I had a fantastic afternoon in the Woodson Research Center today. Several things fell into place without being forced–it felt just great. Here’s the thing that was the most fun. I’ve been gathering information for a few days to write a post on the Residence Halls, which is a bit tricky. In the course of this research I began looking in the papers of William Ward Watkin, the supervising architect who was responsible for the construction of the early campus buildings. As usual, I got sidetracked. I found a folder of photographs taken on April 16, 1912 that document a really epic Houston flood. This one here was taken from the middle of Main Street, looking towards downtown. The two little houses on the left are actually on the Rice campus. Now zoom in on it and look at what’s going on in the background in the space to the right of the first house. You can just make out the beginnings of what will be the Administration Building rising up. You can also see a water tank and next to it some sort of shed with a sign on top of it.
I realized I’d seen those things before. Here’s another picture from a completely different collection, this one consisting of construction photos. I’d been looking at this collection earlier to try to understand how the first residence halls were put together. This picture was taken in December of 1911, about four months before the flood pictures. There’s the same water tower, the same contractor’s shed with the sign on it, and the same Administration Building under construction in the background from a different angle. And here’s an irony–when I remembered this picture and went to look for it, my assumption was that it had been taken on the same day as the first one. It shows a flooded out basement, after all. (I think it’s the foundation of what’s called today the Baker Commons). But no, there were (at least) two distinct floods during the pell-mell rush to get the first buildings completed in time for the Opening. That might have been a little stressful.
There are a lot of pictures in the Watkin Collection that are worth close study and I’m excited about using them. I’ve got several questions rattling around in my head about these 1912 flood photos to work through first, though. Number One: why are there people living in those little houses? Did we not own that land yet? Or had we cut a deal with those folks to let them stay for some time on land we had already purchased? I’m very confident that the answer is pretty easily available. One thing Rice was really good at was keeping great documentation of things like this. And remember my colleague who has been working on those early financial records? He’s going to be able to help me, even if he doesn’t know it yet.