Photos: Old Main, Anna Hall, art room (1905), Simmons Science Building, Abilene Hall (foreground), Mary Francis Hall (1926), James B. Simmons, Judge Kirvin Legett, Cowden Hall, Compere Hall (in 1934)
Hardin-Simmons University is the oldest university in Abilene. It opened its doors the very year electricity came to Abilene, when roadways were more like cattle trails through the brush, and horse-drawn wagons had to travel more than a mile to reach the site north of a burgeoning downtown area.
Things have changed dramatically since the doors of the university first opened in the 19th century. Affectionately referred to as “The Forty Acres,” the university has spread to over 220 acres in the last 121 years.
This ghost tour attempts to chronicle the life and times of the former structures where students once lived and learned…
As a result of HSU’s century-plus history, there are plenty of ghostly tales and stories of things that once existed on the famed Forty Acres. Foremost among the stories is that of a revered dog with an unusual name. But before we get to that, you should imagine in your mind’s eye what students at Abilene Baptist College, and then later Simmons College, and Simmons University, might have witnessed during their time on the campus. Let’s start our tour by entering the campus from Ambler, turning north at Cedar Street…
On your right, up the sweeping drive and parking area is Logsdon School of Theology and Seminary. Many know it best by its stained glass window facing the corner of Pine and Ambler. This was once the site of the campus greenhouse.
The building you see to your left with the colonial white columns is the home to the Kelley College of Business and known for its campus-central multipurpose events center. Imagine a building, much older, with the same white columns, colonial-gables and a large porch. Where the Johnson Building stands today was once the site of Mary Francis Hall. It was said to be one of the most beautiful buildings on campus, housing students from 1916 until 1978. The Johnson Building’s architecture reflects the image of the building that once stood here.
The next building on your left is the Connally Missions Center, named for Virginia Boyd Connally, Abilene’s first woman doctor, who graduated from HSU.
The structure formerly at this site was the cafeteria, affectionately called “The Beanery.” Its use changed over the years as it was later used as the fine arts building. When the magnificent Frost Center for the Visual Arts was built across the street, the old “Beanery” was torn down. As a matter of interest, Frost was patterned after the Visual Arts Center in Austin at the University of Texas.
Visual arts, music, and theatre comprise a large portion of what students study at HSU. As you look to the left you’ll see the Van Ellis Theatre, the only theatre in West Texas that allows for any configuration of staging. It is the perfect venue for experimental productions.
Turning left at Van Ellis, you’ll see Caldwell Music Hall to the north, one of Abilene’s most historic buildings. In 2004, Preservation Texas, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation honored Caldwell Music Hall as one of the “Treasures of Texas.”
During a 2003 renovation, a beautiful stained-glass window in the ceiling of the third floor was uncovered above a 1960’s dropped ceiling. The stained glass is once again united with the distinctive 1920’s-era architecture that marks the building. During the renovation, Caldwell was blended with several newer buildings which now comprise the Lee Hemphill Music Complex.
To your left is Behrens Auditorium, built in 1961, connected by the stage to Van Ellis, it contains a basement theatre, an auditorium, classrooms, and offices. Another building with a similar name, Behrens Chapel, a 2,000-seat auditorium, burned in 1954. Behrens Chapel sat on Hickory Street on the lawn across from the ROTC building (now known as the physical therapy building). Behrens Chapel and the original Abilene Hall were two of three spectacular fires at the university. Abilene Hall burned in 1947, the fire destroying classrooms, another auditorium, and the Cowboy Band Hall.
To the right of Behrens Auditorium is Sid Richardson Science Center, home to the Holland School of Sciences and Mathematics. The grassy area in front of the science center is the site of the original college.
Imagine a two and a half story Victorian-era building with tall gables, more than 100 windows, and a bell tower. Its mud bricks were fired in a kiln on Elm Creek and its limestone honed in the Cedar Gap community more than 25 miles south.
It was on this spot, at the present-day science building, Abilene’s first college became a reality with the securing of Old Main’s cornerstone. History books describe that day, July 4, 1891, as “Festive and entertaining with a procession of people to the campus beginning at Chestnut Street.
“A voracious crowd consumed more than 65-hundred pounds of barbeque, 150 pounds of coffee, an entire barrel of pickles, and 7-thousand pounds of ice. People from surrounding communities gathered under native oak trees and under what was reported to be the largest brush arbor ever built in Texas.”
Old Main was later converted to accommodate Simmons Science Hall. During that reconstruction, the cornerstone disappeared. Decades later, it was discovered that the cornerstone was being used as the back porch of a neighborhood house.
During the transformation of Old Main, the original bell was pushed from the top of the converted building by students. It now hangs cracked in the bell tower near the pond in the center of the campus. The cornerstone is now displayed in Moody Student Center near the present-day cafeteria.
To your left is HSU’s alumni wall, a tribute to all of HSU’s graduates through the ages. Inside the circular walls, inscribed brass plaques bear the names of each graduating class dating back to 1891. In 1911 a wooden temporary structure, built as a chapel by President J.D. Sandefer, sat on this spot. Old Main’s chapel could no longer hold the student population. Students jokingly called it Sandefer’s Memorial Chapel.
On your right is the second Abilene Hall. It was hastily constructed after the original Abilene Hall was consumed by fire, destroying a huge number of classrooms and the administration offices.
The original Abilene Hall was constructed with money donated by the citizens of Abilene and was the site of many community events during Abilene’s early days. It is now home to the Irvin School of Education, the English Department, the Department of Foreign Languages, the university student newspaper offices, the computer language lab, and the writing center.
On your right, you will see the tennis center and swimming pool area. Inside the signature red brick building is the much older 1916 Marston Gym. The old gym is on the second floor with the original indoor swimming pool still underneath. The indoor pool is still in use in conjunction with the newer outdoor pool.
Also on your right is Mabee Complex with basketball and volleyball courts, four racquetball courts, and a human performance lab. It also houses the student fitness center and the HSU Athletics Hall of Fame. Mabee is the site of the old Rose Field House, which for decades was the largest unobstructed-view events facility in West Texas. The structure was given to HSU as army surplus after World War II from Camp Barkley.
Ferguson Hall, on your right, currently houses upper level women students. Built in 1927 it was designed in the Oxford University style with five separate entrances. A lobby was later added which combined the entrances.
One of the original entrances was named in honor of Cowden Hall, a dorm that burned on this site on Mother’s Day 1922, when a boiler in the basement caught fire. Ironically, Ferguson is the strongest, most fire-proof building on campus according to information contained in a facilities survey report published a number of years ago.
On your left is the Rupert Richardson Library. It contains more than 400,000 volumes and receives more than 1,000 periodicals. It is part of a consortium that links the catalogues of four college libraries and the Abilene Public Library. The library is also home to the West Texas Historic Photograph Collection, The Research Center for the Southwest, and the extensive HSU collections of early English Bibles.
Also on your left is Sandefer Memorial, which once housed the school’s library on the second and third floors. When cracks developed in the marble walls of the first floor around the central staircase, the new Richardson library was commissioned and the books removed in 1977. The building now houses offices for the registrar, the provost, the business office, financial aid, marketing and communications, institutional research, human resources, graduate studies, and technology services.
To your right is the pond with its two illuminated fountains. Last year a massive pond renovation restored its original depth. On the pond’s west side is the grave of the university’s former mascot, marked by a purple and gold fire hydrant.
The bulldog buried here, Dam-It (who was called Fritz on Sundays), belonged to the two sons of President J.D. Sandefer. The school mascot was noted for attending classes and for carrying a rock in his month. If a class turned out to be on the boring side, he would fall asleep and the rock would fall from his mouth, clunking loudly to the floor.
How he got his name is still a matter of speculation, but the most popular story concerns Dam-It’s habit of getting underfoot of the cooks in the school’s cafeteria.
Dam-It died of pneumonia in January 1920, and the campus ceremoniously mourned his passing. His grave is marked with a metal plate sunk flush into the earth. The inscription reads, “Dam-It – he is dead.” The fire hydrant was added later as a tribute to the beloved mascot.
As our tour winds down, if you will look to your left, you will see the graves of the founders and early day leaders of the university. Buried here are Dr. and Mrs. James Simmons, the first major donor and the namesake of the university.
Mary Simmons was the first to be buried at the gravesite in 1897. Their son Dr. Robert Simmons continued to support the university and is also buried at this site. Early-day president Dr. Owen C. Pope and his wife are also part of this small cemetery, which once was surrounded by an ornate iron fence. HSU’s president for more than 30 years, Jefferson Davis Sandefer Sr. and his wife, Lucile, are also buried on this site.
Moody Center, the building just east of the cemetery, marks the former site of Anna Hall, built in 1903 and named for the granddaughter of founder, James Simmons. The facility served as the university’s library, bookstore, and student union building.
The building ahead on your left is Hunter Hall, a former girl’s dorm, which now serves as the Dyess Welcome Center. Its lobby still retains the original fireplace and the original ornamental art-deco architecture. Its completion was delayed, as was the completion of Sandefer Memorial, because of World War II’s need for iron and steel. Construction was further delayed by the burning of Abilene Hall.
The hole dug for what would eventually become the basement of Sandefer Memorial was exposed for many years. It can be observed in the black and white aerial photos in the stairwell of the Richardson Library.
The last building on your right is Compere Hall, the original president’s home, built in 1924. Its original residents were J.D. and Lucile Sandefer. It has also been home to six other HSU presidents. It has been used for a number of activities since the building of a new president’s home on the east side of the campus. It is currently occupied by the HSU Alumni Relations Office.
While this tour tells of many of the structures now gone from the campus, there are other buildings that have also come and gone, which for the most part, were not located on the path of our tour through campus.
Those buildings include, the Girl’s Industrial Home, a women’s dorm where students did the chores and maintenance to reduce their school expenses. The name was changed to Smith Hall after World War I. Built in 1909, it was removed by decision in 1946. It was located just east of where Blanche Lange Hall is now.
The Riding School was once located near the site of the present day Cowboy Band Hall, the building was moved to the White Horse Complex off Grape Street where it can still be seen today; and The Cowboy Corral, built in 1920, was removed in 1971.
Oddly, in the early 1900’s, there was one modern convenience that stretched from downtown to the campus. The street car line, which early-day students loved to ride, started at Simmons Street and followed a path southwest, ending near the home of Judge Krivin Legett, one of the founders of Simmons College.
His home, at 602 Meander, served as meeting place for countless gatherings of the leadership of Simmons College, First Baptist Church, the Abilene Bar Association, Democratic Party organizations, and a stream of educators, clergy, cattlemen, and farmers from around the state and nation. It sat approximately where the Church of the Heavenly rest is now. Abilene's Leggett Street is named in Legett's honor, but was accidently misspelled...really.