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Off the pedestal: Willy’s statue moved as academic quad redesign progresses

Courtesy Dylan Glenn

By Nayeli Shad     11/14/23 10:26pm

The Founder’s Memorial statue was removed from its pedestal Nov. 8. The statue is currently in storage and will eventually sit at the corner of Lovett and Sewall Halls in the redesigned academic quad. The Board of Trustees announced in January 2022 that the statue would be relocated and the quad would be redesigned.

Images of the final design by landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz are displayed on a poster in the Sallyport and between Rayzor Hall and Sewall Hall, two of the entrances into the quad that are fenced off until April 2024 for construction. The poster reads, “Moving forward together. Acknowledging our founding. Celebrating our evolution and growth.”

Many elements of the final design mirror that of the first design proposed. Both designs have a curved path lined with trees stretching from Lovett Hall to Rayzor Hall, with Willy’s statue sitting on the ground by the Welcome Center and new gathering spaces in front of Fondren Library. The seating area in front of Fondren will have shade, Wi-Fi and power outlets, University Architect George Ristow said. 

The new design has added a brick plaza in the center of the quad with benches and trees, with the former base of the statue repositioned off the centerline of the quad and rotated.

Ristow echoed the sentiments in the Board of Trustees’ original statement that the quad redesign is intended to reckon with the history of the university and make the space more engaging.

“The quad redesign activates a large and open space that was not historically inviting for gathering and reflection due to scale as well as limited shade and furnishings, while recontextualizing the Founder’s Memorial statue away from the formal center of the space, and defining an area of similar prominence for a future major artwork celebrating Rice’s achievements since the university’s founding — notably the integration of the student body,” Ristow wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Shifa Rahman ’22 coordinated the Down With Willy movement to protest the presence of Willy’s Statue due to William Marsh Rice’s history as a slave owner and the segregated founding of the university. A co-author of the Student Association resolution which called for the relocation of the Founder’s Memorial during the 2021-22 academic year, Rahman said they are glad to see the statue has finally been removed from its pedestal.

“I do see that this is progress in the way that a legacy of white supremacy [and] enslavement is being decentered,” Rahman said.

Still, Rahman said they are not completely satisfied with the movement of the statue next to the Welcome Center and that further demands by Black students should be met. Rahman mentioned the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice’s final report and the growth of the Center for African and African American Studies as examples of progress but called for the administration to do more.

“There’s still a lot more that could be done particularly along the lens of … working on reparations, working on other measures of racial injustice that isn’t just purely symbolic. The statue was literally just that,” Rahman said. “At the end of the day, I feel like it’s still up to the administration on whether or not they prioritize Black lives and listening to those recommendations and also to gain insight about the pulse of the Black community at Rice.”

Sharon Low, a Hanszen College junior, said that closing the quad during the school year has made it inconvenient to get to class, especially as finals are approaching. However, she said she likes the efficiency the new design will provide for getting around campus, as well as the message behind the redesign.

“I think it is very symbolic in that it sort of represents Rice changing … The removal of the Willy statue, I think it stands for change and development and a sense of newness that I think Rice needs,” Low said.

Will Rice College sophomore Mary Margaret Speed said she would’ve preferred to remove Willy’s statue from the quad entirely. While Speed said she supports adding more shaded areas to the quad, she does not think anything else about the design of the quad needed to be changed.

Speed further agreed that the timing of the closure during finals has been inconvenient because the quad is the center of campus.

“I can understand why they wouldn’t want it to be done during the summer just for the workers’ safety … But it feels like it would have been nice if they could have found a way to do it in sections, or have some kind of path going through,” Speed said.

Ristow said that the project could not have been done during the summer because it would take five months, and that the design was not completed in summer 2023. Ristow said the current timeline is more ideal due to the duration needed and being able to plant in the spring. 

Additionally, Ristow said that the quad has to be completely closed because there will be active construction in all areas. Ristow said that a path will be added to connect Fondren Library to Cannady Hall when the building is completed in January 2024.

Chiara Moretti, a Martel College freshman, said she can no longer use the quad as a shortcut to cross from the north to the south side of campus and has had to learn new routes to get to class. Moretti said she doesn’t know what she will think of the quad for her next three years.

“Even though I’m a freshman, I got used to how the quad looked like, and it was a nice place to go hang out or just admire the views when you’re passing by,” Moretti said. “So it’s just really hard to know what to expect, if it’s going to be better or if we’re going to miss the old quad.”

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