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Rearview Mirror: Tech Tower

Congratulations to the winner of From the Rumble Seat’s 2019 March Madness Building Bracket!

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The Lettie Pate Whitehead Administration Building, colloquially known as Tech Tower.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

Burdell’s Building Bracket didn’t set out with the prize being a column on the winner, but it seems as fitting of a prize as any for a history columnist to give his pet project about the iconic buildings of the Georgia Tech campus. So, as you can probably guess, the winner of the building bracket was that brick icon on top of a hill on North Avenue, the building most commonly known over its lengthy 130+ year history as Tech Tower.

On a sunny midsummer day in June of 1887, the first shovel of red dirt was turned on the top of a hill overlooking the small but bustling railroad city of Atlanta. Two years prior, on the southern edge of town, a piece of legislation had snaked its ways through the halls of the state capital building. In it, it detailed the first steps the State of Georgia would take towards ensuring a quality technology and engineering education program would be developed in the state.

Backed by a Macon industrialist, John Hanson, and his compatriot, Nathaniel Harris, the bill for what became known as the Georgia School of Technology wasn’t clear about many things, like funding, whether it was an arm of the state funded school that already existed in Athens, or location, but there was one thing for certain - there would be a school that would teach Georgians about engineering in the spirit of Henry Grady’s New South movement.

Before the dirt could be turned over on that fateful day, the committee first had to pick a location to put the school. Out of Atlanta, Athens, Macon, and others, a plot of land just past the city limits on North Avenue was selected as the best site for the school. Tech Tower and its twin, the Old Shop Building, were both constructed in the popular Victorian style out of what became Tech’s vernacular red brick. Of course, a few years later, the Old Shops would be in ruins, thanks to a fire, leaving Tech Tower alone as the oldest building on campus, standing solitary on Tech’s lonely grounds, with an inhospitable ravine to its east, a muddy thoroughfare to its south, and mostly undeveloped and sparsely populated land to its west and north.

In those days, partially out of necessity and partly out of the simple fact that there really weren’t too many needs for more space quite yet, Tech Tower did it all. From daily chapel sessions, to housing a modest library, from offices to classrooms, every academic facet of life passed through the doors of the seven story building. As campus grew, the building lost some of its departments and a bit of the hustle and bustle, but demand for space on campus always outstripped supply, even after the advent of campus residential space, dining halls, medical facilities, and other major academic and laboratory building projects were completed.

It is interesting to note that, when the letters of Tech Tower are mentioned, their origin is cited as installed by the Class of 1922 in 1918. Since they were still students, and freshmen at that, it stands to reason that the young men they were referring to didn’t simply donate some money to put up the letters, but rather physically went up to the top of the building and installed them themselves, to “light the spirit of Tech to the four points of the compass.” If this isn’t practical application of classroom skills, I’m not sure what it is. Later, following the addition of spotlights in the Depression years, the wooden letters, painted gold and white, received metal frames and neon lighting, greatly increasing their visibility at night. This would represent the completion of the timeless panorama of Tech Tower, with its distinctive gold-pointed, green-shingled roof, Victorian architectural flourishes, and bright white and gold TECH letters pointed towards the horizons.

Of course, stealing the T on top of the tower would quickly become a legendary campus prank. The attic space in the tower, long since unused thanks to healthy campus growth, was likely the access point the first time the T was swiped. The Magnificent Seven were the first to steal the T, in commemoration of Institute president Edwin Harrison’s retirement. It was returned to him shortly thereafter as a gift via helicopter thanks to the cajoling of Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen. Tradition states that the T is to be returned at halftime of the homecoming football game, and that the east-facing T is to be the first stolen, proceeding around the tower from there in order. Though it has been swiped many times now, the punishments associated with stealing the T are now quite severe, thanks to liability and other such consequences of incidents, and many measures are in place to prevent students from stealing the T. Similar smaller crimes around campus, from the antics of the Caldwell Liberation Army to scraping vinyl Ts of wayfaring signs, have been inspired by the tradition of defacing Tech Tower. President John Patrick Crecine perhaps said it best when he said, “I think stealing the ‘T’ off the Tech Tower is among the all-time greatest rituals.”

Other famous residents of Tech Tower include the occupants of the restaurant space in the Bradley Building, a much newer addition to the back of the tower. Though the space is currently home to the highly regarded Highland Bakery, a nice brunch spot, it was formerly home to a store, as well as the beloved Junior’s Grill after it was moved off of North Avenue in the former Engineer’s Bookstore space, another lost Tech icon. It is one of my great regrets as a Tech man to have never known Junior’s, but I’m sure someone in the comments will be able to share some memories of a place that was, as far as I know, packed with a veritable museum of Tech memorabilia. Sadly, that experience is now lost to the sands of time.

Further outside the building, there are many monuments and memorials scattered around the exterior of the building. From the Class of 1903 water fountain, which, at first guess, you might think about and say they were the Insubordinate Seniors - they weren’t, that was 1901, I had to look it up to remind myself - to the World War I memorial, and a monument to Henry Norcross, who died in a boat disaster, there are a variety of different monuments. However, as the most aesthetically pleasing, the steam whistle and monument placard on Harrison Square are probably the most famous, and the grave of Sideways the Dog the most visited. Though the dog deserves her own column, the legend goes that putting a penny on Sideways’ grave brings good luck, and I, for one, definitely subscribe to that.

Tech Tower remains the de facto, if not de jure height limit for buildings on campus, rivaled only by Crosland Tower of the Georgia Tech library and the Mason Civil Engineering Building. As time has passed, its recognition as a significant landmark of campus has only grown. The mid 90s addition of the Kessler Campanile for the Atlanta Olympics echoed the pinnacle of Tech Tower, with its tall point surrounded by smaller architectural stylings to the corners of the tower.

A recent renovation promoted accessibility, safety, and modernity in the aging building. From the bathrooms to the basement, the home of the registrar, deans of engineering and science, and other critical offices is extremely nice on the inside. Notably, the ceiling of the top floor of offices is shorter than the others, but this does not make it less impressive of a space on the whole. Tech Tower is fully ready to carry on to the next age.

Walking around Tech Tower today certainly yields a different atmosphere than it did back when the building was first completed, let alone a few decades ago. Walking Uncle Heinie Way, which was pedestrianized as per the 1997 Master Plan, is now akin to strolling through a tree-lined park walk. The view from the small front porch yields a sweeping view of downtown skyscrapers, rather than industry, and before that, a moderate rail junction town. Across North Avenue has long been the Rockefeller YMCA-turned Roberts Alumni House, but the old President’s House has come and gone, as well as the Burge Apartments. Of course, the old ravine is now a 55,000 seat football stadium, and the campus sprawls out to the north and west, but, in the center of it all, only Tech Tower has remained very constant.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

Thanks also to those of you who voted the past few weeks. This was fun to put together, and even better to watch play out. We couldn’t have a winner without readers like you. Perhaps it’ll be possible to whip up something similar next year...

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.