Woodson Research Center celebrates 50 years of preserving the past

Lee Pecht and Melissa Kean reflect on a half-century of cataloging the history of Rice, Houston and beyond

The Woodson Research Center Special Collection and Archives at Fondren Library celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — though on precisely which date, no one knows.

Lee Pecht and Melissa Kean (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Lee Pecht and Melissa Kean (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

What is known is this: At some time in 1968, the assemblage of Rice University-related materials collected by three longtime Fondren librarians was officially grouped into an archive named the Woodson Research Center, thanks to a gift from Benjamin Woodson, a former member of the Rice Board of Governors best remembered in Houston as a philanthropist and president of Gus Wortham’s American General Insurance Co.

Today, Woodson’s business diaries reside in the eponymous archive that occupies a large, inviting first-floor spot in Fondren alongside personal papers from other prominent Houston families: the Fondrens, of course, as well as the Hobby family, the Sharp family, the Mastersons of Rienzi fame and the George and Herman Brown families of Brown & Root.

But while the Woodson archivists have preserved these and many other important historical artifacts in the 50 years since it was created, the exact date of the Woodson’s own founding has eluded them.

“We have never been able to come up with a date,” said Rice archivist Lee Pecht, director of special collections, who has been on the hunt since joining the Woodson in 1990. “We’ve looked and it doesn’t seem to exist.”

“But that’s kind of the way this works,” said University Historian Melissa Kean, seated to Pecht’s left in his office. The two share an easy camaraderie born from a shared love of history and long years of collaborative efforts to preserve not only Rice’s history, but also that of its city and supporters. “There’s a randomness to what survives and what doesn’t; it’s chance.”

Among the papers of Julian Huxley, Rice's first

The papers of prominent scientist Julian Huxley, the first head of Rice’s Biology Department, are one of the Woodson’s most heavily used collections. Within, Kean found this Bering Hardware order form on which Huxley jokingly ordered an alligator delivered to the physics building.

In fact, said Kean, it’s remarkable that so much has survived over the years: invitations to the opening of the Rice Institute in 1912; a delicate dress worn by 1925 May Fete queen Allie May Autry laden with heavy pearls; original architectural drawings stored in the attic of the old Tudor Fieldhouse and forgotten for decades; and carved oak chairs from Baker College commons dating to 1917 that were discarded as trash during renovations in the 1960s.

“We’ve gotten about seven of those back,” Kean said of the chairs, crediting a handful of Rice alumni who picked them up from the curb all those years ago and returned them to the university once there was space to house them. Finding adequate space is just one of the roadblocks encountered by any archive, to say nothing of tracking down and preserving archival materials in the first place — something the university hadn’t prioritized in the first 50 years of its existence.

‘Truly unsung heroes’

Alice Dean, Sarah Lane and Pender Turnbull were among the first Rice staff members to recognize the need to preserve the university’s records. “These three librarians were all Rice alums from early times who never married and were just completely dedicated to the library and Rice,” said Kean. Around the time of Rice’s semi-centennial celebration in 1962, the trio was able to convince the administration that an archive was absolutely necessary, even if the librarians weren’t quite sure yet where all of the archival materials would go nor how they’d pay for the undertaking.

In this 1952 photo found by Kean in Pender Turnbull's collection, Alice Dean and Sarah Lane (both standing at rear) enjoy a Fondren Library staff picnic held in the backyard of William Dix, then head of the library.

In this 1952 photo found by Kean in Pender Turnbull’s collection, Alice Dean and Sarah Lane (both seated at rear center) enjoy a Fondren Library staff picnic held in the backyard of William Dix, then head of the library.

Among the materials related to the Woodson’s founding that Kean and Pecht have unearthed are handwritten notes from the first meeting Dean, Lane and Turnbull had about starting an archive. “They made sure that even though there was no money and no organization, stuff got saved,” said Kean. “They’re truly unsung heroes.”

An expansion of Fondren Library in 1969 added 99,000 square feet and room for the Woodson Center one year after its formal organization. A renovation of the library’s first floor in 2006 gave it a glassy, welcoming entrance and visitors’ area.

Much of the early work within the Woodson involved Dean, Lane and Turnbull tracking down memos, speeches, minutes and other administrative records while also convincing faculty and staff across campus to turn over valuable possessions that would be best preserved in an archive. Years later, Kean found herself in the same possession when she was named the university’s official historian in 2005.

An original panel from the Rice supercomputer stands in one corner of the Woodson Research Center.

An original panel from the Rice supercomputer stands in one corner of the Woodson Research Center.

“When I first got this job, I spent the first three or four years bringing in the stuff that people were squirreling away,” she said of the Rice Owls ephemera discovered over time: a hand-carved Owls toilet seat, an “Owl-opoly” board game, the spectacles belonging to Rice’s first president, Edgar Odell Lovett — items she has also documented over the years on her popular blog, Rice History Corner. “It was sometimes hard to talk them out of it.”

One of the most incredible finds was an original panel from the Rice Institute Computer, or R1, constructed on campus in 1958. The 20-panel, vacuum-tube supercomputer was decommissioned in 1971; decades later, Kean found a single panel hidden in a storage closet in Abercrombie Hall. “The Stanford Computer Museum keeps trying to get it from me,” Pecht said with a laugh.

‘The best job on campus’

These days, the Woodson is the repository for much more than just Rice’s own historical archives. Its architecture collections contain everything from the records and papers of locally renowned architects William Ward Watkins and Lenard Gabert to the original master plan for Buffalo Bayou Park drawn up by Charles Tapley in 1977. Its business collection encompasses records from early Houston dry goods companies to modern energy trading firms, and includes a collection of Jesse Jones’ correspondence.

The Woodson archives house a collection of Jesse Jones’ correspondence.

The Woodson archives house a collection of Jesse Jones’ correspondence.

As a result, what began as a collection of administrative and campus records has now become one of the nation’s leading research libraries.

You can access rare books, including Nicolaus Copernicus’ 1566 masterpiece marking the dawn of modern science, “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium,” and Johannes Kepler’s 1675 “Tabulae Rudolpinae,” the first English text of his tables based on the laws of planetary motion. Cartographers can glean new understandings of the antique world from the Wilson Collection of historical maps and atlases. Shakespeare researchers can read the authoritative text for three of the Bard’s plays — the 1623 First Folio, which contains three of his most important plays: “The Tragedy of King Lear,” “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice,” and “The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra.” Scholars from across the globe can plumb the papers of Julian Huxley, a major acquisition made in 1980.

“It’s one of our most heavily used collections,” Pecht said of the diaries and correspondence that once belonged to Huxley, a prominent scientist who was the first head of Rice’s Biology Department and helped found both UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund.

As director, Pecht is responsible for soliciting such collections from faculty and outside donors alike. He’s always on the lookout for collections that can enhance the work and studies of Rice faculty, as one of the Woodson’s primary purposes is that of a research library. “We make sure to talk to faculty and find out what their needs are,” Pecht said.

In recent years, the archive has expanded to include other collections that highlight Houston’s history. Anne Chao co-founded the Houston Asian American Archive at the Woodson in 2009, while the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston donated its own extensive archive in 2017. Woodson archivist Norie Guthrie has steadily added recordings, photographs and oral histories to the Houston Folk Music Archive and Kean teamed up with postdoctoral fellow Joshua Furman last year to save local Jewish historical records damaged during Hurricane Harvey — an effort that resulted in the creation of the Houston Jewish History Archive at the Woodson Center.

"I think this is the best job on campus," said Pecht. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“I think this is the best job on campus,” said Pecht. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“I think this is the best job on campus,” said Pecht. “We have a ball.”

It is a job that’s never finished. In addition to seeking out the exact date of the Woodson Research Center’s own founding, the historians are determined to track down another crucial piece of Rice’s past.

“The ultimate find would be a photograph of William Marsh Rice,” said Kean. Drawings, steel engravings, painted portraits and other images of the university’s famed founder exist, including one newspaper clipping with a reproduced photo, but no original photographs have been located.

“We’re still looking for certain things we know are out there but we haven’t found them yet,” said Pecht, who hopes a photo can be found in a recently discovered trunk filled with William Marsh Rice’s possessions, which his family is allowing to be digitized and eventually archived at the Woodson. “One day we’ll find them.”

“And hopefully,” added Kean, “before we both retire!”

The Woodson Research Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Materials are available for Rice faculty, students and alumni, as well as local, national and international researchers via exhibitions, lectures, and other public events. Many archives have been digitized while others are only available for viewing in person. For more information, visit library.rice.edu/woodson.

For additional images and stories from the Woodson Research Center and Rice’s own historic archives, follow Melissa Kean’s blog: Rice History Corner.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.