March: Anna Hiss Gymnasium

Anna Hiss Gymnasium, n/d, Cactus Yearbook 1935

The University of Texas opened a new “Women’s Gymnasium” in 1931. In July 1974, the UT Board of Regents renamed the building in honor of Dr. Anna Hiss, the university’s first Director of Women’s Physical Training. The gymnasium sits in what was once the “Women’s Campus,” a group of residence halls (now known as the “Honors Quad”) and other buildings and spaces designed specifically for women students.  

The “Women’s Campus” was located to the north of the original 40-acre campus, behind the south-facing Main Building (now the Tower). Supervising Architect Paul Cret designed the area to be separate and sheltered from the rest of the campus. Its architecture is less formal and more intimate than the more “symmetrical and urbane” public-facing South Mall on the opposing side of the Main Building.[1] It was an intentionally gendered space designed for women students who were seen as needing protection from the men-dominated public spaces of the university and city. 

The Anna Hiss Gymnasium was designed by University Architect Paul Cret and Supervising Architect Robert Leon White and built during the presidency of University of Texas President Harry Yandell Benedict (1927-1937). Cret, a French architect, succeeded Herbert M. Greene and continued the “Mediterranean-influenced Beaux-Arts style” instituted by Greene as the principal architectural theme on The University of Texas at Austin’s campus.[2] Cret also designed the university’s Main Tower, opened in 1937 to replace “Old Main,” the original all-purpose administration-classroom-library-gymnasium building. Cret and his design firm, Greene, LaRoche, and White, built 18 campus buildings on The University of Texas campus during the 1920s and 30s, not including the University’s Main Tower. 

The University of Texas hired Anna Hiss in 1918 to be the women’s physical training instructor and employed her in that position to help women students expand their place in campus life. Women had been part of the student body since the institution’s opening. However, the UT faculty and administration instituted a regime of strong social separation between the men and women and excluded women students from many extracurricular activities available to men. Hiss advocated for greater participation for women in athletics, the creation of official sports teams and fitness programs for women’s health, and the establishment of a women’s gym. That gym, which now bears her name, opened in 1931.[3]

Hiss was a staunch supporter of other aspects of women’s campus participation. She started the University’s Posture Pageant contest, the Orange Jackets, the Campus League of Women Voters, and Delta Kappa Gamma—an honors group for women educators. Hiss also created the bachelor’s degree in Physical Education in the School of Education. Hiss’ dedication to the advancement of women’s activities on campus led to the eventual equalization, and often gender integration, of gymnasium spaces, intramural sports teams, and residential halls. Anna Hiss occupied the position of Director of Women’s Physical Training for 33 years until her retirement in 1934. It is not clear whether she supported the current expanded and more flexible definition of women, however, her work and legacy have opened doors for all students, regardless of gender identity, to receive an equal physical education and athletic opportunity at the university.

Hiss died in 1972.[4] Even though the decision did not follow the 1967 University of Texas System Building naming policy stating that the honoree must “have been dead at least five years,”[5] the Regents officially named the Gymnasium after her in 1974.[6] 

[1] Lawrence W. Speck and Richard Louis Cleary, The University of Texas at Austin (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011), 75.