Dallas, Texas — At my Alma Mater, Southern Methodist University (SMU), there is a Room with, hands down, the best view of the campus and of the Dallas skyline.
And, it’s a 100-year-old Secret to most Mustangs.
Welcome to the Attic Apartment atop Dallas Hall.
Dallas Hall sits atop an actual Hilltop at SMU and commands a view of the entire campus (voted one of the most beautiful in the nation) as well as the skyline of the city of Dallas. The building is listed on the national historical register, and its dome is quite majestic.
If you look at Dallas Hall, focus on the two stone balconies beneath the grand Dome, on each side. Now look at the Dome, but right in the center beneath it, there is Another Balcony.
Herein sits Dallas Hall’s long forgotten dorm room and SMU’s very tight-lipped architectual Secret.
Once upon a time, the first President of SMU, Robert Hyer, was to live in a private attic apartment at the very top of Dallas Hall in front of the dome with its own private balcony overlooking the entire campus. The apartment, however, was deemed too small for President Hyer’s wife, so they ended up living in another building, Clements Hall.
Kudos to you, Mrs. Hyer. You are/were quite correct.
So for a very short time, the attic apartment which is basically just two rooms (and a fantastic balcony with an unparalleled view) housed SMU’s first football coach, Ray Morrison (who also coached Track, Baseball, and Basketball in addition to teaching Mathematics!) who was then succeeded by some lucky Theology students before they got too rowdy, and use of the apartment was discontinued.
This is why we can’t have nice things, people!
Darwin Payne, former chairman of SMU’s Division of Journalism, mentions this space in his well-received SMU Centennial commemorative book, One Hundred Years on the Hilltop. Payne’s book reminded me of the existence of Hyer’s apartment. The Seed of Curiosity germinated.
A few weeks ago during Homecoming Week, this Prodigal returned to The Hilltop to guest-lecture a couple of classes in Meadows School of the Arts.
I checked out a number of exhibits in both Perkins’ Bridwell Library (Martin Luther Bibles!) and the Meadows Museum (Spanish Art!), however, those wonderful displays paled in comparison to this privately secured campus tour.
I was lucky enough to rediscover SMU’s architectural secret alongside my classmate, Dodie Jacobi (a Meadows grad), and Joan Gosnell, the University’s Archivist. Our tour guide was Scot Montague, Operations Chief (and an SMU Dad).
Entering via an unmarked door inside Dallas Hall, the four of us very carefully climbed an old iron spiral staircase which leads to an anteroom of the apartment. This anteroom is circular because of the Dome:
Lots of exposed brick, cobwebs, and dust welcomed us as its most recent visitors.
We were stepping back through Time: An Unmarked Door. An Old Spiral Staircase! A Chamber of Secrets?
All that was missing was the ghost of President Hyer (or his wife) bitching about the draft and our casual attire.
My inner Harry Potter could not have been more thrilled!
If only those Theology students from the 1900s could have regaled us with their stories of having the coolest dorm room on campus. Surely, they grilled out hamburgers on the balcony while debating The New Testament.
Okay, maybe not.
What I did not know is that there is a second iron spiral staircase that leads to a private office below the apartment. Presumably, this staircase entrance was intended for President Hyer. Dodie and I both made mental notes to reserve that office should we ever return as Alumni-in-Residence.
Dallas Hall is the first (and last) building a student likely enters while at SMU. I certainly had many English, Journalism and History classes there during my undergraduate days. So, it was a particular pleasure to finally get a peek at one of its most closely held secrets: The Attic Apartment.
In a perfect world, the University would share my love for this space and restore it. Again, there are only two very small rooms: A living area and a bathroom. And, that awesome balcony (or three!). The pale blue walls are heavily grafittied from students (and faculty) who commemorated their sneaky visits via Sharpie. We were not the first to visit this belfry. Many have preceded us. You can read their names right there on the wall.
What is undeniable about this curious space is how special and unique a living quarter it must have been back in the early 1900s. Also, it must have been very cold and drafty during the winter months!
One hundred year-old wooden doors with transoms, baseboards, and tongue and groove flooring show the craftsmanship that went into creating this one-of-a-campus apartment.
Unfortunately, the safety concerns are numerous. That tremendous view, though…
One day, this wonderfully quirky attic apartment will be re-discovered by the right person, that maverick Dean, the history-obsessed University President, and it will be restored to its original Glory. (Heads up, Laura Bush!)
For now, though, this super secret apartment is A Room With THE View at SMU.
Special Thanks to Joan Gosnell of SMU Archives and to Scot Montague of University Operations for the private tour which was the highlight of a very special week in Dallas. Thank you for your time and for your generosity of Spirit.
After the tour of Dallas Hall, Joan invited Dodie and I to view the Archives which is located in the DeGolyer Library in the Fondren Building. It was like stepping backstage of Reality, or if you will, the Room of Requirement in Hogwarts.
The History of SMU is in good hands as Joan is a wonderful custodian of the University’s past which includes collections from Dallas entrepreneurs Stanley Marcus and J.C. Penney.
Dodie and I found our junior year Rotunda which chronicled our days as the Resident Advisors in the now-defunct Lettermen Hall (sadly, now a parking structure):
Architectural Secrets at SMU are probably numerous.
Supposedly, there are secret tunnels that run underneath the Main Quad. I shall leave those to another intrepid alumnus to file a report. For me, though, seeing this Dallas Hall secret after wondering about it for decades was a triumph in both curiosity and resourcefulness in addition to the generosity of the University to grant such a Tour.
I love my alma mater. Now, I love it even more. History really is a treasure. At SMU, there is much to be discovered. You can start with SMU’s Digital Collections
Seek and Ye Shall Find, my fellow Prodigals.
N E X T U P:
Off to Park City, Utah. Let it Snow!