In December 1999, after nearly seven years of planning, design, and gift development, construction began on the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center, the home of Baylor Law School. Following a 20-month build-out, the project was completed on schedule, allowing classes to begin in the new law center for the 2001 Fall term. The project architectural firm was SmithGroup of Washington, D.C.
The law center is set on a four and one-half acre Brazos River site adjacent to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Fort Fisher complex (to the west) and the Mayborn Museum complex (to the east). The site features sweeping views downriver and across to the McLane Stadium, which opened in 2014 and is home to the NCAA D-1 top-10 ranked Baylor Bear football program. The stadium affords the Law School several meeting venues for special events with views to the illuminated field and to downtown Waco. The Umphrey Bridge, immediately adjacent to the law center, provides pedestrian access to both sides of the Brazos. A gently sloping landscaped terrace, planted in native species, forms the riverside elevation of the law center.
A pedestrian river walk currently runs along the riverbank from the Ferrell Center (approximately one-half mile downriver from the law center), home of the 2021 NCAA D-1 national champion men’s basketball program and the 2019, 2012, and 2005 NCAA D-I national champion women’s basketball program, past the law center and into Cameron Park. The Park, part of the National Recreation Trail System and one of the largest public parks in Texas, runs along the cliffs of the Brazos River and is the home to the confluence of the Brazos and North Bosque Rivers. The river walk planning was underway during the design of the law center and led to SmithGroup’s designing the law center with two public fronts -- one facing south to University Parks Drive and the other facing north to the site where McLane Stadium was eventually sited.
The splayed “U” footprint” of the law center was designed to achieve optimal functionality and maximize views across and down the Brazos River. The design integrates many large window exposures for the purpose of bringing the outside environment, including the river views, “into” the interior of the law center. From within other parts of the law center there also are excellent views of the campus proper and the downtown Waco area, which has been undergoing a period of rapid entertainment, retail, and commercial activity. Also, a 12-mile stretch of I-35 that runs from north Waco to past the campus is under total reconstruction (lanes, overpasses, ramps, and service roads). The highway project began in early 2019 and will be completed in early 2023.
A main entry drive extends from University Parks Drive and diagonally bisects the law center parking lot as it leads to a circular drive at the center of the building between two spacious lawns in front of the entry courtyard that include the stylized sculpture “SpiritWalker” by the late sculptor Gene Tobey. The entry drive is marked by live oaks and memorial lampposts that are found elsewhere on the Baylor campus. At the center of the circular drive is a landscaped island. Within the landscaped island are two duplicate, crescent shaped, stone engraved signs that marks the building as Baylor Law School’s home as one enters and departs from the law center.
As the law center is viewed from University Parks Drive, it is nicely framed by pecan trees located nearly equidistant from one another across the elevation of the building. The parking area, which is dedicated to the Law School, provides approximately 372 slots.
The footprint of the law center is set 85 to 155 feet from the riverbank. The building foundation of the structure is well above the 100-year flood plain of the Brazos River, which is controlled by a dam. The foundation is set on cased piers that extend to the bedrock, which was encountered at a nearly constant depth of 42 feet across the site, with pier penetration into the bedrock ranging from 6 to 15 feet.
 To adequately ensure that we have ample parking for law students, Baylor University has entered into an agreement with the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, just north of the Law School, that provides that law students may park in the 50-slot lot of the Hall of Fame should the Law School’s parking lot become full. Law students are also permitted to park for free at McLane Stadium. From the stadium, they can walk over the Brazos River on the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Bridge to get to the law center.
The impressive height of the three-level building is owing to floor-to-floor measurements of 17 feet, 4 inches, compared with the 11 or 12-feet norm. The apex style roof also adds height that is equivalent to another story of about 17 feet. Furthermore, broad interior corridors stand as integral spaces unto themselves and not merely as passageways, featuring informal soft seating areas and adding girth to the building. The law center has 128,000 gross square feet of space.
The pewter-hued, standing seam, galvanized finish steel roof, combined with the interior building lighting and extensive glass exposures, make the law center a marker of one’s entry into the City of Waco when driving south on I-35. The law center is further marked by exterior accent lighting on both the river and University Parks Drive elevations that further heightens its visibility in the evening and nighttime hours.
The law center has a classic exterior that reflects the red brick and cut stone of the original campus buildings near the central area of the campus. While the overall building design is in a classic mode, the design also integrates certain contemporary elements that give the law center a timeless design quality.
The windows around the building are highlighted by spandrels made of grey-green Vermont slate. There are four architectural circular medallions on the gable areas on both ends of the east and west wings. The slate medallions are each inset with a Texas star and are surrounded by distinctively crafted masonry work. A scripture verse from the prophet Micah is engraved in a slate panel on a wall to the right of the entry courtyard. The building is designed to integrate three major components: the west and east components each have three levels and a fourth equipment/attic level; the central component has two levels and an additional storage/attic level.
The spacious entry courtyard provides an aesthetically pleasing entry into the law center. The courtyard design features live oaks, cedar elms, red oaks, and many other native species of plants. The Walk of Honor, a display of pavers of four different sizes and five different hues recognizing Law School donors, is placed in the courtyard. The courtyard also features informal seating areas to allow for outside study and socializing. A curvilinear pergola defines the leading edge of the courtyard and is covered, on both its vertical and horizontal elements, with trailing cross vines.
The courtyard marks, by way of massive, engraved boulders, the components of the law center and invites the visitor into one of the two entries. The main entry is into the central Leon Jaworski Center, and a second entrance is into the east side Harold and Carol Ann Nix Academic and Advocacy Center. The Jaworski Center and the Nix Center, as well as the west side Sheridan and John Eddie Williams Legal Research and Technology Center, are marked by massive, engraved boulders in the courtyard. The Nix Center classroom/courtroom entrance allows ingress and egress from the law center to the courtyard and parking area during daytime hours when most foot traffic is between the east classrooms and courtrooms and the parking area.
The main entry leads into a large and inviting curvilinear entry foyer and main corridor that includes an immediate view through the foyer and out to the river. The Wall of Honor, honoring major gift donors, along with other recognitions, is located on two curvilinear slate-on-slate walls in the entry foyer.
Nearly all the wood used throughout the law center is makore, an African cherry wood. There are about 44,000 square feet of cherry paneling in the law center, along with extensive quarter-sawn cherry trim. The makore trim work creates, along with other finishes, a feeling of warmth in the building. The grey-green Vermont slate (punctuated by black Pennsylvania slate division points) is used on the exterior window spandrels, and on the floors of the first level curvilinear corridor, the student social lounge, and the library entrance and reception areas. The slate also is used as accent breakpoints in the coordinated carpeting that is used throughout the balance of the law center.
The law center has five staircases, including two that are open and broad (one in the central hall on the main corridor, just off the entry foyer, and one that meets the view of the library user upon entry into the west wing library). They are aesthetically pleasing in that they become progressively wider from top to bottom and feature the Vermont slate. There are two elevators -- one in the east wing and one in the west wing.
The central component of the law center is on the first level -- home to our clinics, two courtrooms, and a multi-function lounge overlooking the Brazos.
On the second level, the central hall is home to the dean’s administrative suite. The area includes a hardwood floor reception area, the deans’ offices, and a large dean’s conference room with a granite-topped cherry wood table. The suite also includes office areas for admissions and financial aid, registrar operations, marketing, and publications, as well as work areas and a kitchen area.
The Career Development Office suite (including a large conference room) and Alumni Relations areas are located between the dean’s suite and the second floor of the west library wing. These suites feature comfortable and spacious resources and reception areas, six library small group study rooms that overlook the courtyard, a conference room, the Leon Jaworski Memorial Office, and the Judge Frank Wilson Rare Book Room (each of which is used principally as interview rooms during on-campus interviews), staff offices, and a kitchen area. During the on-campus recruitment season, the study rooms serve double-duty as interview rooms.
We are currently in the design stage, working with SmithGroup, to explore options for re-configuring the Career Development Office suite, the Alumni Relations suite, and a portion the second-level library stacks area. The goal is to create a dedicated student success and activity area for academic assistance, student spaces for quiet and collaborative work, and re-imagining the existing career development and alumni relations operations to reflect our internal programming growth and future opportunities for our students.
The east wing contains the classrooms, four trial courtrooms, one appellate classroom and courtroom, and other advocacy facilities, as well as a student social lounge (on the first level), the faculty suite (on the third level), and other amenities, including large student locker rooms and changing rooms on the first two levels (one with 256 student lockers and the other with 154 lockers).
A large two-story, octagonal appellate advocacy courtroom and classroom is prominent in the view of the law center from University Parks Drive. The courtroom/classroom, which seats up to 150 persons (and an additional 48 in non-desk seating), features upon entry a soaring design and a high level of finish. Additionally, there are two classrooms and two seminar rooms on the first level of the east wing. The two classrooms each accommodate 98 students, and the two seminar rooms each accommodate 20 students.
Classrooms range from the small seminar rooms and classrooms to larger classrooms set in a tiered horseshoe conformation. The classroom desks in the larger classrooms are built on a radius and are made of the signature makore cherry wood found throughout the law center. All classrooms feature comfortable, adjustable seating, and a natural slate chalk board. The classrooms are designed specifically to enhance interchange among the instructor and students and have outstanding acoustical qualities. All seats in the classrooms and courtrooms are hard-wired for data and power (along with a concurrent wireless network). The lighting in the classrooms and in every area of the law center is of the highest quality, providing an inviting and highly functional illumination.
Also on the first level in the east wing is the student social lounge, with views looking across a broad riverside terrace and down the river. Adjacent to the lounge is a food service area for light, pre-prepared breakfast, and lunch fare for the Law School community. The social lounge opens out onto a paved patio seating area that overlooks the terrace and river and provides additional space for outside socializing or studying.
The corridors that serve the classrooms and courtrooms in the east wing are broad and are marked by carpeting punctuated by Vermont slate accent lines. As noted above, the corridors are integral spaces, complete with informal seating areas to encourage discussion between faculty members and students between class sessions.
The Practice Court classroom, with a 118-person seating capacity, is located on the second level of the east wing (room 234). The classroom is the centerpiece of an advocacy suite that features four technology-equipped courtrooms (in addition to the two courtrooms on the first level) that, like other areas within the law center, are decorated in complementary yet distinctive decors. The second level also contains additional classrooms accommodating, respectively, 56, 40, and 40 students.
The faculty suite, with all faculty offices having windows that provide views across or down the river or of the City of Waco, are on the third level of the east wing. The faculty suite also features a small reception area, a faculty lounge, a staff lounge, and administrative and workroom spaces.
Each of the three levels of the west wing is occupied by the library. The circulation, reserve, reference, and technical service functions, as well as the offices of the library faculty and staff members, are on the first level. While the hard copy collection continues to be curated, our Law School community has become largely reliant on online and other technology-based information.
Aside from the first-level reserve area, the hard copy collection of the library is held principally in stack areas on the second and third levels of the library, as well as in the reading rooms found on all three levels of the library. Study carrels and tables are located on the perimeter of the stack areas and in the reading rooms. The federal depository area on the third level of the Jaworski Center is accessible from a third level reading room and from the east third-level faculty suite.
On each level of the library, all spaces that face the river are dedicated to reading room spaces. The library has been designed to give users inviting vistas to the outside environment from wherever they may work. The most prominent architectural feature of the riverside elevation of the law center is a three-story semicircular north-facing bay with a first floor reading room and a majestically tiered, atrium-styled second- and third-story main reading room.
Each of the large reading rooms is flanked on either side (up-river and down-river) by smaller reading rooms and one reading room that doubles as a large conference room. On the third floor, three reading areas open down into the second-floor main reading room. The tiered reading room, just as in the case of each of the smaller reading rooms, gives users spacious and open study areas with views of and down the river by reason of the predominant glass window design on the riverside elevation of the law center.
The Writing Center is on the third level of the library (with six offices, two instructional / common areas, and a recording studio), as are the IT team offices and technology server / equipment areas. The Baylor Law Review suite of offices is located on the third level of the library.
The costs for the law center construction included various collateral cost components, including architectural and consulting fees; site utility re-conformation; furniture, fixture, and equipment costs; technology and audio-visual installation; building commissioning; landscaping; demolition costs to remove two existing structures; moving; and campaign overhead.
The Law School is fiscally autonomous. As we moved into the law center project in 1992 and thereafter, our first objective was to develop a significant part of the funds through significant seven and six figure “anchor” gifts. Once our funding success in this effort was substantially assured through anchor gift commitments developed in the early and mid-90s, we made plans to commence a comprehensive general campaign to complete funding of the new facility and to raise further endowment funds for the Law School. The “open” campaign commenced in May 1999, and the resources raised significantly exceeded the project cost.
The Law School was the principal liaison with the architects and contractor on all matters, major and minor, involving the project. We were involved in this fashion because we have a tremendous pride in the creation of a home for our law school that reflects our deep commitment to educating and training outstanding lawyers. The entire process put our students, and the quality of their educational experience, first and foremost.
The Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center makes a powerful statement about the place and mission of Baylor Law School in legal education. We have a home that matches the excellence of our program.