Wanna see a really big hole?

Wowee–this is a really big hole:

Obviously, this is the beginning of construction of Sewall Hall. The building makes a lot more sense when you see this. Suddenly, I understand why you enter it on the third floor.

Here’s something else that suddenly adds up. There’s the constant sound of water being pumped from this spot on the courtyard side of Sewall:

I wonder why they built it this way.

Bonus: Here’s a photo from the dedication of the building. That’s Blanche Harding Sewall in the wheelchair: she gave most of the money for its construction and named it for her late husband, Cleveland Sewall. Interestingly, she attempted to give the money anonymously but later agreed to have the gift publicly acknowledged. (I once accidentally came across her transcript and I have to say that she was a seriously good student.)


That’s Mrs. Hackerman at the right helping unveil the dedicatory plaque. You can also see the back of Professor Tsanoff’s head in the audience. He would have taught Mrs. Sewall.

Here’s the plaque now, on the northwest corner of the building:


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13 Responses to Wanna see a really big hole?

  1. You probably already know this, but when they built Sewall Hall, they couldn’t find stone carvers to match the carving on Lovett Hall, so they were imported from Italy (if I recall correctly) to do the work.

  2. effegee says:

    Sewall was built that way in order to keep the east end of the Quad symmetrical and the footprint similar to Physics Laboratory while getting more space than one could get in a three story building.

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Yeah, I understand the part about keeping the Quad symmetrical. What I don’t understand is the decision to put two extra floors underground. It seems a bit quixotic given our climate and water table.

      • effegee says:

        One would think that the constant sound of the sump pumps’ discharge into the storm sewers and the floods later in the ’70s would have sounded an alarm for caution in building below the water table. Yet, weeks before tropical storm Allison, a plan was approved to bury even more floors of a building containing fragile contents. Fortunately, the damage caused by Allison in the area caused that decision to be reversed.

  3. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    My freshman week included a quiz on where some perhaps illogically-located lecture halls were. Sewall 301 (located on the ground floor) was one. Another was the hall between Bio and Geo which had a Bio number (was it Bio 241?).

  4. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    Bio 142 seems more likely. Ah, the things you forget . . .

  5. Matt Noall says:

    The story from my years was that the bequest asked that the not only was the symmetry to be maintained but that the new building match Physics as closely as possible from the Quad view. Perhaps one of the Archis could comment on this. Rice required far more space than a Physics clone could accommodate, driving two things–the wing on the outside away from the quad and the extra floors below. I suspect that at that timethe water table level was overlooked but that drove the sump pumps. Of course that just made going to the “great pit of Sewell” to be especially interesting when visiting the forbidden steam tunnels. A “popular” place to visit in my years

    Matt Noall

  6. Leoguy says:

    I remember the construction of Sewall during my time at Rice. Yes, it was a very big hole! And, yes, the exterior design had to match the original buildings, and yes, they had to “import” stone masons. As an architect, I am very pleased that this style was mandated for the new building. Otherwise, given the state of design in the late 1960’s it would have probably been an unfortunate addition to this extremely important corner of the quad. Just look at what our professional “created” for the Fondren Library design!

  7. Kathy says:

    I also have fond memories of the Sewell construction during my time at Rice. We had a lot of fun “playing” in the not quite completed building late at night (statute of limitations has probably run out, right?) It was the first really new building any of us had seen on campus and I remember being very impressed with it.

  8. Whit Matteson says:

    The story I heard at the time was that they wanted to use the funds from two separate bequests, one for a five story building, and the other to match the Physics building. By burying it and numbering the floors the way they did, the requirements of both bequests were satisfied.

  9. The lower three floors of Sewall Hall were the first home of the Shepherd School; I spent plenty of time there. The common understanding in the early 80’s was that Mrs. Sewall’s bequest specified a Physics Building mirror but that five floors were needed. I haven’t been over there in a long time but there used to be an oil portrait of Mr. Sewall wearing a spectacular striped jacket and holding a lap dog. Worth a look if you’ve never seen it and it’s still there.

  10. Another oddity about Sewall Hall is that in the quad section, the restrooms (at one time, anyway) had concrete sink basins. I’ve never seen that anywhere else on campus.

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