The fifth floor of Fondren Library offers a special view of the Rice campus. In the late afternoon, just before sunset, Lovett Hall to the east takes on a magical quality. Its pinkish bricks assume a warmer, redder hue; the colorful tiles, mosaics, and marbles become brighter; and the numerous panes of glass reflect the sun with diamond-like flashes of light. The effect is stunning, especially with the foreground of symmetrical hedges and manicured lawn, the dark green backdrop of live oaks, and, far on the horizon, the gleaming office towers of downtown Houston.
To the observer on the fifth floor, the campus below looks green and orderly, the buildings—all of the same color—are clearly linked stylistically even as their various designs represent changing architectural fashions, and the whole seems serene and human-scaled in the midst of the boom and bustle of the big city. To the northwest the office towers of Greenway Plaza loom white and blue-green, and further still to the west-northwest the landmark Transco Tower reflects the vivid colors of the sky. Visible just below and to the west is Alice Pratt Brown Hall housing the Shepherd School of Music, its east facade a great curving wall of columns, and further west still is the brooding presence of Rice stadium. Dominating the entire southern vista are the many buildings of the Texas Medical Center. And to the east, on the distant horizon, is the impressive skyline of the central business district. Surrounded by this circle of skyscrapers, Rice University, with an aura of beauty and stability, seems somehow eternal, as though it is in this world but not of it. Therein lies the enduring charm of Rice that captivated its initial visitors in 1912 and gives the visitor of today a sense of its special character.
But no one seeing Rice today could imagine what it was like in 1912: one general-purpose academic building, one laboratory building, two residence halls, a commons building for student and faculty dining, and a campus of nearly 300 acres of almost treeless plains. Beyond the indistinct boundaries of the campus some pine trees grew to the south toward what is now Hermann Park; in other directions cattle grazed on the prairie. At the far western edge of the campus meandered a stream known as Harris Gully, to which Julian Huxley, the first professor of biology, and his assistant, Joseph Davies, came to collect laboratory specimens—and where Huxley first encountered swimming grasshoppers and the mud chimneys of crayfish. The campus then lay beyond the southwestern fringes of Houston, an adolescent city of about 90,000 residents. The paving of Main Street stopped a mile or so northeast of Rice. Here, on a flat, flood-prone expanse of prairie—“a level and stupid site,” the first campus architect, Ralph Adams Cram, had initially called it—President Edgar Odell Lovett envisioned a great university, one boldly planted in a region not noted for nurturing academic enterprises.