Restoring a campus memory
By Loretta Fulton
Reprinted with permission from The Messenger
Photography by Tim Nelson
After graduating from McMurry in 1955, Jack Darnell spent the next 31 years seeing the world courtesy of the United States Navy. He sailed the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean – just about every body of water large enough to float a Navy ship.
But even after a lifetime of seeing some of the world’s greatest sights, Darnell, 80, was stunned when he walked into the newly renovated Old Main, the primary building on campus during his years.
“I was really pleased,” Darnell said, “to see what they have done, not only with the auditorium, but the entire building.”
For Darnell, a member of the McMurry alumni board, it wasn’t just seeing a nicely remodeled building. It was making a connection with the past and seeing the building being enjoyed by today’s students just like those in his day.
“It was just great to see it being used again,” he said.
When Darnell was on campus, Old Main was a beehive of activity. The auditorium, which has been restored to its original glory, was used for drama classes and biology labs, lectures, and even pep rallies.
“You were in and out of that building all the time,” Darnell recalled.
Old Main was the original building on campus when McMurry opened in 1923. Current McMurry president, Sandra Harper, understands the emotional attachment that Darnell has to the building, especially the auditorium.
“J.W. Hunt stood on that stage and opened it,” she said, referring to McMurry’s founder and first president.
With the restoration, the auditorium was renamed to honor William Watt Matthews, who died in 1977 at age 28 from injuries sustained in a plane crash on the family ranch near Albany. Donations from family foundations made the restoration possible.
The new name is one of many the auditorium has carried over its lifetime. Dr. Robert Sledge, professor emeritus of history at McMurry, recalled at least three previous names – College Auditorium, College Chapel and Radford Memorial Auditorium (before present-day Radford was built).
Sledge recalled that graduations were held in the auditorium before graduating classes outgrew it. Over the years, the auditorium deteriorated in appearance and in status until being brought back to life.
“It became kind of a classroom for a while,” Sledge said, “and then kind of a storeroom.”
One of the few people who could see through the clutter of the storeroom and gaze into the past and future of the auditorium was Rick Weatherl, the preservation architect commissioned to oversee the restoration.
Weatherl’s handiwork can be seen all over Abilene. He was responsible for the restoration of the Grace Museum, as well as numerous other sites. Weatherl’s work requires that he not be deterred, no matter what is discovered once the layers of paint and and grime start coming off.
“In preservation, you always find surprises,” he said. “It’s how you respond to the surprises that’s the hard part.”
The surprises in Old Main were mostly pleasant. Weatherl loves to scrape down to the original colors in historic buildings. The Old Main auditorium provided just the challenge he loves. The auditorium originally was painted three shades of green, which happens to be Weatherl’s favorite color. Other colors also appeared, which many people would find surprising, Weatherl said. People tend to think that buildings constructed in the early 20th century were painted in earth tones, not a variety of colors. But, just like the Grace Museum, Old Main had its share of rich colors, which Weatherl matched for the restoration.
Original oak window sills and doors were restored on the first floor, as well as some original glass. All the window frames were painted green, just like the original. The same plaster craftsmen that Weatherl employed for the Grace Museum project came back to Abilene from Fort Worth for the plaster work in the Old Main auditorium.
“It just turned out great,” Weatherl said.
No one would argue. Current students are loving their beautiful new digs, as are faculty members whose offices were scattered all over campus the past three years.
Harper, who began her tenure as president a year ago, formerly was a faculty member at McMurry. The restoration work was in full swing at Old Main when she came back to campus to interview for the president’s job.
She understands the pride the founder must have felt when he stood on the stage of the Old Main auditorium the day McMurry opened. That historical link is still present, both physically and as a metaphor, Harper noted.
“To me, it’s a great symbol of us approaching our centennial,” Harper said. “It’s really pretty powerful.”