On a chilly Thanksgiving Day in 1912, several thousand people gathered on a hill six miles from downtown Dallas. They had traveled by car and chartered train to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of Dallas Hall, an event The Dallas Morning News described as “a day of jubilation.”
SMU celebrated the centennial of the laying of the Dallas Hall cornerstone Nov. 28, 2012, at a ceremony for the Dallas Hall Society in the Rotunda of Dallas Hall. The Dallas Hall Society recognizes those who contribute to SMU’s future through planned gifts. In a 30-day countdown that began Homecoming weekend, alumni, students, faculty and staff signed giant Dallas Hall birthday cards and enjoyed birthday cupcakes.
For nearly 100 years, SMU’s elegant first building has served as a symbol of the University, a standard of its classic collegiate Georgian style, home to intellectual discourse for generations of students, and center of SMU’s liberal arts tradition, now Dedman College. Named in honor of the Dallas citizens whose contributions funded the building, Dallas Hall also serves as a symbol of the close relationship the University shares with the city.
The crowd gathered to witness the laying of the cornerstone waited three years for the completion of the grand building, inspired by the Roman Pantheon and the library Thomas Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia. Construction was delayed by the bankruptcy of the original contractor. When Dallas Hall opened in 1915 for SMU’s first classes, it housed the complete university including classrooms, offices, a library, a hamburger grill, science labs, piano practice rooms, a chapel, an attic apartment, a barber shop, a post office and a mummy.
In 1915, a Christmas tree that reached to the third floor of Dallas Hall was displayed in the Rotunda. Several years later, the Arden Club began presenting its annual Commencement Shakespeare play in front of Dallas Hall.
For its first 10 years, Dallas Hall hosted all classrooms on campus. After 1925, with the construction of other classroom buildings, it remained the home of liberal arts classes and a popular gathering place for students. Authors Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost visited English classes in Dallas Hall in its first decade.
Dallas Hall’s careful design continued to serve the campus well until it was closed in 1970 for a $1.9 million renovation. It reopened in 1971 with major changes to classrooms in the east and west wing interiors. The chapel on the third floor was replaced by the 196-seat Arden Playhouse (now McCord Auditorium). Dallas Hall’s first elevator replaced one of the double stairways on the east end of the building and restrooms were added on each floor.
The seal on the marble floor of the Rotunda was added in the 1970 renovation. Tradition holds that students who step on the seal will not graduate.
Perhaps the most meaningful part of the renovation was the restoration of the office of the SMU’s first president, Robert S. Hyer. Partitions in the southwest room off the oval of the Rotunda were removed and the office was restored to its original size. The oval oak table first used in 1915 in the president’s office was returned, and the room was named the Robert S. Hyer Seminar Room.
Celebration of Lights, which students now call their favorite SMU tradition, began in 1977 as a way to thank SMU donors and spread holiday cheer. Strings of lights decorated the columns of Dallas Hall at the first celebration. The event, still held on the steps of Dallas Hall, now heralds the arrival of the holidays with carols, candles and thousands of tiny lights decorating the main quad.
Students now begin their academic careers at SMU with Rotunda Passage, a procession through Dallas Hall, onto the main quad and into McFarlin Auditorium. After Baccalaureate, graduates make the same journey in reverse, from McFarlin Auditorium, through Dallas Hall and, symbolically, out into the world.
In 2000, a time capsule was buried just south of Dallas Hall, a project of a history class, “Millennialism Through the Ages.” It contains 1999-2000 academic catalogs, Homecoming memorabilia, an issue of The Daily Campus, and top-selling 1999 compact discs, the movies, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Apocalypse Now,” among other items.
Preservation Dallas honored SMU in 2006 for its restoration and renovation of Dallas Hall’s rotunda and dome, recapturing their original 1915 grandeur. Restoration artists removed layers of paint from the rotunda ceiling and gilded the ornate plaster carvings with 23-karat gold leaf. The stained glass oculus also was restored and reinstalled with new lighting.
One hundred years after its cornerstone was laid, Dallas Hall remains the symbol of SMU and home to University traditions. Generations of alumni have been influenced by the intellectual activities housed within its corridors. The stone pediment fronting Dallas Hall continues to proclaim SMU’s motto, Veritas Liberitat Vos, “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”
– Nancy George, SMU News