The Discovery Channel may have Shark Week but I have some red meat of my own to offer. This is Abercrombie Week at the Rice History Corner, a look at all things Abercrombie Hall. There’s a lot to tell about this building, one of the greatest workhorses in the history of the campus, so this may well become an annual event in the Rice History calendar, as much anticipated as the first day of commencement preparations or the next Italian cypress catastrophe.
Today: Whence Abercrombie?
As the end of World War II approached, the Rice Institute began to prepare for change. We’d had a couple of major financial windfalls during the war and a newly invigorated board, led by trustee Harry Wiess, developed the first explicit strategic plan in our history. Several immediate objectives presented themselves: a new classroom building, a house for Dr. Lovett’s successor, and a real library. But in the early spring of 1945 another priority suddenly appeared in private discussions. This was a badly needed laboratory and teaching facility for the engineering departments that were jammed into the outdated Mech Lab and its neighbor, the engineering annex, which had been built as a temporary expedient decades before. I don’t know who initiated the discussions but by March, 1945 Jim and Lillie Abercrombie had decided to give $500,000 for the construction of this new building. Here they are, each with Herb Allen ’29, who spent over 55 years at Cameron Iron Works, the company Jim Abercrombie founded (I wrote about the Abercrombies and Allen several years ago here.)
The Abercrombies were willing to have the building named in their honor but insisted that the gift not be announced until 1947. Why? Because their daughter Josephine, whose name would also be on the building, was still a junior at Rice. Here’s her glorious senior picture in the 1946 Campanile. I was somewhat surprised to learn that she’d been a member of the Pallas Athena Literary Society. Somewhere, maybe from her, I’d gotten the impression that she spent a good deal of her time at Rice playing bridge in the basement of Fondren:
When the announcement was finally made, it was big news. Gifts of this size were still unusual and all the Houston papers covered it as part of the story of Rice’s aggressive post-war expansion. The last new building on campus had been completed in 1926 and suddenly there were three (!) about to be built at the same time:
Tomorrow: But what would actually be housed in this wonderful new building? The end users, filled with hope, weigh in.
Bonus: Last Friday’s picture of a little used stairway was taken in a back corner of Fondren. Here’s what you see if you go in there and look out the window.