Initially, it was all about deferred maintenance – a catch phrase for everything that needs to be done to an old building in the way of air conditioning, electricity and plumbing just to make it function in modern times, Dr. Steve Searcy recalls.
But those routine efforts literally unfolded the former glory of Scoates Hall on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, and that changed maintenance into makeover.
For 35 years, Searcy has walked Scoates Hall from classrooms to his office, past the leaded stained glass, the colorful Mexican tiles, the ornate wrought iron, the wall murals and the ornamental plaster details.
“I’m a long-time resident of Scoates,” said Searcy, who now is head of the biological and agricultural engineering department there. “So when the experts began to look at the building for maintenance, we looked at the building’s original appearance and decided to restore it to retain its architectural heritage while factoring in state-of-the-art instructional ability for today’s student.
“The building was intended to be a grand edifice so that when people came in they looked and went, ‘wow!’ And that is what we want today.”
The first phase of that effort was revealed Feb. 6 in a reopening of the lecture hall, one of several activities honoring the department’s 100th anniversary, Searcy said.
For architect Nancy McCoy of Dallas, preserving Scoates Hall’s architectural significance — beginning with the lecture hall — is tied not only to its historical value but to the connection the agricultural engineers have had to the building since its construction in 1933. Mainly, the building was designed with functionality, which enabled earlier engineers to demonstrate the farm equipment that was being developed rapidly at that point in U.S. history.
The lecture hall had raised seating for the students to view a stage area large enough for tractors to be driven onto a circulating platform where the teacher could show and demonstrate the various parts, she said. That unique feature had become passe over time and in an earlier remodeling effort the platform was hidden under a layer of concrete.
Because of her discussions with Searcy and the realization of how the building originally functioned – plus its unique interior and exterior beauty – McCoy worked to obtain a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Searcy chipped in funds from his department and worked to secure funding from a variety of campus entities for the lecture hall restoration and renovation.
“The original architect for the building was Samuel C.P. Vosper, and he is not as well-known because he always worked under another architect,” McCoy noted. “But there is a building he designed right next to the Alamo that is supposedly the second–most photographed building in San Antonio after the Alamo because of its decoration.
“Texas A&M was lucky enough to get him for about three years, and he built 10 buildings, which are still there,” McCoy said. “And they are beloved because they are full of decoration and color and details and beautifully crafted. It required a lot of labor, which was cheap at the time, so they took advantage of that.”
She said not only is the exterior decorated with tiles and animal busts, but “the insides of the 10 buildings have incredible interiors with features such as leaded stained glass, murals and ornamental plaster detailing aspects of the solar system that has an impact on the weather and growing things.
“In Scoates, there are wrought iron features and decorative light fixtures,” she added. “This level of detail is not normally seen in an institutional building anywhere.”
Over the years, many of the original features at Scoates had been hidden or painted over – including a colorful stenciled ceiling tiles that had been partially painted white before an acoustical drop-ceiling was installed. Where it is not possible to restore the original component, she said, reproductions can be recreated to match.
“That is extremely rare on any campus to have an incredible interior along with the exterior,” McCoy observed. “But Texas A&M had benefited from the Santa Rita oil gush of 1923, and the 10 buildings were constructed at a cost of about $3 million.”
So, along with constructing a building befitting the need to show farm equipment came the elaborate detail. Texas artist Gertrude Babcock was commissioned to paint murals and Theodore Voss, who owned Voss Metalworks in San Antonio, was hired to create the farm equipment chandelier and other intricate metal features for the building.
The circulating platform that had been seemingly forever encased in concrete, Searcy said, has been exposed and resurfaced as one of the building’s original features – one that once doubled to showcase the power of mechanization and rural electrification.
While the lecture hall has reopened, Searcy and McCoy agree that other areas of Scoates Hall need restoration. One mural painted on canvas and adhered to the wall is loose, and the paint is chipping or fading in other areas, for example.
“We are still in a fundraising mode,” Searcy said, estimating another $700,000 is needed to complete the historic restoration. In addition to the murals, the building’s iron entryway, the foyer and the ornamental plaster features need restoration.
“It’s quite possible to have a modern classroom and retain historical importance,” McCoy said.
To view more pictures of Scoates Hall, go to https://www.flickr.com//photos/agrilifetoday/sets/72157650651605781/show/.
Donations can be sent to the Scoates Lecture Room Renovation fund at the Texas A&M Foundation.