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Waco Hall Turns 80

June 16, 2010


By Randy Fiedler

It was a fairly quiet birthday -- no cake, candles or balloons to mark the event -- but Baylor's venerable Waco Hall turned 80 this May. On such an august occasion, it's high time to look back at just what this historic structure has meant to the university. If the Bill Daniel Student Center is "Baylor's living room," then surely Waco Hall has served as Baylor's den, music room and home theater, all wrapped into one.

It might be hard to believe now, but Waco Hall was the child of tragedy and struggle. For the first two decades of the 20th century, when Baylor students and faculty met for chapel services, academic presentations or other public events, they gathered in the elegant, domed Carroll Chapel, located atop the Carroll Library building. That building was left a smoldering shell by fire in 1922, and officials decided that when they restored the building it would house the library and academic and office space, but not a chapel.

To provide a new space for large campus gatherings, Baylor erected a decidedly plain "temporary" chapel building that also doubled as the university gymnasium. After years of debate, the question of where and how to build a permanent auditorium almost became a moot point in April 1928, when the education commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas surprised Baylor administrators by voting 13-2 to recommend relocating the university to Dallas. Boosters in Dallas had made promises of $1.5 million worth of land and financial support to make relocation an attractive prospect.

Many committee members were Baylor alumni and supporters, and one of the arguments that apparently had influenced their votes said that moving Baylor to Dallas would strengthen the university's shaky finances and place it in the same city as its medical school. Among the 13 committee members voting to relocate Baylor were Rev. George W. Truett, AB 1897, Herbert Lee Kokernot and Carr P. Collins, all men who would eventually have buildings associated with them on the Waco campus. One of the two dissenting votes was cast by future Baylor President Pat M. Neff, AB 1894, who at the time was chairman of Baylor's Board of Trustees.

Waco had been unable to prevent Texas Christian University from moving to Fort Worth in 1910, and local sentiment was overwhelming that also allowing Baylor to leave would prove a devastating blow, both to the city and the university. Waco civic and business leaders quickly joined with university officials to mount a fierce campaign to convince the Baptist leadership to leave Baylor where it was.

With only weeks to work before the full BGCT would vote on the relocation proposal at its annual meeting, an organization was formed in Waco to build support for Baylor statewide. Less than a month before the final BGCT vote, Waco business leaders were able to convince the same education commission that had voted to recommend moving Baylor to reverse that decision by pledging a high level of community support to Baylor if it was allowed to remain.

Specifically, the citizens of Waco pledged to raise and donate $1 million to Baylor over the following seven years if Texas Baptists agreed to match the gift. As part of the pledge, the first $350,000 raised would be made available quickly and used to build a suitable auditorium on the Baylor campus. Within three weeks after the commission's acceptance of the Waco counteroffer, $400,000 had been raised and preparations were underway to build what would be named Waco Hall as a tribute to its local benefactors.

Encouraged by the serendipitous opening of a large Atlas Portland Cement plant in Waco just a day before, Baylor officials broke ground for Waco Hall on June 25, 1929, pouring the Atlas plant's first bag of cement into the foundation. Work progressed quickly, and the official dedication of the completed building took place less than a year later on May 27, 1930, with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde giving the dedicatory address.

The brand-new Waco Hall of 1930 is not the expanded structure we know today. Two large annexes were later added -- a west annex in 1957 (named in honor of former Baylor music dean Roxy Grove) and an east annex in 1965. Numerous renovations have been completed over the years, the most recent in 2009. In the auditorium, a large pipe organ given in memory of President Samuel Palmer Brooks, AB 1893, was installed in 1937 and later removed, and will be replaced by a new organ this year (see sidebar).

Waco Hall has served as the home of many of Baylor's most beloved campus events. It has hosted Chapel since its earliest days and served as the location for Baylor commencements until the large number of graduates made moving to larger spaces a necessity. While All University Sing had its humble beginnings in the Baylor Student Union building, the event quickly moved to Waco Hall. At various times, the building also has hosted Pigskin Revue, Freshman Mass Meeting, After Dark, Founders Day ceremonies, Baylor Premieres, weekly movie showings, Baylor Beauty pageants, the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant and other events.

Some of Baylor's most cherished traditions got their start in Waco Hall. When Brooks died of cancer on May 14, 1931, shortly before the spring 1931 commencement, his moving letter that would come to be known as the "Immortal Message" was first read publicly in Waco Hall during the ceremony. And on Nov. 16, 1933, when new President Pat Neff first decided to close a Chapel service with an updated version of "That Good Old Baylor Line" using 1923 graduate Enid Eastland Markham's new lyrics, it was soon considered Baylor's official song.

But Waco Hall is not simply a place where Baylor holds campus events. It serves as a grand showcase for national and international personalities. Some came here on Baylor's behalf, while others were brought to town by outside groups who rented Waco Hall for performances and special events.

Musical performances in Waco Hall have covered a wide range of styles. There have been performances of full operas and concerts by opera stars such as Marian Anderson and Waco's Jules Bledsoe. Besides being the home of the Waco Symphony Orchestra since 1962, Waco Hall has also dazzled classical music lovers with concerts by Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Van Cliburn and others.

Popular music has been a mainstay of Waco Hall concert lineups. In the 1940s and 1950s there were appearances by jazz legends Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie and by pop performers such as Doris Day, the Four Freshmen and Henri Mancini. As popular musical tastes began changing in the 1960s, so did Waco Hall's concert offerings, showcasing performers such as Bread; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Captain and Tennille; Bachman-Turner Overdrive; John Denver; Tom Jones; Waylon Jennings and Amy Grant.

Legendary Baylor English Professor A.J. Armstrong brought some of the world's best poets to Waco Hall, including Robert Frost, Edwin Markham, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg.

Hollywood legends have performed on the Waco Hall stage, including Helen Hayes in "Mary of Scotland" and "Victoria Regina," Katherine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story" and Dorothy Lamour in "Hello Dolly." Actors Charles Laughton and Claude Rains did one-man shows there, and when comedian Bob Hope brought his variety act to Waco Hall in 1949 he was made an honorary Noze Brother for his trouble.

Another honorary Noze Brother, the Rev. Billy Graham, made his first Waco appearance at Waco Hall in 1951, just one in a long line of distinguished pastors, missionaries and Christian leaders who have addressed Baylor audiences there. Well-known names from politics and public affairs have spoken from a Waco Hall lectern, including U.S. Presidents Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, Governor Ronald Reagan and consumer activist Ralph Nader. Even Mark Felt, the FBI administrator who eventually admitted to being the Watergate scandal's "Deep Throat," once spoke in Waco Hall.

The building also has served as a guerrilla performance theater for Baylor's NoZe Brotherhood, which has used it for such stunts as presenting President Abner McCall, JD '38, BA '42, with a bottle of Boone's Farm wine or dropping 4,000 pink pingpong balls onstage during a Chapel service.

A gift from the citizens of Waco to the university they wouldn't hear of losing, Waco Hall at age 80 remains a showcase of Baylor traditions and a window that brings the world's best to campus.

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