Dallas Hall comprised the entirety of Southern Methodist University when it was completed in 1915 and remained the university’s only building for a decade. Since that time, SMU has grown considerably, but Dallas Hall has remained its enduring symbol. The vision of SMU’s first president, Robert Stewart Hyer, Dallas Hall was modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia and the Pantheon in Rome. Its was designed by the architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in a Collegiate Georgian style. It is now home to the administrative offices of the school’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, the English and history departments, the Center for Southwest Studies and the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
Backstory and Context
After the city of Dallas coerced the founders of SMU to locate the school there rather than Ft. Worth, plans for the construction of Dallas Hall began. The cornerstone was laid in 1912, but construction was delayed after the original construction firm tasked with building Dallas Hall went bankrupt. The massive building was finally completed in 1915. It prominently features a large portico with six Corinthian columnns that support a stone, triangular pediment inscribed with the university’s motto: Veritas Liberabit Vos or “The truth will set you free.” Located directly behind the portico is the hall’s three-story rotunda that includes an ornate stained-glass oculus at its top and is capped, on the exterior, by an oxidized copper dome. In keeping with the Georgian style, two symmetrical red-brick wings extend from the central rotunda and feature matching porticos of their own with minimal ornamentation.
Once completed, Dallas Hall housed all the university’s classrooms, to include its science labs, administrative offices, a post office, chapel, a barbershop, and a burger joint, among other things. For the next ten years, Dallas Hall was SMU as the school did not expand until 1925. Its first graduating class was comprised of just over 700 individuals and dignitaries to visit the new school included authors Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost.
Eventually, Dallas Hall had to be closed for major renovations in 1970-1971. This included replacing the third-floor chapel with the Arden Playhouse, now McCord Auditorium, installing restrooms on every floor, removing one of the building’s double staircases to make room for an elevator, and converting the president’s office into the Robert S. Hyer Seminar Room. Additionally, the university’s seal was inlaid into the marble floor of the rotunda, and tradition holds that any student who treads upon this seal will not graduate. The hall’s impressive rotunda was restored back to its 1915 glory in 2006 and the building achieved LEED (Leadership in energy and Environmental Design) gold certification soon thereafter.
In 1977, SMU began its holiday Celebration of Lights display with Dallas Hall as its centerpiece. Finally, students at SMU begin and end their academic careers at Dallas Hall as the freshman convocation passes through the hall’s rotunda, through the school’s main quadrangle and finishes at McFarlin Auditorium. When these same students graduate, they simply reverse the procession and conclude at Dallas Hall.
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Terry, Marshall. "From High on the Hilltop: A Brief History of SMU." SMU Digital Collection. Accessed April 4, 2017. https://digitalcollections.smu.edu/all/cul/vas/images/Hilltop_Chapter1.pdf
Peeler, Tom. "Dallas Hall and the Hilltop." D Magazine. January 1998. Accessed April 4, 2017. https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/1998/january/history-dallas-hall-and-the-hilltop/
Bosse, Paula. "SMU Turns 100: A Look Back at its Very First Days -- 1915." Flashback Dallas. September 28, 2015. Accessed April 4, 2017. https://flashbackdallas.com/2015/09/28/smu-turns-100/