The six trustees now faced the daunting task of turning the paper institute into a reality. For several years they studied other universities and traveled to the East Coast to inspect a variety of institutions, trying to get an inspired idea of what might be accomplished in Houston. In January 1907 they began to search for the ideal person to head the Institute, considering a wide range of names before finally selecting the man recommended by Woodrow Wilson, at the time president of Princeton University.
Edgar Odell Lovett, a young, classically educated mathematician teaching at Princeton, formally accepted the offer to be the president of The Rice Institute on January 18, 1908. His confidence both in the trustees and in himself had led him to write informally earlier in the month, “I believe we are going to have the patience and the power to do the thing right . . . .”
By the time Lovett arrived in Houston in March, he had already begun to formulate ideas about the Institute he hoped would open in 1910. He wanted to herald its opening with elaborate ceremonies attracting distinguished scholars from around the globe, for this was to be not a small, provincial college or a narrow technical institute but a doctorate-granting university of world stature, and such ceremonies would announce that goal most eloquently. A university so conceived must be planned carefully if its high purpose were to be achieved, especially since it was located in a then relatively unknown Texas city more than a thousand miles from such other emerging centers of learning as Stanford University and the University of Chicago.
The Institute trustees agreed to send Lovett on a nine-month journey in 1908 and 1909 to inspect the leading academic institutions in England, across the Continent, and all the way to Japan. Everywhere Lovett interviewed educators, sought nominations for prospective faculty, toured university facilities, and piqued the world’s curiosity about the exciting new institution being planned. When Lovett returned to Houston in May 1909, his vision for The Rice Institute was complete, and within the next few months he and the trustees made a series of decisions that would shape its future for a half century.
First, the Institute would be operated solely on the income of the endowment; the principal would not be touched even for buildings. Second, and most bold, the new institution, although necessarily small and limited in scope at first, aimed not to be merely a trade school or a regional college. Instead, it aspired—as Lovett spelled out at the opening ceremonies—”to university standing of the highest grade.”
Only by considering the state of education in Texas and in the South at that time can one appreciate how daring that vision was. In 1910, for example, the average southern schoolchild attended school only 56 days a year. Fewer than 2 percent of the college-age youths attended college. The total income for all fifteen colleges and universities then in Texas was 40 percent less than the income for Princeton alone. In November 1910 the president of the Association of Colleges . . . of the Southern States had said: “Looking at the situation in the South . . . no university [is] well enough equipped to do genuine research work. . . . it is simply disheartening to contemplate our situation.” It was in the context of this impoverished academic environment that Lovett planned a world-class university.
Third, since even Rice’s handsome endowment, seventh largest in the nation at the time, was not sufficient immediately to build a full-fledged university from scratch, it was determined to begin “at the science end,” in part at least because science and engineering seemed more applicable to the “problems [of] . . . a new and rapidly developing country.” Lovett and the trustees realized that such a constricted focus on science represented a truncation of the chartered purpose of The William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art. But this limitation was intended to be only temporary.
Precisely because the trustees determined to house the new institution “in noble architecture worthy of the founder’s high aims,” they and Lovett took great care in choosing an architect. After visiting many architects and examining their work in the Northeast, the trustees selected Ralph Adams Cram of the famed Boston firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson in 1909. Cram took the charge very seriously, though he was nonplussed both by the bareness of the prairie campus and by the absence of stylistic precedents in the new country. What should be done?
Cram wrote that the firm wanted something that was “beautiful, . . . Southern in its spirit, and with some quality of continuity with the historic and cultural past.” The solution was the invention of “something approaching a new style” consisting of elements eclectically chosen from a variety of Mediterranean regions. For this flat, sun-bleached location they wanted to use, Cram wrote, “all the color we could command. A special rose-hued brick, . . . a wonderful rose-and-dove-coloured marble, . . . red Texas granite, . . . glazed, iridescent tiles, green bronze—everything we could think of to give richness, variety, and a certain splendour of effect.”
Along with the ornate central academic building, whose cornerstone was laid March 2, 1911, and an attached science laboratory, designs for a less detailed engineering laboratory and power plant and the first residence halls were drawn. The smokestack of the power plant was hidden within an elegant brick tower, and this campanile was later to give its name to the Rice yearbook. Grandiose plans for the siting of future buildings, ranked in a series of majestic quadrangles, were finally approved. The original architectural concept has guided the construction of the Rice campus down to the present.
With buildings under way—paid for from timber sales on land the university owned in Louisiana—Lovett continued his search for faculty, determined to attract the best scholars he could from the world’s leading centers of learning. He had taken to heart what he had been told on his global tour: consider faculty “before mortar and brains before bricks.” Lovett’s obvious enthusiasm for the educational adventure being launched in Texas helped him attract an international faculty of great distinction. For biology there was Julian Huxley from Oxford; for physics there was Harold A. Wilson, FRS, from the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge; Thomas Lindsey Blayney with his doctorate from Heidelberg came to teach German; Griffith C. Evans left Harvard to come teach mathematics (much later a building at Berkeley would be named after him). Within three years others of like prominence joined the faculty: Albert L. Guérard from Stanford to head the French Department; Stockton Axson from Princeton to head English; Harry Boyer Weiser in chemistry; Radoslav A. Tsanoff in philosophy; William Ward Watkin in architecture; Hermann J. Muller in biology (after leaving Rice, he won the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics).