Patrick James Nicholson.

William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute online

. (page 2 of 31)
Online LibraryPatrick James NicholsonWilliam Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute → online text (page 2 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Houston in the summer of 1837. Within a year, almost as many

Chapter One 9

additional homes, mainly of logs, had been added, along with two
hotels and a "shopping area" of more than a dozen stores. The rare
bears and more frequently seen panthers had left the town site,
retreating to the more desolate areas upstream.

A "direct wagon road" had been opened to San Antonio "travers-
ing country now so well populated that travelers were able to reach a
house each night." Moreover, the Philosophical Society of Texas had
been organized, and there were advertisements in the tiny local
newspaper, the Texas Telegraph and Register, for a " . . . GENTLE-
MAN capable of taking charge of a SCHOOL." There was talk of
building a sawmill to replace the one at Harrisburg burned by
invading Mexicans, as a growing flood of settlers poured into Texas
from the major entry point at Natchitoches on the Louisiana border.

Curiously enough, William Marsh Rice did not immediately turn
to merchandising, the apparently promising field in which he was
primarily experienced [4]. Instead, the young entrepreneur was first
involved in private banking (commercial banks had been specifically
forbidden by the constitutional convention of 1835), real estate, and
leasing a small hotel and other properties.

On February 12, 1839, Rice received a "headright" grant (under
which the recipient agrees to make certain improvements within a
specified period of time) on 320 acres in the Harrisburg area. This
may well have encouraged Rice to turn his maturing judgment and
keen foresight increasingly to the interlocking areas of land, lumber,
cotton, and transportation, and to major real estate investments in
Louisiana as well as Texas, several of which were to have a
tremendous impact upon the early and continuing development of the
Rice Institute.

The growing number of wealthy plantation owners up and down the
Brazos and the dozen or so cotton buyers in Houston did not escape
Rice's canny eye either. He was soon dispatching a small fleet of
delivery wagons to the Richmond area southwest of Houston in a
booming trade with the plantations, and doing everything with cotton
except the risky business of growing it. In the process, he became an
incorporator of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado (River)
Railway, the solution to late summer and autumn rains that often
made it impossible to get cotton to Houston.

10 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

Further demonstrating his exceptional foresight and ability to
discover money-making opportunities, Rice bought thousands of
acres of prime Louisiana forest land starting in the 1850s and
continuing until shortly before his death. He had a standing order
with agents for stands of "first-class longleaf pine," and some of his
huge acquisitions, at an average of about $2.50 per acre, turned out
to have sizable oil and gas deposits beneath them.

By 1850, Rice was able to considerably widen his ongoing contacts
with, and generosity toward, members of his family back in Massa-
chusetts. There were many gifts, including major assistance to his
aging parents in the purchase of a new home, and help for his married
sisters and their children. When the Massachusetts economy re-
mained anemic in contrast to burgeoning Houston, he brought his
older brother, David, Jr., and the youngest of the Rice boys,
Frederick AUyn, to help with his expanding undertakings [5].

Frederick married Charlotte Baldwin, the widowed niece of both
Mayor Harvey Baldwin and Mrs. Augustus C. Allen, in 1854, an
example of the tendency, at the time, toward intermarriages between
prominent Houston families. His brother William had done the same
four years earlier. On June 29, 1850, William took as his bride
Margaret Bremond, the 18-year-old daughter of Paul Bremond, a
sophisticated and elegant man who was president of the Houston &
Texas Central Railroad [6] .


Still a few months shy of thirty-five, William Marsh Rice
launched a distinctly different phase of his life. There were no
children, but his marriage was apparently a stable and happy one.
Margaret Bremond Rice lived quietly with her ever more prosper-
ous husband, active in the various church and women's organiza-
tions and "benefits" of the time.

In 1863, Margaret Bremond Rice fell desperately ill, possibly of
the dreaded yellow fever that remained the scourge of hot, mosquito-
ridden summers. She died on August 13, 1863, only thirty-one.
Characteristically, Rice showed littie outward emotion, but there
must have been the natural reaction of depression and the tendency to

Chapter One 11

withdraw as he struggled with the grief of his loss. In the fall of 1863,
he left Frederick in charge and moved some of his operations to the
Mexican cotton and shipping center of Matamoros, where the Rio
Grande flows on into the Gulf of Mexico. There, and in Monterrey,
capital of Nuevo Leon, he was in a chaotic yet profitable market
where gold was the medium of exchange and cotton could bring a
dollar a pound.

These travels, of which little is known, took Rice much farther
afield, to Havana. He did not return to Houston until August 1865,
months after the final surrender at Appomattox. A note in William
Marsh Rice's own handwriting states succinctly: "The war broke up
my business." Before credit collapsed in the Gulf Coast area and, for
that matter, throughout the Confederacy, the William M. Rice
Company was sold in Houston at public auction. Its founder then
expanded the substantial banking connections he had already estab-
lished in New York City.

Early in 1866, Rice bought his parents a new home at Three Rivers,
just north of Springfield, and told them of his plans to spend more
and more time in the East, specifically in New York City and in New
Jersey's nearby suburban Middlesex County. It was both a true and a
significant disclosure. Rice would retain his close ties with Houston
for the remainder of his life, while expanding the activities leading to
the chartering and eventual opening of the Rice Institute. But he was
destined never to live again in the elegant house where Margaret
Bremond Rice died. In spite of continuing and new businesses and
major investments in Houston, from that time on. Rice would only
infrequently visit the city.

On June 26, 1867, William Marsh Rice took as his second wife
(Julia) Elizabeth Baldwin Brown. There remain conflicting reports
regarding Elizabeth (Libbie) Baldwin Rice, variously described as a
tall, handsome woman "... of wondrous eyes . . . always happiest
when doing for others . . . ," and as an unhappy, ambitious social
climber. There are no doubts, however, regarding the exact wording
and potential impact of her final will, signed on June 1, 1896, and
probated soon after her death on July 24, less than two months later.

Elizabeth Baldwin Rice has remained a woman of some mystery.
Few, if any, knew her well. Her innermost feelings or ambitions were

12 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

apparently never disclosed to Rice, although the meager record of
their relationship shows no evidence of his ever having treated her
with anything but marked kindness. One would suspect that the
impecunious years with her first husband, the "unremarkable" John
H. Brown, followed by a return to Houston as an impoverished
widow employed as a housekeeper, left her with almost a compulsion
to gain the high social position held by her older sister Charlotte (Mrs.
Frederick Rice), or her aunt, Mrs. A.C. Allen.

In a new marriage and lifestyle, William Marsh and Libbie Rice
lived in New York City hotel suites and apartments half of the year
before removing to Houston to stay with the Frederick Rices or with
Margaret Bremond's sister Harriet and her husband Samuel Timpson.
They travelled to the metropolis and returned from there in a
luxurious new drawing room and "Pullman Palace" accommodations
on the Houston & Central Texas. Rice had helped to negotiate an
agreement with the major railroads running north and east, which
allowed Houston-New York City passengers to travel with only a
single transfer, which was made in St. Louis.

By 1895, she and William Marsh Rice were listed for the first time
in the New York City Social Register; had taken a lease on a handsome,
newly furnished, and considerably larger apartment on Madison
Avenue; and seemed to have attained some standing in the complex
society of the Eastern metropolis. In Houston, a comfortable apartment
in the new annex to the Capitol Hotel was being prepared for them.
This apartment was the scene of what Elizabeth Baldwin Rice must
have regarded as her arrival, at long last, at the summit of Houston
society. She gave a reception in her new home for Jefferson Davis'
daughter Winnie during the thirtieth reunion of the United Confederate
Veterans Association. Society reporters for the Houston and Galveston
newspapers went on for days about the "stunning elegance" of the
affair, complete with a small orchestra and hundreds of guests, the
ladies uncomfortable but determinedly fashionable in heavy satin
gowns in hot, humid mid-May.

Returning to New York for the summer as was their custom,
Elizabeth and William Marsh Rice stayed on for much of the winter
of 1895-1896 because of Rice's involvement in a series of complex
business negotiations at the time. She suffered through a siege of
pneumonia and, when the weather remained unusually cold and

Chapter One 13

disagreeable, they went to Houston at the end of April, a time that
ordinarily found them en route to New York City.

In mid-May, Elizabeth Baldwin Rice had a severe stroke in the
apartment at the Capitol Hotel annex. This left her paralyzed on the
right side, with speech impairment and some evidence of mental
disorder. On June 1, 1896, she signed a new will about which her
husband knew absolutely nothing. Drawn by Orren T. Holt, an
attorney who had moved into the Capitol Hotel annex with his wife
(who quickly established a close friendship with the ailing Elizabeth),
it was based on the contention that Mrs. Rice and William Marsh Rice
were both legally residents of the state of Texas. She was. Holt
maintained, therefore entitled to one-half of all community property
acquired by her husband since their marriage.

Among Elizabeth Baldwin Rice's many bequests were ten percent
of her estate to Orren Holt for his service as executor, about $400,000
to various members of the Baldwin family, and $250,000 to establish
the Elizabeth Baldwin Home for "indigent gentlewomen." There was
no mention of the William Marsh Rice Institute. The will was
witnessed by Orren Holt's mother-in-law and sister-in-law. This
detailed document, had it been accepted as valid, would have greatly
diminished both the endowment of the Rice Institute, and the funds
available to move it from concept to reality.


Hearing sixty, William Marsh Rice began to consider some major,
ongoing project or institution that he could endow with his growing
fortune. He noted Cooper Union, the institute founded by Peter
Cooper for the education and training of "the workingmen of New
York City," and visited the uptown campus a number of times. He
went to Philadelphia with John Bartine, his Plainfield, New Jersey,
lawyer, to obtain detailed information on Girard College, founded by
Stephen Girard to educate "white orphan boys." And when his
nephew and namesake William Marsh Rice n (Frederick's son)
entered Princeton in 1875 to study engineering, he visited the nearby
New Jersey institution several times.

14 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

Impressed greatly by the concepts of both Cooper Union and
Girard College, and by the opportunity that Princeton was providing
his nephew (in a changing United States where higher education
would obviously be increasingly important), Rice had Bartine draw
up a will for him in 1882. This will provided for the building and
endowment of the William Marsh Rice Orphans' Institute, to be
established at his Green Brook estate after his death.

Fortunately, Rice had gradually increased the time he spent in
Houston, starting in 1879. An investment of consummate importance
to the future Rice Institute was made: rounding out his purchases of
Louisiana timberland, 50,000 acres of prime longleaf pine in Beaure-
gard Parish was obtained from the federal government at $1.25 per
acre, which would be left to the Rice Institute in his will.

Rice was drawn ever more closely into the circle of influential
Houstonians who were to become the original trustees of the Rice
Institute. One of these community leaders was Cesar Lombardi, who
had emigrated from Switzerland to New Orleans with his family at
fifteen. Educated by the Jesuits in the Louisiana capital, he had become
a key official of W.D. Cleveland & Company (wholesale grocers and
cotton factors), and president of the Houston School Board. In the latter
post, he was ever more conscious of the need for a public high school
in the growing "litde city." The project was regarded as expensive
foolishness in many quarters, and was turned down almost unani-
mously when Lombardi requested financing in the late 1880s. Soon
thereafter, he decided to tackle his longtime friend and frequent visitor,
William Marsh Rice, on the proposition.

One of a series of letters preserved in the Fondren Library at Rice
recounts how Lombardi locked the door of his private office against
interruptions, and discussed the need for the high school with Rice
for more than an hour. He told him that Houston, "... where he had
made his fortune . . . should become the beneficiary of his surplus
wealth . . . lin a] monument to his memory that would not crumble
with time." Rice promised to give Lombardi an answer soon, and
when this was not forthcoming, the latter called on the financier. He
was told to put his plan on paper and send it to Rice in New York.
Some months later, Lombardi visited Rice in New York. They had
what seemed to be an encouraging discussion about the high school,

Chapter One 15

but an entire year went by without any decision or further news
regarding the proposition.

Another highly significant letter from Cesar Lombardi tells the
happy sequel to his protracted and unsuccessful campaign for a public
high school in Houston:

"Then one evening Capt. James A. Baker, who was Mr. Rice's
attorney, came to see me and told me that Mr. Rice had just
arrived from New York and wished to see me next day . . .
[when] I called upon him, he told me that what I had told him the
year before about devoting a part of his fortune to educational
purposes had made an impression upon him ... he had come to
the conclusion [however] not to erect and equip a High School
because the City . . . was under obligation to do that . . . was
able to do it, and should be made to do it. Instead, he had planned
to endow an institution of learning separate and distinct from the
public school system . . . planned largely upon the Cooper's
Institute in New York and to be known as the Wm. M. Rice
Institute of Literature, Science, and Art . . . while he would
begin right now to make provision for financing the Institution,
he did not wish to put his plans into effect during his life time,
but only after his death."

The founder also asked Cesar Lombardi to join him and Captain
Baker and his younger brother, Frederick Allyn Rice, as charter
trustees of his Institute. The invitation was apparently accepted on
the spot.

Captain Baker had obviously been hard at work for some time
when the Lombardi-Rice meeting was held sometime in late April
1891. The application for a state charter for the Rice Institute was
signed by the original seven trustees on May 13, 1891, and
formally received and registered by the Texas secretary of state in
Austin six days later on May 19. Baker, one of two lawyers among
the seven, was already a central figure in the new enterprise, as he
would be for the next half-century and more. He counseled William
Marsh Rice on the selection of the five other trustees, as did
businessman Emanuel Raphael [7].

16 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

Much as his friend Lombardi had done, Emanuel Raphael had called
on William Marsh Rice, requesting major support for public libraries
tied into the public school system. Rice gave him the same answer he
had given Lombardi: let the city support any such undertaking.
However, the two men began a lengthy discussion of the new plan for
the Rice Institute. Raphael was so interested, and Rice evidently so
gratified at his positive reaction, that the younger man left with two
crucial assignments: to help Captain Baker and the founder put the plan
for the Institute down on paper, and to recruit the remaining trustees
to serve with the Rice brothers. Baker, and Lombardi as incorporators
and members of the first governing board.

Raphael was asked to accept the appointment before he left the
meeting, and agreed to do so. He had the agreement of the two other
charter trustees, James Everett McAshan and Alfred Stephen Rich-
ardson [8], within days, and apparently made valuable contributions
to the wording of the institutional charter, as he would many times
during the twenty-two years he served on the governing board until
his death on April 16, 1913.

All seven charter trustees were members of the evolving Houston
aristocracy, although from widely differing backgrounds. Captain
James Addison Baker, Jr., was born January 10, 1857, in Huntsville,
Texas. His father had come to the pleasant, prosperous county seat of
Walker County as had so many others there, from Huntsville,
Alabama. And, like James S. Abercrombie, wealthy oilman, indus-
trialist, and philanthropist; Judge J. A. Elkins, lawyer, banker, and
master politician; and Robert Scott Lovett, eminent lawyer and U.S.
secretary of defense. Baker came the seventy-five miles directly south
to Houston to make his name and fortune.

The relationship between Captain James A. Baker and Rice
continued to be of the utmost importance to the genesis of the William
Marsh Rice Institute. During all the years of its first half-century,
from 1891 until Captain Baker's death in Houston on August 2, 1941 ,
Baker and the Rice Institute were ever more closely associated.


William Marsh Rice was demonstrably a man who looked before
he leaped. As early as 1875, he had been convinced that he wanted to

Chapter One 17

devote the bulk of his mushrooming fortune to an institution capable
of helping the deserving, needy young. As this basic conclusion
emerged in growing detail, it became both broader and more specific.
From an orphanage in New Jersey, the mutation progressed in the
charter and objectives of the Rice Institute to the establishment and
maintenance of a public library and an "institution and Polytechnic
school" in Houston, Texas.

The institution was to be ". . . for the Advancement of Literature,
Science, Art, Philosophy, and Letters" (later shortened to the far less
cumbersome "Letters, Science, and Art" on the rings worn by
graduates). There was nothing specific concerning the Polytechnic
school, but the charter provided broadly for "procuring and main-
taining scientific collections; collections of chemical and philosophi-
cal 1?] apparatus, mechanical and artistic models, drawings, pictures
and statues; and for cultivating other means of instruction for the
white inhabitants of the City of Houston, and State of Texas ..."

The unfolding plan, however, included other, quite specific and
significant elements that the founder himself insisted upon: In order
to proceed from concept to reality, Rice signed a "deed of indenture"
on May 13, 1891. This involved a $200,000 note from Rice to the
trustees, at six percent interest payable annually. Of far more
consequence. Captain Baker drew up, with help from Emanuel
Raphael, four deeds of gift from Rice and his wife, Elizabeth
Baldwin, that would become the lifeblood of the neonate Rice
Institute. The gifts comprised seven acres along Louisiana Street just
south of downtown Houston, a 10,000-acre tract in Jones County
near the county seat of Anson (named for the last president of the
Republic of Texas), the historic site of the Capitol Hotel (soon to be
the Rice Hotel) at Main and Texas, and a donation of the utmost
importance: the 50,000 acres of choice pine forests Rice had bought
in Louisiana's Beauregard Parish for $62,500.

Rice himself added two other pointed provisions to the deed of
indenture and related documents in the plan that was now taking
definite form. As Rice had told Cesar Maurice Lombardi, while he
would begin right now to make provision for financing the Institution,
he did not wish to put his plans into effect during his lifetime but only
after his death. This was an obvious reflection of his innate modesty

18 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

and of the distaste for publicity that had continued to grow as Rice
moved through middle age and into his final years.

And while he had full confidence in the six men chosen to serve
with him as charter trustees, Rice had the following stipulation
inserted in both the $200,000 deed of indenture and the four deeds of
gift: if a difference of opinion should arise between the party of the
first part (the founder himself) and said Trustees as to the investment
or expenditure of such funds, then the decision of the party of the first
part shall control. The canny Yankee in Rice had remained intact,
even in his seventy-fifth year.

Controversy did not arise. The founder continued to work long
hours on Institute matters with Captain Baker, with his brother
Frederick, and with Lombardi and Raphael, the latter having devel-
oped into both a trusted adviser and close friend. Rice also conferred
regularly with two other trustees, James Everett McAshan and A.S.
Richardson, who had, as did their peers, specialized knowledge and
experience of specific value, plus membership in Houston's elite
banking, business, and professional circles.


Captain James A. Baker, elected chairman of the Rice Institute
governing board, a position he would hold until his death in 1941,
remained the central figure among the trustees. He proved his
worth many times, especially in connection with a crucial lawsuit
involving the will of Mrs. William Marsh Rice. This document, the
talk of Houston for months, was a dagger pointed straight at the
heart of the Institute when it was filed for probate in March 1897
following Elizabeth Baldwin Rice's death at the age of sixty-eight
in 1896.

Just entering his eighth decade, a time when he might have
looked forward to relative peace of mind and the opportunity to
look back in retrospect upon what had already been an eventful life
of achievement, the widower William Marsh Rice was faced with
another shock: Orren Hoh, the second Mrs. Rice's attorney, as
executor filed her will for probate in Houston's Harris County
courthouse. Captain Baker was about to enter center stage again,

Chapter One 19

this time as champion and defender of the entire concept and future
of the Rice Institute. His crucial roles as chairman of the governing
board and lead attorney for both founder and Institute suited him
ideally for this position.

Elizabeth Baldwin Rice's will was admitted to probate almost eight
months after her death. Her husband had several legal avenues
through which to attack the will, among them charges of collusion,
mental instability, and lawful place of residence. He chose the latter,
and Captain Baker filed suit in United States Circuit Court in
Galveston, claiming that his client was a resident of the state of New
York at the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Baldwin, had been since,
and remained so. If upheld, the claim would negate the second Mrs.
Rice's attempt to seize ownership of one-half of community property
under Texas law.

It was soon apparent that one certain aspect of the case would be
its duration in the courts. The legal questions involved were complex,
and the sums involved increasingly large. Further, the entire situation
would become even more confused by a slowly forming specter of
forgery, embezzlement, and murder.

William Marsh Rice returned to New York City and his still
active life, seeing to his myriad investments and the ongoing
financing of a number of his enterprises in Houston, elsewhere in
Texas, and in Louisiana. He was able to spend a great deal of time
in the East because of the faith he had in Captain Baker, the other
trustees of his Institute, and a vital addition to his staff, Emanuel
Raphael's brother-in-law, attorney Arthur B. Cohn. Almost from

Online LibraryPatrick James NicholsonWilliam Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute → online text (page 2 of 31)