UT reclaims its tower, after 25 years

This story originally was published on Sept. 16, 1999.

University of Texas student Diana Arevalo hauled her bulging camera bag to a ceremony Wednesday night to celebrate the reopening of the UT Tower, and she's lucky she did.

Arevalo, a junior majoring in photojournalism, was one of 10 people chosen at random for an inaugural tour of the Tower's observation deck, which reopens to the public today after almost 25 years. The deck sports a new birdcage-like stainless steel barrier to prevent falls and suicides, but it didn't hinder the view for Arevalo and the others.

"I loved it. It was great," Arevalo said of her first visit to the deck. "I was taking pictures the whole time. I want to come back in the daylight and ... when the moon is full."

The Tower, built in 1937 for $3 million, was reopened at a rousing music- and tribute-filled ceremony before more than 1,200 onlookers. Standing beneath the Tower and the six flags that reflect the state's history, UT President Larry Faulkner called the Tower the "architectural and spiritual heart of our campus."

Comments read aloud from current and former students said the Tower represents many things to them: hope, growth, optimism, reunion, celebration, confidence and romance. Before it was closed, the deck was a destination for dating couples and even the site of marriage proposals.

UT celebrated the reopening as part of its 116th anniversary. The event also was the topic of a two-hour symposium.

"The Tower means different things to different people, but that is part of its power," said John Chase, the first black to graduate from UT's Architecture School and the chairman of the Ex-Students' Association.

It is seen as a symbol of higher learning in Texas, an icon in Austin and a beacon for the campus. It is at its most spectacular when bathed in orange lighting to celebrate athletic victories and other triumphs.

But the Tower also evokes painful emotions.

It has been the scene of nine falls and suicides. Student Charles Whitman killed 14 people Aug. 1, 1966, before police killed him at his perch on the observation deck. He had killed his wife and mother earlier that day.

After the last suicide in the fall of 1974, UT shut down the Tower, and the regents made it final Jan. 31, 1975.

Susana Alemn, an alumna and an assistant dean at the Law School, said she sees the Tower as a symbol of aspiration, not tragedy. "The Tower represents a dream to me," she said, of the education she received at UT.

"The Tower shouts to all Texans. ... This is your university," she said.

She thanked Faulkner for "giving back the Tower" to the people of Texas.

Earlier Wednesday, Faulkner was surrounded by national and local media as he stepped onto the UT Tower observation deck wearing a broad grin.

"What you see is something that's breathtaking and something that has to do with what it is to be a Texan," he said.

Faulkner said his own feelings about the Tower deck prompted him to agree with students that it should be reopened. Regents gave final approval in November after Faulkner said a safety barrier would be installed.

"I had personal experience with it, and I know how powerful an experience it is," he said, recalling that moment in 1965 when he, his future wife and his sister rode the elevator up 27 floors and climbed the stairways to the outdoor deck.

"We still have photographs that we took on that occasion," he said.

Faulkner's morning visit before the ceremonial reopening that evening gave him his first glimpse of the barrier that arches over the deck.

Security measures for the public Tower tours that begin today include guards on the observation deck and at the lower level where visitors check their packages. They also must clear a metal detector.

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