Page 1


The Bauer House Ransom’s literature class in the halcyon days before World War II. He lay his former teacher to rest with a benediction that acknowledged the question on everyone’s mind: “It is my opinion that following his retirement, Harry was at peace with himself… He was well aware of his already considerable accomplishments and was quite content to be judged by them.” Though circumstances made him its chief apologist, the Bauer House extravaganza wasn’t Erwin’s idea. But it fell to him to defend the unauthorized expenditure of nearly $1 million on what amounted to a huge party house. It was a silly episode that focused an unflattering spotlight on the UT system’s propensity for arrogance, secrecy and, yes, Medici excess. It all started with a $119,000 donation from former regent W.H. Bauer and his wife to buy a colonial-style home on a three-acre estate at 2801 Gilbert Street. The regents intended to renovate the house into a plush residence for the chancellor, with large rooms and facilities for entertaining important benefactors. Everything would project wealth and prestige. The irony of”development,” otherwise known as fundraising, is that people with money to give are attracted not to the institutions which need their help most, but to those, which are, like themselves, already demonstrably rich. “We had so much money at the University of Texas!” Silber, now chancellor at Boston University, recalled in a 1993 interview. “Because people don’t give to a place that needs itthey give when the place doesn’t need it.” When remodeling bids came in too high, the regents decided to tear the house down and start from scratch. It turned into a nightmare project, as change orders from the architects piled up. The mansion was two-thirds finished when Ransom announced his resignation, and the roof was torn off to add more bedrooms to accommodate LeMaistre’s large family. Then the architects wanted a guest house… and a greenhouse, since Joyce LeMaistre liked to garden. The LeMaistres were swimmers, so the poolhouse needed redoing. The entire estate was landscaped, lighted, walled and Photo by Jana Birchum terraced within an inch of its life. With the project $600,000 over budget, Erwin began looking for some rich UT donors to pick up the bill. A group of Ralph Nader-inspired law students got wind of the fancy doings on Gilbert Street, and they tattled to the Daily Texan. And then the rea/,trouble started. On March 3, 1971, the scowling regents’ chairman was called before a senate subcommittee to answer for the Bauer House debacle. Conspicuously missing from his testimony were important facts about a mysterious $600,000 check supposedly donated by an “anonymous foundation” four days earlier to pay for the cost overruns. Erwin insisted that under terms of the gift, the donor’s name could not be revealed. That implausible account drove the news media wild. Reporters hounded UT officials for the name \(LBJ was a weeks later, under pressure from the Legislature to make the name public, the regents returned the gift and used public funds to pay for the Bauer House. The law students declared a victory. As in so many of the battles that characterized the Erwin years, it was difficult to tell who had really won, and at what cost. Had it not been for the pesky critics, Erwin snapped, “the state and the university would have acquired an important new resource without cost to the state or the university, and without the damaging publicity we have had.” And so the furor subsided. Erwin lost his seat on the Board of Regents in January of 1975, and began to come undone. A . widowed attorney with a fondness for opera and Scotch, he had nothing to take the place of his consuming obsession, the University of Texas. “That was the hardest pill he ever had to swallow, when they forced him out,” said the waspish Edward Clark, a regent and old LBJ crony who had chafed under Erwin’s dominance. Former governor Allan Shivers, whose blood ran as cold as Erwin’s ran hot, became the new chairman, and the Erwin reign was over. Despite many friends in high places, he was a lonely man. He clung tightly to the bottle, even after several DWI arrests. During those sad years, we sometimes talked. I was a reporter covering the UT beat and in those daysperhaps in 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/17/01