The Ralph S. O’Connor Building, 2023

It was pointed out to me just recently that although the inside isn’t yet finished, the construction fence around the new O’Connor Building has come down and we can finally get a good look at it. While I don’t absolutely love everything about it (I have mixed feelings about the brick work here) I think it works well and it was definitely badly needed.  Seeing Ralph’s name in front is bittersweet:

There are some neat looking little angles. Here, for example, is Uncle Jupe, presiding at the corner where the Mech Lab cloister meets the new building:

The O’Connor Building sits on almost precisely the same footprint as Abercrombie but it is much, much bigger and really changes the feel of the engineering quad, quite for the better I think. Suddenly the massive scale of 45° 90° 180° makes more sense:

Next up: some related materials.

Bonus: This brought a small smile to my face. There used to be a fence around this (why is it still here?) and I once found myself trapped behind it.

Extra Bonus: The yellow-crested night herons are back. Pro tip: don’t park under the trees where they nest.

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“I have obtained a gift . . . for the purchase of a globe,” 1950

There were a couple boxes of old Fondren records sitting on a cart the last time I was in the Woodson and in one of them I discovered correspondence about the potential purchase of a large globe for the map room:

The globe in question, quite beautiful:

I was pretty certain that we did buy this and I had a strong sense that it might still be around somewhere. Sure enough, I found it in a back corner by the north windows on the first floor, looking rather bedraggled but clearly the same globe as the one on the photo:

It wasn’t until I got home and got a better look at the pictures that I noticed the small plaque on the base. Fearing yet another complicated search for an unfamiliar donor, I went back the next day with some trepidation. But it turned out to be easy:

Bonus: If you have a chance go take a close look. It’s no longer the same world.

Extra Bonus: Cannady Hall going up outside the window. It’s no longer the same campus either.

Update: While clearly outdated, the globe is still quite useful.

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“Football Ticket Options for Sale,” 1949

The immediate problem once we decided to build the new stadium was how to pay for it. Rice was prohibited by its charter from incurring debt (this restriction stood until the early 2000s, when we did one of our periodic charter changes) and there was no willingness on the part of the trustees to use endowment funds for non-academic purposes. A committee was formed, headed by board member Gus Wortham, tasked with finding the money. Anticipating our first major capital campaign, they rejected the idea of going out and raising the cash from our traditional major donors. (We finally got around to this a mere thirteen years later.) Instead they decided on something that was a bit unusual at the time–the sale of twenty-year seat options. Because we were in a big hurry to get the new stadium built, the group immediately launched a fifteen day campaign with the goal of selling 15,000 options at $100 each for grandstand and $200 for boxes. This was enormously successful. In two weeks they sold over 12,000 and within a month easily passed the goal. The Rice Athletic Association chipped in another $500,000 (this was in the days when one of the major duties of the Committee on Outdoor Sports was the distribution of the profits generated by football) and we were on our way.

There isn’t a whole lot about this in the archives so I went back and looked for newspaper stories about it. There are some and they are moderately interesting, but my attention was really grabbed by something else: advertisements.

I’m assuming you could buy options directly from Rice but it turns out that you could also buy them at Holt’s Sporting Goods downtown:



And banks would loan you money to do it! I did not expect this.


Bonus: At least one option certificate survives.


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Houston Stadium?

A loyal reader recently sent me a scan of a Houston street map that was produced by Shell, the kind of map, I think, that you could get at gas stations. I don’t see a date on it anywhere but we can make a pretty good guess. Click on it once and it will get bigger, click again and you can get a really close look:

There’s much of interest here but the campus portion of this map is really quite curious: the new stadium is there, as is the new gym, both finished in 1950. But there’s no Abercrombie, Anderson, or Fondren, all completed in the late 1940s. It also still shows the old stadium in its final form, and that was torn down in 1951. Recently I happened to stumble across this little map of campus that’s perfect to show you what I mean. It was drawn to clarify the location of the proposed new stadium when it was still being debated by the board. Again, it’s undated but clearly done in about 1948:

What aroused my friend’s curiosity, though, was that on the Shell map the new field is called Houston Stadium. That’s what it was generally called at its inception and it’s the name you see if you go back and look at all the local newspaper coverage of the planning and construction. The original idea was that Rice would build a 100,000 seat stadium as part of a municipal project with multiple users. (Dallas was dramatically expanding the Cotton Bowl at this time and, well, you know how that goes.) That was way too ambitious and fell through fairly quickly. Next came a plan for a 50,000 seat dual user facility for Rice and the University of Houston, which also was too complicated to get off the ground. But by 1949 it was clear that our old stadium, much too small at 37,000 seats, was also structurally compromised.  This meant that Rice would go it alone. The first plans called for 50,000 seats but after the spectacular success of the Froggie Williams led 1949 Owls that seemed too small. Some calculations showed that they could add another 20,00 seats for not much more money so 70,00 seats it was. The Rice administration continued to call it Houston Stadium for a while even then, but protests from students and alumni got them to finally change the name to Rice Stadium.

Next up: how to pay for it?

Bonus: Either somebody is messing with me or they’re actually using this for something.

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Inside Bonner Lab? 1970s

There aren’t a whole lot of pictures of the Bonner Lab, and the ones I do have are almost all of the outside:

I’ve only ever seen a couple images taken inside. The first one provides almost no clue to help understand how the building actually worked. See how unhelpful this is?

There’s a second one, though, clearly taken decades later, that’s more useful. What I’m interested in here is the wall, which looks to have been made of something like cinder blocks:

I note this because I recently came across this picture of long-time Physics Department chairman Jerry Phillips, closer in time to the second photo than to the first, posing in an unfamiliar location. I have no idea what this is but my instinct is that it must be somewhere inside Bonner Lab:


Bonus: It was just like one in Canada!

Extra Bonus: Brockman Hall for Physics, 2023.

Fun Fact: The 1959 machine was actually the third accelerator on campus. The first was a 200,00 volt machine that was built in 1936 under the guidance of the first head of the Physics Department, H.A. Wilson. The second was a 2 million volt Van de Graff accelarator that replaced it in 1939. These machines played an enormous role in the development of graduate studies at Rice. By 1959 Rice had awarded a total of only 261 doctorate degrees and 91 of them were in Physics, largely because of the research done with the accelerators.

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“If it matters to you . . . the young man on the left is James Hackney,” 1948 and 2023

I’ve mentioned before that I routinely troll eBay for Rice materials. In the course of this business a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon something unexpected. There are always a lot of archival photos from various newspapers–mostly sports related–but only rarely do you find personal photographs. These ones are pretty standard fare for snapshots at Rice–Lovett Hall with the thriving hedges and a family gathered in front of the statue of William Marsh Rice:


But this is the one that made me buy them:

I knew right away, of course, that the building behind them was the brand new Abercrombie Lab, but I’d never before seen a picture taken in the parking lot that later became the site of Bonner Lab, then Duncan Hall. Here’s a shot of it from above about a decade later:

So, not spectacular but it fills in a gap in my mental image of campus.

Then I got a note from the person who sold me the pictures that made me think harder:

If it matters to you, in the photo with the car, the young man on the far left is James Hackney. He graduated from Rice in 1944 and served immediately in the Navy. He was aboard the USS Halford. After the war, he returned to Rice and earned his masters in Chemical Engineering. He worked for Humble Oil.

Well, yes it matters to me. James Hackney came to Rice from Temple, Texas. He was  Chem. E., a member of the Rally Club, the Engineering Society, and the Naval Club. He played in the band but I don’t know what instrument. He married but had no children, which is how his pictures wound up in an estate sale. A bit more thought and I realized that I have another picture of him. This is the Rice Naval ROTC in 1942. Hackney is twelfth front the right in the back row, probably a bit too short to belong up there:

Bonus: Speaking of Abercrombie, when I was over in the new O’Connor Hall that will replace it I was so happy to see them beginning to re-assemble “Uncle Jupe.”

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“the idea of having a girl grade their papers”: Katherine Fischer Drew, 1923-2023

Sometimes when I don’t know where to start I just go all the way back to the beginning. This is Katherine Martha Fischer. We would know her later as Mrs. Drew but here it’s 1944 and she’s a graduating senior at Rice. She was a spectacular student, awarded the Bryan-Chapman Scholarship in 1943 and a Franklin Scholarship in 1944 by a faculty that readily celebrated her intellectual accomplishment. She was a member of the Honor Council and Phi Beta Kappa:

The world she lived in then was so profoundly different from the one we know today. A few years ago a colleague shared a letter with me that gives a sharp sense of how different things were for women at Rice back then and also a sharp sense of Katherine Drew’s character and ability even as a very young woman. It was written by Rice history professor Floyd Lear, one of her mentors, and dated July 1, 1945. (Click on it to enlarge.) In it, he describes the challenges of teaching at wartime Rice and in particular the assistance he received from Katie Fischer ’44:

Able to navigate those waters at a fairly tender age–in 1945 she would have been in her early twenties–the attention to detail (“she knew her stuff”) and no nonsense attitude (“some disciplinary traits desirable in a Chief Petty Officer”) that she displayed here served her well as a the first woman to hold a tenure track job at Rice. Her hiring was thought in some quarters to be a bit of a risk, as who could predict how a woman would work out, but her track record, now including a Cornell doctorate, was solid and the History Department needed her.

For the next four and a half decades she quietly proved that the decision was sound. She was meticulous in her work and dedicated to Rice and to her students. She chaired the History Department for a decade and over the course of so many years she was frequently the voice of reason on a variety of university committees. Ramrod straight, she seemed so formal but could also be very funny–she authored in fact the funniest memo I’ve ever come across in the Rice archives (and unlike most funny academic memos it was intentional.)

For a long time she had a two connected offices on the fifth floor of Fondren. I was still in graduate school when the time came to consolidate them into one and she asked me to help with that task. (My first office clean out, now that I think about it.) I was staggered by the file cabinets full of carefully organized note cards, which all had to be kept for future reference. I walked away, though, with a treasure–a shelf full of foreign language dictionaries and phrase books collected during her travels.

I was lucky to know her.

Katherine Fischer Drew, rest in peace.


Bonus: Mrs. Drew with Floyd Lear at his retirement celebration,.

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Pall Malls, Pizza, and Pepsi-Cola, no date

I found these, undated and otherwise unlabeled, in a packet in a box of things from Space Science. They are hard at work, building something:

Maybe working late, with pizza for dinner:

I don’t know where they are, what they’re building, or who they are, with the exception of the guy in the brown shirt who I think is Brian O’Brien, an early member of the Space Science faculty. (There’s a really interesting Rice News piece from his 2019 return to campus here.)

I would particularly like to know who this elegant young woman is:


Bonus: These were in the same packet might well be what they were building. Took two photos to get the whole thing in and the piece on the very tip looks likely.

As usual, any help would be greatly appreciated.

Extra Bonus: Where am I standing?

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Two Things That Aren’t Here Anymore

I’ve been thinking we haven’t had a good aerial in a while, then I suddenly found two. Both show things that I’m interested in and that have long since disappeared. This first one was sent to me by my friend Michael Bludworth, who writes about Houston’s aviation history on facebook:

Michael was looking for an opinion on the date–on further inspection we agreed it must have been taken in 1926. (I’ll award bonus points if you can tell me why.) It’s a nice photo, clear and taken from an angle that gives us a good look at something I’ve long been curious about–that large shed at the very bottom left. As best I can tell it housed the facilities department, such as it was in the early days, but I’ve never seen anything that would absolutely confirm that. What I have seen, though, are images that show what look like slow burning trash fires on roughly that spot. I can’t really imagine what else this could have been.

The second aerial I encountered while looking through the 1948 Campanile a couple days ago. It’s the inside of the cover and I’d never paid any attention to it before:

What an absolutely glorious view of the stables and mule sheds, just left of the corner of the old stadium! It’s the best I’ve ever seen. (If you don’t know what this is about, start here and don’t miss this.)

Bonus: This is my daughter warming up her squat on Go Texan Day.  She’s a bit of a card.


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“My Hero Is,” 1996

Sorry for the long absence–I was distracted.

But I’ve recently been trying to pull together the history of the Rice Quantum Institute, which has not proven to be an easy task. The records are spotty and scattered through several collections, really depressingly incomplete. And sadly, most of the original members of RQI, many of them my friends, are gone, which only adds to the sting. This means I’ve had to dig through a lot of boxes that I haven’t spent much time with before. And in one of them, in Bob Curl’s things, I came across a questionnaire he filled out for a Dallas Morning News story after he, Rick Smalley, and Harold Kroto were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene.

After more than thirty years in the Woodson I’ve come to recognize a lot of people’s handwriting, something like a hundred or so I’d guess. And sometimes catching even a glimpse of someone’s hand after they’re gone feels like they’ve just walked into the room, a pleasant little shock. It’s a strange sensation, and one that I hope won’t be entirely obliterated by computers.

Here’s Bob’s self-portrait, in his handwriting:


Extra Bonus: One of the least photographed spots on campus.

This is the only other picture of this general area that I can recall seeing:

Pretty dramatic change in vegatation!

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