By most accounts, Frank Erwin was not a very nice guy. As longtime power broker of the state’s Democratic Party and chairman of the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents in the 1960s and ’70s, to the UT counterculture Erwin embodied every imaginable stereotype of The Man. His efforts against the era’s student protest movement, including an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to ban the sale of legendary alternative newspaper The Rag from the UT campus in the late 1960s, are well-documented even in sober print — and you can ask any surviving local hippies for the more colorful anecdotes of his popular reputation at the time.
But Erwin’s famous penchant for hippie-hating reached its historical apex in 1969, when efforts to reroute San Jacinto Boulevard along Waller Creek to make room for new football stadium seating supported by the building now known as Bellmont Hall threatened approximately 39 live oak trees. As students climbed the condemned trees to protest the pending removal, Erwin personally directed their arrests by local law enforcement, according to some stories actually riding shotgun on a bulldozer as the oaks were torn from the banks of the creek.
This extremely Austin story would have likely cinched Erwin’s local legacy if the university hadn’t decided after his passing in 1980 to dedicate its new special events center, popularly known as the “Super Drum” after its completion in 1977, as the Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center. (According to local myth, a sort of spontaneous party broke out when news of his death reached denizens of the Drag, but there’s no record of how they reacted to the center’s new name.) While this renaming was considered an honor at the time, nearly 50 years later it feels like the hippies scored one last jab — Erwin’s name is now synonymous with one of the city’s ugliest buildings, and the time has come to knock it down for good. The demolition of the Erwin Center is expected to be approved by the UT System’s Board of Regents at its meeting later this week, with the full teardown scheduled for completion by the end of 2024.
Blowing stuff up has gotten expensive. @UTAustin Board of Regents will meet this week & approve the destruction of Erwin Center. Should happen in the fall and will actually be more a tear-down than blow-up. Also on agenda: Official contract approval of @TexasMBB HC Rodney Terry pic.twitter.com/rMAfhrTDAe
— Thomas Jones (@ThomasJonesAAS) May 1, 2023
The building’s removal will make room for further expansion of UT’s Dell Medical School, which might seem like a somewhat lateral move in terms of vibrant downtown land use — but the expansion ties into a larger vision for the surrounding area that should soon include affordable housing and other mixed-use projects alongside these medical uses as part of the newly-dubbed Innovation District. This news is kind of amusing if you recall what the board told the Austin Chronicle about this site 10 years ago, but plans change, don’t they?
Last week, the UT Board of Regents approved the development of the Dell Medical School on the southeast section of campus. University spokesman Robert Cullick confirmed to the Chronicle‘s Richard Whittaker that the university has plans to demolish the Erwin Center, but dismissed the previously held notion that it was to make way for med school buildings.
“That stuff is beyond the Dell Medical School piece,” he explained. “That is the overall, and what I mean by that is that you can build any education and research buildings, you can build a medical office building and a parking garage – that’s what we consider everything for this plan to move forward – and you can do all that without moving the Erwin Center.”
Cullick says UT’s master plan shows the Erwin Center going away at some point, but stressed, “You don’t have to do it in order to build what we told the public we need for a medical school.”
Plenty of Austinites have fond memories of events that happened to take place at the Erwin Center — concerts, basketball games, standing in line to register for classes at UT back in the day, and so on — but the building itself doesn’t really factor into that nostalgia, as far as we can tell. Only a year after its grand opening, complaints about the center’s poor acoustics for live performance and inaccessible design for wheelchair users made it into the Austin American-Statesman.
Although its UFO shape makes for good seating arrangements at basketball games, the exterior of the center doesn’t do much for its surroundings — its monolithic concrete look from architects B.W. Crain and Ralph Anderson, who later went on to help design Houston’s famous (and slightly more memorable) Astrodome, is charmingly ugly at best. At 46 years of age and counting, the center will likely be torn down just shy of the 50-year eligibility cutoff for national and state historic status, but we really don’t see anyone in the preservation community raising a fuss. After all, everyone already seems to like the center’s replacement just fine.
What should be everyone’s concern as the medical school expansion moves forward is the preservation of the Arthur P. Watson Chateau located on UT property one block west of the Erwin Center, an important space in the history of Austin’s gay community — which ironically only survived university expansion efforts in the 1970s because its longtime resident Arthur Watson happened to be friends with Frank Erwin. People, even hippie-hating, tree-dozing people, are awfully complicated.