Caesar Lombardi to Captain Baker, February 9, 1914

Here’s something worth some serious mulling over.

Caesar Lombardi was one of the original Rice trustees. He was Swiss born and arrived in the United States in 1860. Educated in New Orleans at Loyola College, he was the only one of those first trustees to have any formal higher education. In Houston he worked for the big cotton broker W.D. Cleveland and Co. but by 1906 he had become the president of A.H. Belo, publisher of the Dallas Morning News and the Galveston News. He was friendly with William Marsh Rice who in 1891 asked him to join the board of the new Rice Institute. Lombardi served on that board until his death in 1919. (This violated the charter, by the way. Lombardi lived in Dallas for most of this time and the charter required that all trustees live in Houston.)

What’s at issue in this letter is the proposed sale of the original Rice Institute property in downtown Houston:

In short, Captain Baker and the other trustees want to sell it to the city and Lombardi is stoutly opposed. What he describes as the proper goal of the Institute is dramatically different from how we think about Rice today:


I found this letter in a very unexpected place. It was buried among thousands of utterly mundane documents in the records of the early Rice Business Manager, A.B. Cohn. (I won’t speculate about why it was there instead of in the more obvious Early Rice Institute Papers where Captain Baker’s correspondence from those early days is generally found.) There is nothing in the letter that I didn’t already know but I only knew it from having spent a couple of decades working with those old materials–a comment here and there, a sentence or two in a legal document, assumptions buried in correspondence, and charter language that came directly from the Cooper Union all added up to basically the same thing that Lombardi says. What’s so shocking is his bluntness in contrast to the typical tiptoeing around the issue of Mr. Rice’s intentions. (This isn’t meaningless, either. There are some, shall we say, implications.)

In the end, of course, we sold the land and did none of the things Lombardi spelled out. I suppose the lesson is that if you give away your fortune to an institution and specify that you want it to be built after you die, there’s no telling what you’ll end up with. So be careful about that, ok?

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9 Responses to Caesar Lombardi to Captain Baker, February 9, 1914

  1. marmer01 says:

    Wow, a proto-School of Continuing Education! Also, very much the kind of civic project that was so popular in the pre-WWI United States. Interesting that Mr. Lombardi’s letterhead has to be marked as “President” by hand (presumably it was Vice President before.)

  2. Owlcop says:

    That property today is the location of the Chevron building. Definitely a different use than the one originally imagined.

  3. Owlcop says:

    Lombardi stated almost prophetically
    “We need every inch of the ground as a proper setting to whatever improvements we contemplate putting on it, and as a safeguard against future needs that we may not now anticipate “

    And isn’t it interesting that both properties have a similar shape?

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Yes, I’ve often wondered if there was something about that weird shape that appealed to these guys.

    • Melissa Kean says:

      And I haven’t learned very much that I would call generally applicable rules for managing universities but here’s one thing that I’d advise: always buy the land! It will only be more expensive later.

  4. Lou Ann Montana says:

    Melissa, this is absolutely fascinating to me; I was not familiar with WMR’s intentions as described here or the link to Cooper Union. Thank you so much for posting!

  5. Joseph A Buck WRC '73 says:

    Sounds like they (Mr Rice and Lombardi) were contemplating expansion of entities from Rice University along the lines of community college and vocational training. To my thinking a community educational experience much like Lombardi’s reference to City parks.

  6. Pingback: Girard College, 1912 | Rice History Corner

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