Another thing I noticed that I should have noticed a long time ago

I was looking through some old commencement pictures today, pulling images for a short video that will be shown at the celebration of the centennial of laying the cornerstone of Lovett Hall. It all looked pretty ordinary, really. I’ve probably laid eyes on these pictures four or five dozen times, easy. Even the people hanging off the balconies look normal to me–they did that for decades.

But there was a surprise in there. Zoom in and look at the very middle of the photo. There’s a band of alternating “R”s and owls all the way up to the top of the arch in the Sallyport. Other pictures show that it goes down the other side too. What the heck is that?? At first I though, maybe tiles? But that can’t be right. So I went and looked at both earlier and later commencements, and it’s always there (at least until commencement moved to the Chemistry Building in 1935).

I'm not sure you can see it on your computer, but Lovett is turning his head and smiling at the young woman he's just given a diploma. It's very nice.

This is boggling to me. I mean, could it possibly be any more obvious? So now I’m embarrassed enough to hunt it down. Here’s a photo from another angle, which lets us see that the band is really the edge of some sort of cloth, likely canvas, that stretches in a half circle across the Sallyport to block the attendees’ view of the other side of the building. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe they thought it was distracting– there wasn’t as much to block the view of Main Street as there is today. In my own defense, I would like to point out that we all see what we want to see. I guess I just didn’t want to see that until today.

Today’s Bonus: the guy giving the 1928 commencement speech in the first photo above was John Huston Finley, then Associate Editor of the New York Times. Finley was an interesting, talented, and complicated man. He became president of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois at the age of 29. He later taught political science at Princeton, where he would have known Lovett. You can read about him here, at a bit of a crazy Scottish American website. (Interesting note, at least to me: Finely was succeeded as president of City College of New York in 1914 by Sidney Mezes, who was president of the University of Texas when Lovett was hired to start Rice. There’s some good correspondence in his files at UT related to Rice. Like Lovett and Finley, Mezes also had fairly close ties to Woodrow Wilson.) The speech Finely gave that day was published in the Rice University Pamphlets.

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3 Responses to Another thing I noticed that I should have noticed a long time ago

  1. wunderwood says:

    A curved canvas backdrop is a standard practice in theater. It goes by the rather fancy name of “cyclorama”. It hides all the distracting stuff at the back, allowing the audience to focus on the stage. It probably looked nice, and I do like the arts & crafts frieze of owls and R’s. The second photo is clear enough to make a good reproduction. Wouldn’t that look nice as endpapers to a book or printed on a table runner?

    • wunderwood says:

      Also, that border was almost certainly stenciled on. The artful bars across the owl and the R serve to keep the pieces of the stencil together. Often, the bars interfere with the design, but this is a very nicely cut stencil.

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