Austin Hall: 166 years of history endured

The oldest building in Texas and a historic landmark, Austin Hall has served as a staple of advancements and growth in education at Sam Houston State University for the last 166 years.

Sean Smith | The Houstonian

Sean Smith | The Houstonian


Presbyterians in the Huntsville area established Austin College in 1849.

Gen. Sam Houston lived down the hill from Austin Hall. He helped dedicate the building on June 24, 1851 and served as one of 16 trustees for Austin College.

William Martin Barrett was the appointed architect and contractor for the first permanent building of Austin College in Huntsville in 1851 with an estimated $2.27 million budget. The facility was opened to students in 1852. It was established as the first law school in Texas in 1855, was recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1964 and is also the oldest educational building west of the Mississippi River.

There were a series of events which affected enrollment in the 1860s such as a small pox scare and yellow fever outbreak. This resulted in the relocation of Austin College to Sherman in 1876. The building was later purchased again by Huntsville and in 1879, became the first building of Sam Houston Normal Institute.

At 166 years old, the building had begun to deteriorate from years of outdoor exposure. Leaking roofs and needed classroom space resulted in renovations and the addition of a third floor in 1927. The third floor served multiple purposes throughout the years such as a school chapel and office space for The Houstonian and The Alcalde. The Jewel Garden was added west of the building in 1948.

Austin Hall has lived through the Civil War, Reconstruction, several hurricanes and even the Old Main fire. The morning of Feb. 12, 1982, this fire broke out and spread to Austin Hall destroying Old Main and causing an estimated $3,000 in damages to Austin Hall.

“We almost lost Austin Hall during the fire that destroyed Old Main in 1982,” University spokeswoman Julia May said. “When it became evident that of the two buildings, only Austin Hall had the chance to be saved, students formed lines to move items from Austin Hall to the women’s gym so that they would not be destroyed by water from fighting the fire. By the end of the day, Old Main was gone and Austin Hall had severe roof damage, but it was fortunately still intact.”

The building was restored over the years although many documents and equipment had been lost. A new cupola and thousands of bricks with names carved into them were saved. Once the renovations were completed, Austin Hall was rededicated in October 1986.

“Of all the beautiful landmarks on this campus, I believe that Austin Hall most represents the foundation that Sam Houston State University was built upon and symbolizes the traditions that bind generations of students together through the years,” May said.

Today it is used for university receptions, meetings and special events and continues to stand as the eldest historic piece of Texas and SHSU.


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