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The Old Science Science Building

By Chris Guthrie

Now that the ground-breaking ceremony for the new Science Building is only a few months away, I thought that one last historical look at the old building might interest some of you. Although much maligned in recent years because of its increasingly decrepit condition, the old Science building did serve as a home to numerous academic departments (and even the library for a while) over the past five decades. It also, of course, provided the facilities for training thousands of students in the physical and life sciences during this same period. The old building has clearly outlived its usefulness, but it nonetheless represents an important part of the history of this university.

When J. Thomas Davis became the dean of Tarleton in 1919, all the science departments shared space in the Mollie Crow Administration Building (later renamed the Home Economics Building, this brick structure was located to the east of the E.J. Howell Building) with the home economics department and various administrative offices. This arrangement became increasingly untenable as student enrollments skyrocketed during the 1920s. To effectively deal with this problem, Davis asked for $100,000 in 1922 to construct a new science building. Unfortunately, the Texas legislature rejected this request. Davis therefore was forced to resort to a stop-gap measure and built a one story “Physics Building” in 1924 on the site of the current Industrial Technology Building. Constructed entirely of wood, this relatively small structure housed the entire physics department as well as a portion of the chemistry faculty.

Tarleton’s science programs struggled through the rest of the 1920s without a permanent and consolidated home. Finally, in 1930, the school received the necessary funds from the state to erect a new 8.755 square foot brick structure, providing the foundation for the soon-to-be-replaced Science Building of today. At the time, Davis planned that this three-story structure, known as the “North Wing,” would mark the first phase of a four-stage construction project in which three additional units would eventually be built as the need for additional space arose and state funds became available. In fact, shortly after the North Wing reached completion in 1931, the state appropriated $125,000 to build two more units. Work on the second unit finished in 1935, resulting in an additional 21,489 square feet of classroom, laboratory, and office space.

Problems arose during the construction of the third unit in 1937. The Texas legislature appropriated an additional $75,000 to build this unit. However, a clerk in Austin unintentionally omitted the clause authorizing this amount from the general appropriations bill submitted to governor James Allred for his signature. Allred signed the bill under the impression that it included the $75,000 for Tarleton’s new science building addition. When he learned of the error, he granted a “deficiency appropriation” of $75,000 to Tarleton, which allowed the school to pay its contractor with “deficiency warrants.” Both the school and the contractor believed that these warrants could be redeemed for cash from the state when the construction project had been completed. Work on the new 19,188 square foot structure began in early 1937 and it opened to students in the fall of 1938.

When the general contractor and several sub-contractors attempted to redeem their warrants in 1939, Texas Attorney-General Gerald Mann ruled that he documents were illegal and could not be paid by the state unless Texas voters approved a special constitutional amendment specifically authorizing such an act. A constitutional amendment authorizing this payment appeared on the ballot during the elections of 1942, but it failed by 1855 votes. This disappointing response resulted in the uncomfortable situation in which Tarleton possessed and heavily utilized a building that it had not paid for. This situation only was rectified in 1946, during the first year of the tenure of Dean E.J. Howell, when, thanks to a well-orchestrated publicity campaign by the college and regional newspapers, Texas voters approved Constitutional Amendment SJR #5 which authorized the state to redeem the now nearly ten year old deficiency warrants. Four years later, in 1950, the college added another 12,450 square foot unit to the Science Building, thus completing Davis’ original four-phase master plan. By this time the building stood three stories high and contained chemistry and biology classrooms and offices on the second floor and engineering classrooms and laboratories on the third floor. Until the construction of the new college library in 1956, the first floor of the Science Building housed the Tarleton’s 26,000-volume collection of books and periodicals. When the library moved to new quarters in 1956, the space it had formerly occupied was taken by the Social Sciences Department, the Art Department, the turkey testing laboratory, the Public Information Office, and the J-TAC and Grassburr. Although originally intended to be devoted exclusively to the sciences, the science complex had become a multipurpose building by the early 1950s.

This pattern continued into the subsequent decades. The college added a new 2,617 square foot lecture hall to the west side of the building in 1960. Built in response to a shortage of classroom space on the campus at the time, the college never intended this new hall to be used exclusively by physical and life sciences classes. The lecture auditorium was only attached to the Science Building because it just happened to be the most convenient location at the time. A wide variety of disciplines would utilize this hall for their large lecture classes all the way into the 1990s.

Since the 1950s, the Science Building has undergone two major renovations. The first, in 1957, added air conditioning to portions of the structure, enlarged several classrooms, and installed new benches in the chemistry and biology laboratories. College officials planned the second renovation, carried out in 1975, would transform the building into a modern facility that would meet the needs of both science faculty and students into at least the end of this century. However, two factors intervened to thwart their optimistic plans. The Texas Coordinating Board for Higher Education had established a formula for funding renovations that, at the time, stood at $8.00 per square foot. This formula had been in effect for some time and had not been adjusted upward to account for the high inflation that had wracked the country since the early 1970s. As a result, the amount of money that the state made available to Tarleton under this antiquated formula for the 1975 renovation ($606,317), although substantial, was simply not enough to meet the original plans of school officials and they were forced to cut back on what they had initially hoped to achieve. Moreover, inflation rose at such a rapid rate during this period (it stood at 9.1 percent in 1975) that the amount of money made available to Tarleton by the state for renovation declined, in real terms, by nearly 10 percent between the time of the college’s initial request and the date it actually received the money and let out bids for the construction work. This unfortunate development also forced college officials to scale back their original plans for renovating the building. As a direct consequence of these two unforeseen factors, the 1975 renovation of the Science Building only included the relocation and improvement of air conditioning ducts, the lowering of ceilings in classrooms and the relocation and improvement of air conditioning ducts, the lowering of ceilings in classrooms and hallways, the construction of risers for desks in several classrooms on the second floor, and the installation of some new laboratory furniture. These renovations represented important improvements to the building, but other major work (such as electrical rewiring, the expansion of usable classroom and laboratory, the refurbishment of the ventilation system, the improvement of chemical storage facilities, and the installation of new chemical fume hoods) had to indefinitely postponed.

As a result as such disappointments as the truncated 1975 renovation program (as well as other factors too numerous to name here), the Science Building moved into the last quarter of the 20th century in increasingly inefficient condition. The structure had not grown to any significant extent in terms of available classroom and laboratory space since the completion of the lecture hall in 1960. At that time, the school was still a two-year junior college with an enrollment of approximately 1,350 students. By the mid-1980s, Tarleton had become a four-year university with over 6000 undergraduate and graduate students. Such dramatic growth, coupled with the limited nature of the 1975 renovation, rendered the building increasingly inadequate and made it difficult to recruit and retain quality faculty and students necessary to make the university’s science programs productive and viable in the future. Safety issues also became a growing concern. A university report produced in 1996 noted problems in the areas of “asbestos, improper air ventilation, stairwells not being enclosed, outdated chemical fume hoods, no automatic fire sensors or sprinkler systems, outdated ADA accessibility, and animal handling…”

It is to the immense credit of the Tarleton science faculty that they still produced such outstanding graduates as renowned heart surgeon Dr. O Howard “Bud” Frazier, astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford, Stanford University chemistry professor Dr. dale Druekhammer, and many others. The pre-med program earned and retains one of the best acceptance rates for its graduates into medical schools in Texas. But these notable accomplishments were achieved in spite of the facilities in the Science Building, not because of them. The old building had become a liability and I think everyone with an interest in the well-being of this university will agree that the upcoming construction of the new science facility at the northwest corner of Lillian and Vanderbilt streets will mark an exciting and much needed addition to the campus.