3 Rice University Sights

Rice University offers one of the most interesting venues in Houston, both for its architectural quality and variety, and the extensive collection of secret symbols, hidden meanings and elaborate jokes decorating the buildings, many dating to the earliest days of the university. These are covered more extensively here than in The Book. Photos of most of these sights are here with explanatory captions and locations, with a tour map of their locations here. Also, an excellent campus map is available as a smartphone app named "Rice Maps", which can be searched to locate a building name that appears in a photo caption.

A detailed description of the sights on the campus, "A Walking Tour of Rice" (2nd edition 1990), available here, is an updated and expanded version of an earlier writeup by James C. Moorhead Jr. It is most readable if saved from the website and opened offline as a PDF file. This pamphlet also gives the background for the unique campus architectural style and campus site development, with extensive descriptions of the various architectural features and decorations, and with numerous black and white photos and maps showing the decorations in some detail. Not as detailed, but with recent colored photos, a newspaper article covering many of the symbols, jokes and pranks is here.

When construction began at Rice University in 1911, the land was a featureless treeless swamp. Houston was a provincial rail transportation center with an infant oil industry. The country's premiere universities stood on the east coast for more than 150 years, and Rice University needed to give top students and faculty a reason to come to Houston.

As Rice's first president, the trustees chose Edgar Odell Lovett, formerly a math and astronomy professor at Princeton, and gave him a free hand to shape the University. While waiting for Rice's estate to be settled after his murder in 1900, Lovett traveled the world to study great universities and to recruit faculty. He chose the model of a great research university, setting lofty standards for both faculty and students. As an architectural statement of his intentions, and to address the challenge of attracting top students and faculty to the provincial environment of Houston, he used William Marsh Rice's generous endowment to create a campus that looked both venerable and distinguished.

"They sought to use architecture to create a community out of all these people, faculty, staff and students who were coming to this place and didn't have a connection to each other," says Rice Architecture Professor Stephen Fox. "He used architecture as an instrument to gain recognition for this new university in a very obscure place."

As an emphatic statement of his intentions, Lovett commissioned the magnificent Lovett Hall (photo), the University's architectural masterpiece. Originally known as the administration building, it was designed by a Boston firm with architect William Ward Watkin as their representative on site. Watkin later became the Dean of Architecture at Rice and designed other campus buildings. As one of the University's first architectural jokes, Watkin appears in a flower on a column capital (photo) on the second floor of the facade, identified by his long lean legs, on the second column to the left side of the Sallyport (archway entry in the center of the building). Lovett's office was on the top floor immediately above the Sallyport, the archway that was then the main campus entrance on the east side of Lovett Hall. One of Lovett's colleagues later commemorated Lovett's office in a limerick;

A great man is Edgar O. Lovett.

His office has nothing above it.

It is four stories high,

As high in the sky

As William Ward Watkin could shove it.

Lovett Hall features prominently in this fascinating catalog of points of architectural interest.