One day last week I was privileged to sit in on a super cool librarians meeting. Part of the task at hand was the identification of materials that might be candidates for digitization, essentially printed matter that is both out of copyright and historically worthwhile. One of my colleagues brought forth a volume called Makers of Houston, a 1912 book of photos and biographies of the city’s movers and shakers of that era, complete with little caricatures. I was happy to find Cleveland Sewall, for whom Rice’s Sewall Hall is named, included there. He looks impossibly young, and his youth is all the more striking in contrast with the other business and civic leaders included in the book, who mostly look vaguely like Civil War generals. He was from a prominent Houston family and although he first practiced law, he soon inherited a wholesale grocery firm, Gordon, Sewall and Company, which he then ran. He was also a director of the South Texas Commercial National Bank, where Rice did much of its early banking.
The only other likeness I’d ever seen of Sewall is this painting by Robert Joy in Sewall Hall, which has been the object student humor from time to time. Something about the combination of the striped jacket and the little dog seems to call out for Backpage hilarity for some reason. It’s not hard to see the boy in the man, though, if you look hard.
Sewall died quite young, at the age of sixty-two, on Christmas Day 1942. His wife, Blanche Harding Sewall, gave the gift that made the building possible in 1971. There are a number of interesting things to be said about her. I’ll say only one now and save the rest for later: I knew that she was a graduate of the Rice Institute, class of 1917, but I didn’t realize until the other day that she was already married to Sewall when she enrolled. That is so, so unusual. I’ve been looking for her in the early scrapbooks but haven’t found her, probably because as a married (and wealthy) woman she had a radically different social life than her classmates. I did find her grade reports, though, and she was an absolutely outstanding student.
Mrs. Sewall commissioned a work by the well-known American composer Roy Harris for premiere at the Houston Symphony. The result was his Elegy and Paean for viola and orchestra premiered by William Primrose. Woodson has several items related to this commission that I consider important (since I am interested in the history of the viola in America), including a wonderful note by Harris’s wife, Johana Harris, discussing a recording of the premiere. Johana Harris, incidentally, later married Jake Heggie, now well-known as an opera composer (and familiar to Houston audiences).
Thanks, David. I didn’t know about this, but I’m not surprised. Even a quick bit of research reveals that she was a really remarkable person. I’m going to keep digging.
Hello. I met Blanche H Sewall once. I was very little, about 7or 8 years old. We visited her at her home. Her husband’s sister, Sally married my grandfather’s brother, George Horton. My mother called her “Aunt Dolly” as my sister and I did. I never knew her true name until now.
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In addition to Backpages, there were some great Cleveland Sewall cartoons as well:
Evan, you are a rascal.
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