The First Fieldhouse, or On the Perils of Bad Drainage

Someone asked a while back about the ghostly semicircle that was visible in an aerial photo from the 1970s. That semicircle was the front drive of Rice’s first real athletics facility. The fieldhouse was designed by Rice architecture professor William Ward Watkin and built in 1920 on a site near the western edge of campus that had always been used for football. Watkin had a knack for designing truly graceful buildings and this one was no exception. I think it’s lovely. The photo to the right was taken by the Flying Owls in the fall of 1921 and you can see clearly how close the building is to the Harris Gully that caused Wilmer Waldo so much grief as he was trying to work out the campus’s drainage plan. If you enlarge the image, you’ll see a path that leads from the dormitories to the field–there was actually a bridge over the bayou that you can’t quite make out because of the trees. The building across Main Street is Ye Olde College Inn, a restaurant that was for decades a place for Rice fans to celebrate or lick their wounds as circumstances required. What looks like a fence there is actually the back side of advertising billboards.

Over time, as the student body got larger and Rice athletics became more important in the community, the field house got bigger. Two wings were added to house offices and locker rooms and seating was expanded a couple of times. Here’s how the back of the building looked in 1938.

However, things were not well inside. Repeated cycles of flood and drought led to increasingly serious problems as the ground under the fieldhouse was alternately swampy and dust dry. Most disturbing, the additions began to sink, tearing away from the original building. Some of the cracks were absolutely epic and the floors were spectacularly out of level. There are dozens of jaw-dropping pictures, but here are two of my favorites.

The first picture was taken in the visitor’s locker room; the second in the coaches’ office. (Zoom in and you can see the name plates on the desks of Red Bale, who was then on the football coaching staff,  and Gilbert Hermance, long-time PE instructor.) These photos were taken in December 1948 as part of an evaluation of the building done by a group that included Rice engineering professors Jim Sims and L.B. Ryon. The report was quite  blunt. They said everyone had to get out of this building, right now. The next time someone dribbled a basketball in there might be the last.

And this is why we got the new stadium.

This is a long post, but I can’t resist a bonus picture. This is roughly the site of the fieldhouse after the rain of April 1912. Which I’m sure you all recall was after the storm sewers were installed.

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2 Responses to The First Fieldhouse, or On the Perils of Bad Drainage

  1. James Medford says:

    The aerial photo from 1921 is the first I’ve seen showing the old fieldhouse and Ye Olde College Inn from this perspective. In an aerial photo you posted a while back, you pointed out something that looked like row crops. If you zoom in on the far right part of this 1921 photo, something looking like row crops appears just above the trees of Harris Gulley.

  2. Pingback: Gib Hermance in the Gym (I think) | Rice History Corner

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