Things That Don’t Seem Quite Right

Thirty years on campus spent carefully noticing my surroundings have made my experience something like the movie Groundhog Day. So much stays the same that anything different pops out immediately. So a couple of days ago I nearly jumped when I came upon something so completely unexpected right in the middle of the quad:

In case you don’t immediately grasp the import, the plate that covers the National Geodetic Survey marker in the quad is upside down! For context take a look at this post about the marker and the azimuth in the front gate. If you do, you’ll see that it’s supposed to look like this:

There was no way, of course, that I could just let this be. I borrowed a screwdriver from the Woodson (they don’t know and I’ll bring it back tomorrow, I swear) and took it off. It was very muddy inside and someone had scraped the muck off the spot where the marker is embedded, so there was clearly some intent at play. If you zoom in you can see the little triangle:

Very mysterious.

I lost my nerve when I was putting the plate back–it’s heavy and it fits tightly so the possibility of catching a finger is fairly high. Net result: it’s now right side up but backwards, that is, the R is facing Fondren instead of Lovett:

I’ll go back and fix it later.

Bonus: This also doesn’t look quite right. It seems like it should be more interesting than the marker plate but somehow it isn’t. Main entrance to Lovett College, circa 1971.


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More Early Landscaping With Cute Kids, circa 1922

I have a couple more pictures from the Tsanoff collection that were clearly taken on the same day that we caught young Katherine on the path between the privet hedges. This first one caught me by surprise:

That’s little Katherine and her older sister, Nevenna, in the hedges. But . . . but . . . those aren’t our hedges. On closer inspection I think I see those strange shrubs here, in the very middle:

I dug around a little more and found an even better shot:

And there seem to be some similar plants in front of the Administration Building:

I’m no horticulturist, though. Does anyone know what they are?

The second photo isn’t mysterious at all. It’s a lovely image of one of those beautiful planters that I’ve admired for years:


And that’s one heck of a bow on Nevenna!

Bonus: Some things change and some things don’t. Here are some bricks from the construction of the Ralph S. O’Connor building that is replacing Abercrombie.

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The Field House, 1920-1950

I had a followup post to last week’s postcards all planned out but instead I’ll try to answer some questions raised by readers about the old stadium picture. First, what is the building between the open end zone and Main Street?

It’s the original field house, built in 192o. This blurry photo is from the collection of Norman Hurd Ricker, ’16, ’17, ’20:

And a great view from the other side, taken by the Flying Owls:

(In anticipation of the inevitable question, the building on the other side of Main Street is Ye Old College Inn, also built in 1920. See here and here.)

By the time the image on the postcard was taken two wings had been added to the building, as in this blurry shot from 1938:

Someone else asked if there were any pictures of the interior of the building. There are, but not many. There wasn’t any particular reason to take photos in there–it was used mostly for gym classes, intramurals, basketball practice (most games were played at the City Auditorium), and Athletic Department offices.

The only other images of the interior I’ve ever seen were taken in December of 1948 and they clearly show why both the field house (and the old stadium too) were about to be torn down. The first image is the visitor’s locker room and the second is the coaches’ office:


I found these appended to an engineering report that bluntly concluded that both structures need to be vacated as soon as possible, like immediately. They had been built so close to Harris Gully that repeated cycles of drought and flood led to serious cracking. Probably the most alarming and urgent issue was that the two wings of the field house had begun to sink and pull away from the main part of the building. This answers the question that no one has ever asked me: People still sometimes brag about how we heroically built the new stadium in less than a year, but why would we bother to do such a thing? Because there was no choice.

The new gym was built at the same time. It was a big improvement.

One other interesting note about the inside of the field house: when the Rice archives were created in 1950, lots of old papers were hauled out of there, including the papers from all the William Marsh Rice murder and estate litigations. And when the new gym was renovated in 2007 it became Tudor Field House and I dragged almost 400 boxes of stuff out of its nooks and crannies.

Bonus: The airplane is real; the birds seem to have been drawn on.

Extra Bonus: If you poke around a little you can still see bits of the field house half buried in the grass.


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Two Postcards of Rice Stadium and One Little Kid

I recently came across a beautiful postcard I’d never seen before, this one showing the old football stadium and the west end of campus. This is actually what I think of as the New Old Stadium, built in 1938 to handle the growing crowds at Owl football games. (A really good view of the Old Old Stadium, which was a significant expansion of the original stands, is here.)

Have a look:

(Note that the photo from which it was made was taken by Bob Bailey, whose archives it pains me to say are held at the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas.)

There’s a lot to look at here–the other side of Main Street is especially interesting–but what I feel like thinking about today is the long hedge that leads from the dorms, across the footbridge over Harris Gully, and to the stadium. It was a double privet hedge and as you can see it grew over to form a tunnel. It was there for a really long time, surviving the 1950 covering of the gully for at least six years. You can still see it clearly in this aerial shot taken on July 3, 1956, although it was beginning to look a bit bedraggled:

So when was it planted? It looks like just a bare path in this 1921 photo from the Flying Owls collection, but it’s not clear enough to tell for sure if there are little plants there:

The earliest image I’ve found is from just a bit later, early 1923, and they’re already thriving, as is the little kid, who would grow up to be Rice’s Dean of Undergraduates, Katherine Tsanoff Brown:

Bonus: A somewhat less interesting view, roughly contemporaneous, facing the other side.

Extra Bonus: One more postcard, this time the current stadium, undated. That’s pretty full house. Anybody have a guess?

Rice Institute football stadium aerial view postcard

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“Christmas Greetings of Peace and Goodwill,” 1930s

This beautiful hand made, hand colored card carried holiday greetings from the family of Rice architecture professor William Ward Watkin, circa early 1930s:

The house pictured is the Watkin’s home, of course, located at 5009 Caroline, in a neighborhood that was home to many of the early Rice faculty. I believe there’s an office building there today.

The reason I think the card was drawn in the early 1930s is that the original house, built in the mid-teens, underwent a major renovation and a serious remodel around that time and Watkin would have wanted to show it off. Here’s how it looked in 1915:

William Ward Watkin house 5009 Caroline original, Houston, Texas


And here it is after the remodel, I’d say sometime in the 1940s:

William Ward Watkin house 5009 Caroline after remodel, Houston, Texas


Bonus: Here’s Watkin standing on the front porch with a bust of himself done by none other than William McVey ’27, who I was just talking about the other day.

Extra Bonus: Merry Christmas everyone from the 4th floor of Allen Center! I slipped in and out before anyone spotted me.

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“functional and utilitarian without neglecting the aesthetics,” 1949

After all my talk about those Aalto tables in the library, I finally have something to say about a chair.

The other day I was looking in the file drawer called “Miscellaneous” where I found this:

It was the only thing in a folder labeled “Library Furniture” and I have to admit that this is legitimately miscellaneous. It’s hard to know where to start with a picture like this, which is almost a visual non sequitur. But on the back it says it was a gift of Miss Pender Turnbull, and that means it’s probably worth thinking about.

And sure enough, a bit of digging reveals something interesting. This photo was taken in the Music and Fine Arts Room of the brand new Fondren Library, probably just as the building was opening in 1949. Librarian William Dix talks about the furnishing of this room on the third page of this 1949 Library Journal article, noting it was meant to be an informal lounge, and in the top photo on the next page you can see two of these chairs:

As for the chair itself, like the Aalto tables it was made by a mid-century Finnish architect and designer, not Aalto this time but Eero Saarinen, who designed this chair–called the Grasshopper–in 1946. Once again I am deeply impressed by the sophisticated vision of Bill Dix and even after all this time a tiny bit surprised that the Rice administration went along with it.

Bonus: Here’s a 1963 article about Miss Turnbull. I share her zeal and hold her in the highest regard.

Extra Bonus:


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The First Time Rice Beat Texas, 1917

A while back I noticed a large, mysterious scrapbook back by the vault on the bottom of the oversize shelves. Last week I had time to pull it out and take a good look. It was full of pages from a 1950 Houston Press section about the opening of the new stadium, and it included lots of stories about the high points of Rice football over the years. The thing that really caught my attention was a photograph, taken at the moment the Owls scored their first touchdown against the University of Texas, at Clark Field, in a game we won 13-0. After being shut out by the Longhorns in both 1915 and 1916, this victory was hailed by the student body as the end of the “UT Jinx.”

Here’s the image:

(This was a great season, by the way. Rice went 7-1, losing only the last game of the season to the hated Aggies.)

I knew I’d seen game photos with the October 27 date on them and I even knew where they were, so things were moving along pretty smoothly. There are a lot of these pictures, all dated and numbered, like this:

Only one was missing–number 10–which I take to be the touchdown shot. The same image is reproduced in the 1918 Campanile so I suspect that somehow in that process the original was lost.

Next I wanted a picture of Le Roy Bell, who ran the ball in, which should also be easy. It wasn’t, though. Here’s an image of the 1917 football team, completely unlabeled, so I can’t tell which one he is:

Then I found an envelope stuffed full of solo shots of the team members, also frustratingly unlabeled. I had no choice but to go to the Campanile, where I found his picture, which, like many yearbook photos, wasn’t super helpful but was at least a place to start. (Oddly enough, it’s often their ears that help most with identifications.)

The result–here’s Le Roy Bell, ’19:

Bell was not only our star running back, he was also a star baseball player and captain of both teams in 1918-19. He lettered in basketball and track too, and was president of the student body his senior year as well as Honor Council president in 1918. He was inducted into the Rice Hall of Fame in 1970.

He’s the guy holding the football in the team photo.


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“A Dream Coming True”: Fondren at 75

I can’t let 2022 slip away without acknowledging something that an alert reader pointed out to me a while ago. This year is the 75th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of Fondren library, just before Christmas in 1947. The construction of this building was part of the post-WWII explosion of growth on campus and a critical event in Rice’s maturation. Until Fondren was built books were scattered all over campus, on every floor of the Administration Building, in the Mech Lab, Chemistry, and Physics. I can’t even imagine how they managed it.

The cover of this fund raising brochure for the building, dated 1946, gives some sense of how important the project was to the university. Mrs. Ella Fondren, of course, generously donated most of the money needed to complete the work,

It took some time to get the thing up, of course. Here’s what it looked like at then end of the 1947-48 school year:

And the back side about the same time:


They didn’t start moving books until the summer of 1949 for the formal opening that fall. Here we are getting them out of the top floors of the Admin Building:


Bonus: What’s inside the cornerstone, you ask? (Note also the incredibly high powered Library Committee!)

Extra Bonus: The library never skimps on holiday decorations. Here’s this year’s Fondren Christmas tree.

One more bonus–it’s the holidays!


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Rally Club Thanksgiving Dance, 1925

For many years Thanksgiving Day was also Rice’s Homecoming and from the beginning in 1919 these events were absolutely jam packed with functions, making for a very long day.  Our traditional football opponent for all those years was Baylor. In 1925 the game ended in a tie, a fitting conclusion for a season that ended with a 4-4-1 record and dashed hopes that John Heisman would be our football savior:

Then the Rally Club sponsored a student dance that evening, which didn’t start until 9:00, past my bedtime:

I’ve talked about several of these players in the past, including Heavy Underwood, whose scrapbook caused me some serious confusion, and Bill McVey ’27, who would go on to become a sculptor. McVey’s work has adorned campus in several places including Cohen House, various spots in the south colleges, and at the entrance to Abercrombie, the figure McVey always referred to as Uncle Jupe:

Happily, Uncle Jupe has been carefully taken apart and will be put back together on the new Ralph O’Connor Hall:

Bonus: The Rally Club dance was held at the Turnverein, which I’m sure you all recall as the site of one of McVey’s legendary exploits in the Slime-Soph War of 1924 when he was president of the freshman class.


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Inauguration, 2022: Part II, Ruth Simmons’s Speech

I’d first like to account for my extended absence, for which apologies are hereby issued: I was chairing a presidential search at another university and that task took pretty much all of my attention for the last month or so. It concluded happily a couple of days ago, I’m glad to say. At the same time, life has been going on as usual at Rice and in my spare moments I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, mulling over both some current and past events.

Now that I’m back, I’d like to start up here with something important from President DesRoches’s inauguration. I’m sure many of you know that the keynote speaker was Houston native Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University and former Rice trustee, now president of Prairie View A&M. As I listened to her address I understood that it was a tour de force, both powerful and nuanced, which is not an easy thing to pull off. Afterwards I asked for her permission to reproduce it here, which she graciously gave. This address was truly a gift to our new president and to our entire community. If you weren’t there, you should read it. And if you were there, you should read it. And we should all take it to heart.



Bonus: I swore that I wasn’t going to be messing around taking iphone pictures during the ceremony but I couldn’t resist this one.

It was the video camera that caught my eye. It reminded me of this, from Rice’s Formal Opening in 1912:.

See the movie camera near the top left? We have no idea what happened to that film. I hope we do a better job of hanging on the the footage from this time around.

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