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The Backstory: 84 years ago, a mysterious orange and white glow lit up the night sky in Austin

What was it? And how did Austinites react?

AUSTIN, Texas — On a bright autumn night in October 1937, the huge floodlights on the newly-completed University of Texas Tower were turned on for the first time, illuminating the iconic structure in the warmth of an orange and white glow, a tradition that continues today.

At the time, the local newspaper reported that people in Round Rock and Manor could see it clearly in the night sky.

The year 1937 had been a special one in the history of UT. The project to build a new main library and its unusual tower had begun just four years earlier. UT regents hired a distinguished architect trained in France – Paul Cret – who envisioned a central tower just over 300 feet tall. 

The Austin City Council had to grant special permission since, at the time, no building was allowed to be taller than the Texas State Capitol building nearby. It would remain the tallest building in Austin for more than 20 years after it opened.

The main library’s book collections were cataloged throughout the 27 floors of the tower. According to UT history, to access the books, students browsed card catalogs on the second floor, then submitted their requests at the main desk. Above them, librarians were stationed on every other floor. They would roller skate to retrieve requested books and send them down to the main desk via dumbwaiter to the students below.

The UT Tower is not only a commanding sight, it even has a distinctive sound. Above the observation deck are the bells of the carillon, which ring on the quarter hour. With 56 bells, the carillon is the largest and heaviest in Texas and is played by hand, often at noon on weekdays.

Eighty-four years old and still one of the most iconic buildings in the U.S.: the UT Tower.

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