Austin, joined him at Texas A&M. Vosper studied architecture at Pratt Institute and Columbia University in New York City before finding his way to Dallas and then Austin. In Austin, he taught from 1922 to 1927 and worked as chief designer for Ralph H. Cameron, for whom he designed several buildings in Austin and San Antonio.
Working together, Giesecke and Vosper, along with Frederick Hensel, the chief planning and landscape advisor, transformed the Texas A&M campus. Not only did they literally turn the campus around, reorienting the main entrance to face east, toward a new state highway rather than west, where the train station was located,
but they also constructed the following buildings between 1928 and 1933: Chemistry (1929–30), Cushing Library (1930), Hart Hall (1930), Walton Hall (1931), Administration Building (now J. K. Williams Administration Building, 1932), Petroleum Engineering Building (now Halbouty Geosciences Building, 1932), Agricultural Engineering Building (now Scoates Hall, 1932), Animal Industries Building (1932), Veterinary Hospital (now Civil Engineering Building, 1932), and a horse barn (now TAES Annex Building, 1933). All of these buildings remain on campus, a testament to both their appeal and quality.
The most impressive, due in part to its comparatively restrained use of classical language, is the Administration Building, which serves as a frontispiece for the campus. Vosper’s interest in decoration as a means of expressing the purpose of architecture comes through in many ways here. For example, at the east entrance, the letters “A” and “M” are used to create a grill for the bronze doors, and at the west entrance, female and male figures represent agriculture and mechanics in the bronze doors. The face of an “idealized cadet” is used in the center of the ionic colonnade, and interestingly, the face of a woman can be found to the side, despite the fact that women were not admitted to the college for another 30 years. Inside, the A&M theme continues, and is expanded to include iconography of Texas and the Southwest expressed in ornamental metals, stained glass, plaster, and decorative painting. The interiors of these buildings all utilize the special finishes and materials of the day, including scagliola, sgraffito, caen stone, metallic paints, glazing, and stippling .
Vosper’s wit is also evident in the decoration he designed conceptually and then completed with help from local artisans. Owls guard the exterior of the Agricultural Engineering Building, which is also decorated with pests of agriculture carved into the ornate cast stone entrance surround. The facade of the Animal Industries Building has a horse’s scull in the modified classical bucranium, and on the interior, a horse’s head adorns column capitals. The use of color in the stained glass and decorative tile provides a bright respite from the tan colored brick that is the campus’ mainstay. The ornamentation is comfortably combined with the names of important scholars such as Watt, Plato, and Newton on the facades of the Cushing Library. All of these buildings are endearing for the way they speak to us, and they will hopefully continue to speak to us for another 80 years as they are repurposed, renovated, and maybe even restored.
Nancy McCoy, FAIA, is principal of Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture in Dallas.
This article is expanded content for Texas Architect November/December 2013.