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Waco Hall

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.

Audio

A Gift to the University: Robert Markham, a Baylor Professor of Music, recounts the significance of Waco Hall’s construction. He credits local citizens and their fundraising efforts as primary reasons why Baylor University remains in Waco. Source: Markham, Robert Alexander. Interviewed by William Lee Pitts, Jr. April 25, 1979, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
A Campus Unimaginable: Reflecting on Baylor University in the early 1930s, Held expresses that the campus has changed dramatically. Starting with Waco Hall, the campus continually expanded, growing the university, and eventually spreading across Waco. Source: Held, Colbert C. “Cokie.” Interviewed by Lisa Lacy. November 16, 2010, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
The City’s Last Chance: Hoping for a larger performance space in Waco, lifelong Wacoan Carol R. Crosthwait considers the shortcomings of Waco Hall. She also contends a more complicated story about Waco Hall—one where Baylor University threatened to move to Dallas if Wacoans did not donate toward a new university building. Source: Crosthwait, Carol R. Interviewed by Stephen M. Sloan. July 26, 2016, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
The Wings of Waco Hall: As Chair of Baylor’s Piano Department, Otis Herbert Colvin, Jr. witnessed many changes to Waco Hall over the years. Here, he describes the setting for music practices before the construction of the Roxy Grove Wing in the 1950s and the addition of the East Wing in the 1960s. Source: Colvin, Otis Herbert, Jr. Interviewed by Ray F. Luper. July 2, 1997, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
Space, Place, and Sound: Samuel Ken Howard, a choir teacher, reflects on his choir’s performances in Waco Hall. During recitals, the lack of audio equipment and amplification in the performance hall caused difficulty for the large group of choir students. Source:

Howard, Samuel Ken. Interviewed by Barbara Bennett. July 14, 1994, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.

Going to the Chapel: Mandatory chapel meetings meant that Baylor graduate Velma Ray Hugghins often found herself in Waco Hall. She remembers that Baptist leaders and political figures spoke during services and notes that President Pat Neff considered the chapel his classroom. Source: Hugghins, Velma Ray. Interviewed by L. Katherine Cook and Katy Jennings Stokes. August 27, 1982, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
Meaningful Moments: Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert recalls the support of his friends in the Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir during his father’s funeral in Waco Hall. His father, Robert Gilbert, integrated Baylor University in 1965, and remained a prominent preacher and civil rights activist in Waco throughout his life. Source: Gilbert, Kenyatta R. Interviewed by Adrienne Cain. February 24, 2018, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
One-of-a-Kind Organ: A musician, Robert F. Polk discusses playing piano during chapel services in Waco Hall. Performing during Morning Watch, a time for student prayer, struck him as especially meaningful. He also remembers playing a large organ constructed by Robert Markham. Source: Polk, Robert F. Interviewed by Alicia Perry. January 2, 2004, in Dallas, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
First & Last: Baylor University President Pat Neff excitedly led graduation ceremonies in Waco Hall in 1930. Robert Markham recounts the joy of those services and the subsequent sadness of President Neff’s passing soon after. Source: Markham, Robert Alexander. Interviewed by William Lee Pitts, Jr. April 25, 1979, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.
Campaigns on Campus: Mary Kemendo Sendón describes the goals of the Waco-Baylor Campaign and notes that Waco Hall remained a top priority for city and university leaders. After Waco Hall’s construction, Baylor also sought to expand dormitories and other buildings on campus. Source:

Sendón, Mary Kemendo. Interviewed by Lois E. Meyers. February 1, 1994, in Waco, TX. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. Access full interview here.

Images

Welcome to Waco Hall Though Waco Hall now resides on Seventh Street and Speight Avenue, Baylor leaders and faculty originally campaigned for Fifth Street as the structure’s location. Dr. C.D. Johnson reasoned that Fifth Street would provide “easy access both for Waco and for the faculty and students, and in addition it will be the biggest asset to the university and to Waco there because it will be the central building for all academic life.” Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection; “Campus Discusses Site of Waco Hall.” <em>The Waco News-Tribune</em>, June 27, 1928. www.newspapers.com.
A Waco Winter An icy relationship developed between the City of Waco and Baylor University prior to the construction of Waco Hall. When city officials in Dallas offered Baylor $1.5 million and 1,000 acres of land to relocate their campus, Wacoans reacted quickly, announcing a plan to raise $1 million for Baylor in the next seven years. Their initial funds supported the construction of Waco Hall. Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection; Turner, Don. “Waco Hall: Brick, Stone, and Steel.” The Baylor Lariat. April 28, 1969. The Texas Collection.
Construction on Campus Though thirteen general contractors bid for Waco Hall, university and community leaders awarded Waco’s own Johnson Company with the contract. Previously, Johnson built the Baylor Library, various buildings at Texas A&M, and Waco locals considered them “one of the best college-building companies in the state.” Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection. “Construction of Waco Hall to Be Started at Once.” The Waco News-Tribune, March 13, 1929. www.newspapers.com.
Surplus Seating In 1965, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Cooper Foundation, Waco Hall’s auditorium received new opera chair-style seating. Part of Baylor’s Project ‘68 program that sought to expand and improve campus buildings, the renovations occurred at the same time as the construction of the east wing addition to Waco Hall. Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection; “Waco Hall Will Get New Seats.” The Waco News-Tribune. January 14, 1965. The Texas Collection.
Instruction and Instruments Home to many instruments, one of Waco Hall’s most notable features was the Brooks memorial organ. Installed on May 30, 1937, chapel services and campus events utilized the 100-stop pipe organ for hymns and the well-known “That Good Old Baylor Line.” Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection. “Organ Installation Honors Long-time Baylor Connections.” Baylor Magazine. Summer 2010. https://www.baylor.edu/alumni/magazine/0804/news.php?action=story&story=75757.
That’s So 70s In 1978, Waco Hall received a new director. Bill Lechner, a 1971 Baylor graduate, coordinated events, supervised technical services, and managed a university service that lent equipment to Baylor faculty and student organizations. Source: Courtesy of Texas Collection.
Classes and Chapel The construction of Waco Hall provided a needed meeting space for Baylor students. The auditorium regularly hosted chapel, including a service once interrupted by a prank from Baylor’s Noze Brotherhood, where members dropped 4,000 pink ping pong balls onto the Waco Hall stage. Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection. Eckenrode, David. “Waco Hall.” The Texas Collection.
Making Music In 1957, musicians on campus received more space to practice for performance. The addition of the Roxy Grove Hall wing included new practice rooms, a recital hall with 620 seats, and also expanded office space. Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection; Turner, Tommy. “Waco Hall Undergoes Renovation; Management Changes Announced.” Waco Tribune-Herald. October 26, 1978. The Texas Collection.
Building Up Baylor When considering why Wacoans needed to support the construction of Waco Hall on Baylor’s campus, one resident put it this way: “Baylor University is deeply rooted in Waco; Waco is in the heart of Texas; Waco and Baylor are really a part of each other. To move Baylor would uproot these ties and this noble sentiment. Waco cannot afford to see such a thing happen.” Source: Courtesy of the Texas Collection; “Why The Waco-Baylor Campaign?” The Waco News-Tribune, May 27, 1928. www.newspapers.com.

Location

Waco Hall remains in its original location on Baylor's campus at 624 Speight Avenue.

Metadata

Allie Roberts, “Waco Hall,” Waco History, accessed October 3, 2022, https://wacohistory.org/items/show/228.