Without the construction of Waco Hall, Baylor University might reside in Dallas, Texas. In the early 1900s, some Baylor representatives pushed for the university to relocate and had already placed parts of the institution in Dallas, including the newly established medical school. Resisting such a transition, Wacoans banded together to keep the university in the city. Under the auspices of the Waco-Baylor Campaign, community and university leaders introduced a plan titled “Greater Baylor University” in May 1928. Wacoans pledged to raise $350,000 in support of the university, with the agreement that no additional gifts would be required over the next three years. Texas Baptists committed to matching Waco’s donations. Local leaders believed these efforts to be favorable for both Waco and Baylor. Committing to an investment in the expansion of the university meant potential growth and flourishing in Waco.
Early on, city and university leaders decided that funds would support the construction of a new building on Baylor’s campus. Seeking to visually represent the connections between Waco and Baylor, leaders of the Waco-Baylor Campaign decided to name the new building Waco Hall. Embodying the relationship between the local community and the university, Waco Hall would serve as a performance and gathering space for Wacoans and Baylor students, faculty, and staff. Eager citizens quickly raised the recommended $350,000, and Wacoans, showing broad support for Waco Hall, went above the original amount, donating a total of $416,000 by June 1928.
Once the campaign met fundraising goals, trustees of Baylor University contemplated the building’s potential location. They decided on Seventh Street and Speight Avenue and completed plans for construction by March 13, 1929. Architects Lang and Mitchell of Dallas finalized structural decisions soon after, and on June 25, 1929, Baylor officials poured Atlas Portland Cement into the foundation. Soon after, O. K. Johnson Construction of Waco began to lay the foundation for the 200-by-200-foot building and finished the project in early 1930. On May twenty-seventh of that year, Baylor University held a dedication ceremony for the newly completed Waco Hall.
From the start of the project, city and Baylor leaders envisioned a structure that would serve as an auditorium for both the community and university. Though university leaders initially expected to only host graduation ceremonies in Waco Hall, the building expanded as a venue for Waco Symphony Orchestra concerts and as the location for Baylor’s School of Music and Department of Art.
At the time of its opening, Waco Hall’s 41,985 square feet contained nine classrooms, six offices, and an auditorium with a capacity of 2,400. The building also featured the Brooks Memorial Organ and a recital hall. Over time, Waco Hall expanded and experienced multiple renovation efforts. In 1957, university leaders added a west annex named Roxy Grove Hall in honor of the previous dean of the School of Music. The facility expanded and improved once more in 1965, when leaders constructed an east annex and installed new auditorium seats. In 1978, Baylor funded another renovation project, adding entry and exit ramps, first-floor restrooms, a custom lighting panel, and additional parking. The community and university funded the placement of acoustic panels in 1997, which debuted on October sixteenth at a Waco Symphony Orchestra concert.
Home to the Waco Symphony Orchestra since 1965, scores of other well-known artists and speakers have performed in front of local audiences at Waco Hall. Hollywood icons Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Lamour, and Claude Rains graced the stage. Opera stars Marian Anderson and Waco’s own Jules Bledsoe dazzled audiences in 1939, and two years later, Bob Hope presented his comedic variety act to Waco audiences. In 1951, Billy Graham preached at Waco Hall, becoming an honorary Noze Brother during his campus visit. Prominent political figures also spoke in Waco Hall, including Presidents Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Lyndon B. Johnson, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, activist Ralph Nader, and Mark Felt, the notorious “Deep Throat” in the Watergate scandal. Renowned musical acts Bachman-Turner Overdrive, John Denver, Amy Grant, and Texas native Waylon Jennings performed there, too.
Waco Hall continues to host community-wide and university events. As at its beginning, the hall hosts University Chapel for students across Baylor’s campus. The auditorium also remains the location for important all-university events, such as Freshman Mass Meeting, Founders Day, All University Sing, Pigskin Revue, and other community and university pageants and ceremonies.
The stage, orchestra pit, and now 2,200-person auditorium in Waco Hall continue to provide a performance and gathering space for the community and university. More than just a building, Waco Hall exemplifies the relationship between Baylor University and the City of Waco—one that spans back before 1930 and continues into the present.