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Unlocking Rice University’s hidden symbols and messages

Everyone knows Houston’s Rice University is one of the most prestigious universities anywhere in the nation. But did you know that Rice’s history also involves a murder mystery? And that the campus is full of hidden symbols and secret messages?

Today, Rice University is bustling with thousands of students, but when it was founded in 1912, this was swamp land.

“This campus was not even inside the city limits of Houston,” Rice historian Melissa Kean told Dave Ward’s Houston. “The only way to reach it was the dirt road Main Street.”

Rice’s first president, Edgar Odell Lovett, used his sense of humor to devise a plan to attract the best and brightest minds in the country.

Lovett created stunning architecture with a twist. The grand palatial main building earned instant national recognition.

“Buried in it are all kinds of whimsical carvings, hidden secrets that convey something else,” Kean said.

The columns of the building, now known as Lovett Hall, were carved to represent the four stages of college life.

“In the beginning, we see the freshman with a goofy, almost Alfred E. Neuman smile on his face,” Kean added. “[And] the sophomore who has the false confidence of someone who has got a year behind him, but hasn’t really grown up yet.”

There is also the junior who realizes he still has a long way to realize his goal.

“The last corner is the senior in his Mortar Board looking like a full grown man ready to step out into the world,” Kean summed up.

Not everything was meant to be seen as in the case of the “Frog Wall” on the east side of Anderson Hall.

“This was the first building built after World War II, so there wasn’t as much money to decorate a building, but they still wanted to make something interesting and unusual,” Kean explained.

And boy did they. If you run your finger down the holes in the wall, the sound you hear is that of a chirping frog.

Speaking of sounds, take someone with you to Herzstein Hall where the alcoves create a whispering chamber.

Then there’s the chemistry building where a longtime teacher and dean is forever immortalized in stone.

“We have Dean [Harry B.] Weiser and he is depicted here as a ravening beasts tearing apart a sad undergraduate student,” Kean described. “On the other side of this column, we have a bit of student whimsy. This is meant to be a naive student extracting the poison from a dragon’s tooth for his alchemy lab.”

But this fascinating campus almost wasn’t built thanks to a murder mystery. William Marsh Rice was a Houston millionaire who wanted to give back by creating a major university, but his estate wouldn’t flux after his strange and sudden death.

“He was murdered by his butler, who had conspired to steal his fortune,” Kean explained. “Rice’s entire fortune was devoted to the building up of this new institute in Houston, Texas.”

His butler claimed Rice died in his sleep, but Rice’s famed attorney Captain James Baker unraveled the plot and saved his fortune.

The statue of William Marsh Rice holds his ashes and is fondly referred to as “Willie.”

“One of the greatest pranks in the history of Rice University, a group of clever and resourceful engineering students planned and executed the lifting up and the reversal of the statute,” Kean recalled.

It took a crane to flip the one ton statue back into place.

Pranks, jokes and hidden meanings are all part of Rice’s charm which helped make Edgar Odell Lovett’s dream of attracting the best minds a reality. Rice University consistently ranks as one of the best universities in the country.

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