Grand outside, hollow within: UT keeps Tower nearly half-empty because of safety concerns


Photo Credit: Aaron Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

The loudest noise on the 13th floor of the UT Tower is the minute hand of an old clock. 

More than half of the floors of the UT Tower are empty, classified formally by the University as either “vacant” or “future storage space.” Furniture and unused computer monitors are the only occupants in some of the abandoned offices. The few employees who still work in the upper floors of the Tower won’t be there much longer, because of safety concerns involving evacuation policies. Though the outside of the Tower is ornately decorated, and instantly recognizable, UT’s most iconic building is largely hollow.

“The Tower is really, really cool,” said Dan Slesnick, the senior vice provost for resource management. “The views up there are just spectacular. Losing tens of thousands of square feet of office space on a campus that is short of space is very, very difficult. But we have to keep people safe.”

Of the 657 available rooms in the Tower and Main Building, only 57 percent are currently in use. Of those rooms, just under half are not occupied by people and are instead used as break rooms and for storage. Seventeen of the Tower’s 32 floors are unoccupied.

Slesnick said his office is nearly finished moving people out of the Tower’s upper floors. The University considers the space less safe than lower floors because of the Life Safety Code, a nationwide set of fire safety rules, which requires buildings have multiple exits in the case of a fire. From the 13th floor up to the top of the Tower, an area where there are still 20 occupied offices, there is only one staircase

Though UT fire marshall James Johnson said there are several ongoing projects to make the Tower and stairwells more safe in the event of a fire, he does not feel those measures will ever be sufficient.

“Those things in turn are going to enhance the systems we already have in place, but it’s never going to get us to where the University would like to be based on today’s codes,” Johnson said. “There’s no way we are ever going to be able to build another stairwell — it’s impossible.”

Repurposing buildings is a standard practice on campuses as old and sprawling as UT. Waggener Hall, for instance, originally housed the business school, and as a result, is decorated with images of peaches, cotton, oil and other Texas exports. Waggener Hall became home to the classics and philosophy departments after the business school got a new building.

Though buildings are regularly repurposed, especially for reasons of space efficiency, it is unlikely the upper levels of the Tower will ever become permanent office space again.

The 13th floor of the UT Tower is currently being used as storage space, along with over half of the tower’s 32 floors. The upper floors of the tower that still remain occupied will soon be cleared out in order to meet fire safety regulations. Photo by Lauren Ussery / Daily Texan Staff

When the Tower was completed in 1937, the University planned to use the monumental building as the campus’ main library and not as permanent
office space. UT historian Jim Nicar said while a few administrators were using space in the Tower from the beginning, the plan was not to keep the administrators there but rather to move them into a building of their own. As more libraries opened up on campus, Nicar said the Tower began transitioning more and more into an office space for the administration and staff.

“The administration wasn’t originally supposed to go in the main building of campus — that was the library,” Nicar said. “It was supposed to be the depository of human knowledge. The administration is not the star of the show — it’s the library.”

Slesnick said UT does have plans to use at least some of the space, including using it to store plants. Slesnick says the University is still determining how it will use the upper floors of the Tower once everyone is moved out, but one option is to move storage of plant specimens from the Plant Resources Center currently spanning six lower floors to the higher space. The Plant Resources Center is the University’s herbarium, with more than a million plant specimens, including the largest collection of Texas plants in the world. Slesnick said moving the center higher up would open lower floors up to office space.

Slesnick said transforming the space currently used by the Plant Resource Center into office space will take both money and time, and the process is further complicated by the fact that the Tower is an old and historic building the University strives to preserve.

“Right now we’re kind of in a holding pattern, and that’s why you’re seeing a vacancy,” Slesnick said. “When it comes to space management, everything moves at a glacial pace.”