When Mr. Todd met Mr. Watkin

Architecture school’s Anderson Todd, 90 this week, lured to Rice by William Ward Watkin

Rice News staff

Stories tumble out of Anderson Todd as one memory prompts another and another, each a scene from a remarkably rich life.

Todd is 90 this week. The life and work of the Gus Sessions Wortham Professor Emeritus and former director of the Rice School of Architecture (RSA) will be celebrated at a school dinner Oct. 21, a day before his birthday, and celebrated again at the school’s homecoming reception Nov. 4 at Anderson Hall.

Frequent themes crop up in any conversation with Todd: His respect for his father, Rear Adm. Forde Anderson Todd, who commanded the battleship USS Idaho, on which Todd sailed for four months at age 13, learning navigation. His own service commanding convoys in the South Atlantic during World War II. His studies at Princeton, where he waved to Albert Einstein every day. His introduction to midcentury Houston, “a fabulous place.” And his pivotal friendship with German architect Mies van der Rohe, whom Todd brought to Houston to design Cullinan Hall and the Brown Pavilion for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

RSA tribute to Todd online

The Rice School of Architecture (RSA) has created a 116-page book detailing the work of Anderson Todd in honor of his 90th birthday. The book, “Counting,” includes contributions from RSA Dean Sarah Whiting and professors Ron Witte, Stephen Fox and Nonya Grenader and was edited by Witte. Read the book online here.

Todd’s link to another key figure, William Ward Watkin, is of particular interest during Rice’s countdown to the Centennial Celebration. Watkin, the school’s first professor of architecture, came to Houston from Boston in 1910 to oversee construction of the Rice Institute, and before long talked President Edgar Odell Lovett into a more permanent role. (Watkin’s own colorful history at Rice is the subject of a current exhibit at Fondren Library.)

Todd came to Rice at Watkin’s invitation after earning his graduate degree from Princeton in 1949. He’s very likely the last man with an office on campus who possesses a direct connection to one of the university’s forefathers.

A bit of backroom wheeling and dealing preceded Todd’s commitment to Rice. Watkin had approached Todd’s Princeton mentor, Jean Labatut, at an American Institute of Architects conference in Houston in 1948 to seek advice on hiring new faculty for the struggling RSA, then at risk of losing its accreditation. “The Depression did not give much work for architects,” Todd said. “(Watkin) hired graduates from the school, which is the worst thing you can do to a school.”

Anderson Todd

Watkin didn’t mention RSA’s perilous position when he called Todd to arrange an interview.

Todd, who had returned to Princeton for graduate school after the war, already had job offers from every member of his thesis panel, including Louis Skidmore, founder of architecture giant SOM. He was surprised to hear Labatut had pitched him for a teaching job.  “I called Labatut and said, ‘What is going on?'”

Labatut said he had been observing his young protege and noticed with a certain amount of annoyance that undergraduates, particularly athletes, wore a path across the drafting room corridor to Todd’s desk.

Todd described himself as a jock; his Princeton extracurriculars included football (as a quarterback), rowing and wrestling. “I was sympathetic,” he admitted. “I said to Labatut, ‘I guess they must have a lot of athletes in the school of architecture (at Rice) if they want me.’

“He replied, ‘Todd, shut up. You’re old enough to know you should never close a door in the face of opportunity.’ Labatut could be tough when he wanted to be.”

Todd went to Watkin’s suite at the Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia. “He came all the way up from Texas! I was very impressed.

Todd stands up to a ‘god’

Then there was the time young Anderson Todd stood up to Frank Lloyd Wright, the most famous of architects, who considered Princeton his spiritual home.

Frank Lloyd Wright

“He was like God! Buddha! Charlemagne! He was the answer; he was the whole thing,” Todd said. “He gave a lecture there in 1939, and we all came early, all the young architecture students, and sat in the front.”

Wright began his talk with compliments all around to an auditorium packed with Princeton elite. “He finally stopped and said, ‘Well, I’ve said some nice things and now I’m going to let loose on you. We ought to shut down all the universities and start with the schools of architecture.’

“He said they were ruining everybody, boxing them in, there’s no hope for the future if we go on like this. … And he finally stopped and said, ‘Would anyone like to discuss these points I’ve made?’

“Dead silence. ‘You ought to be shut down. I can’t understand why a bunch of people so eminent — I recognize faces, people I see at the faculty club — don’t wish to say anything. Don’t you wish to defend this marvelous school?’

“He was stunned,” Todd recalled. “He said, ‘Well, maybe the future lies with these young people in front. You! (Wright pointed at Todd.) Yeah, you!’

“I got up and he said, ‘Speak, young man, speak!’

“I said, ‘Well, Mr. Wright, if you don’t like education, why do you write so many books?’

“He crossed his arms and spun completely around. ‘Son, you got me.’

“There were deans and the president of the university there! Einstein was there! You never heard such a racket! I couldn’t walk down Nassau Street for two years afterward without somebody stopping me.”

“He met me at the door, and he had a big glass in one hand and said, ‘Would you like a drink?’ I learned from my father that you always drink whatever the man has. So I said, ‘I’ll have the same as you’re having, Mr. Watkin.’

“He poured me a glass, God, about that tall. Four pieces of ice went in, and he had this bottle and he’s pouring it all the way to the top. And he hands it to me. No water or anything else; he knew what he was doing, I guess.

“That was at noon. About 3 o’clock, I staggered out. I walked out at about that angle,” Todd said, tilting a hand. “I walked over to the main line station and got off at Devon, where I lived, and thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I’d forgotten I left the car in the city.”

By then, the deal was done. “Watkin was a seller. He was charming as he could be,” Todd recalled. “He was a very persuasive man. It takes a lot to persuade me, I think. He must have been good.”

Todd turned down SOM and others offering jobs and spent the summer in Europe before driving his hand-me-down Plymouth to Houston.

“I got here, and Watkin told me I was teaching fifth-year students. What he wanted me to do, essentially, was do the work,” just as he had for his athlete pals at Princeton. Within days, Todd and his new students had drawings leaning against the walls up and down the corridors in Anderson Hall. “They went into the Math Department at the very far end. And the English Department at the other end,” he said.

He asked Watkin to have a look. “I showed up at the time of the appointment, and Watkin didn’t. He said, ‘Oh, was that 5? Excuse me, I guess I got the time wrong.’ Well, that’s possible. He didn’t show up the second time. He didn’t show the third time.

“I have a certain pride,” Todd said. “I don’t get hot when I get mad; I get cold.”

Todd’s residence was at the top of Faculty Tower, now part of Baker College — as high as Watkin could shove him, he said. “I packed all my stuff and carried it down to my black Plymouth, put it in the back and went out of town. I was still angry. I went down to OST (Houston’s Old Spanish Trail), and turned right, thinking it went to New Orleans, and ended up in Freeport.

“That day, the temperature was 95, 96. I got down there and went to a bar, and stayed awhile. I had a beer and a couple of cigarettes, and walked out,” he recalled. “I got back in the car and cooled off … and I was kind of ashamed of myself.”

He drove back to Houston. “In the morning I went in and said, ‘Watkin, I’m here. I’d like to see you.’ … I said, ‘You stood me up three times.’ I told him what I had done, I had cooled off a little bit by then. I said, ‘I made a mistake, Mr. Watkin. I put myself on your level.’

“He said, ‘Come in, sit down, we’ll talk. What do you want me to do?’ I said I’d like to teach freshmen.” That, Watkin said, was the responsibility of James Morehead, who had joined the department in 1940. “But he gave me a piece of them. Every week I had a little time with the freshmen, a little time with the juniors and sophomores.”

Channeling Labatut, Todd quickly made his mark. He recognized that to transform the school, he would need to make a bigger impact with younger students. “The kids were really excited. Labatut had infused us all (at Princeton) with a great sense of exploration and the fun, the excitement of the future.

“I’d come a long way by that time,” Todd said. “I was 28 years old. I’d been the skipper of a ship. Done a few things. Done more than anybody in the faculty at Rice had done in their lives.”

But at Rice, in Houston, as an architect, as a teacher, it was just the beginning.






About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.