It all started with a $15 million gift to the university in 1998. 

The money was donated by the Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, a long-standing benefactor of Rice. Earmarked to implement the Rice: The Next Century initiative, part of the donation was set aside to build a new residential college. Such an undertaking would have made the foundation’s founders, late Houston businessman Speros Martel and his wife Marian, proud.

During the 1940s, the Martels lived only a short distance away from Rice in the Warwick (now the Hotel ZaZa), located just north of campus on Main Street. Although they did not have any children, the couple bestowed their love of learning on their adopted children, the students of the Rice Institute.

Speros Martel was a self-educated man. As the first Rice Institute students matriculated in 1912, a young Speros left his home in Athens, Greece, to study in France. But Speros’ adventuresome spirit soon got the best of him, and he enlisted as a cabin boy on a ship bound for New York. Martel survived in his new country by working as a Wall Street messenger and selling newspapers and flowers on the street until he saved enough money to open a restaurant in Buffalo, New York.


During World War I, Martel moved to Camp Logan in Houston and became a waiter at the Rice Hotel, owned first by William Marsh Rice and then by the Rice Institute after the war. Martel again saved his money, opening a restaurant of his own a block away from the Rice Hotel and later building other restaurants along Main Street.

Although Martel had little formal education, he learned to speak five languages through his travels abroad. His entrepreneurial skills allowed him to become a successful businessman, investing in land, stocks and bonds. He eventually made friends with fellow Houston businessmen George R. Brown and Jesse H. Jones, and often attended Rice football games with Jones.
In 1932, Martel married Marian Fox Twyman, daughter of another prominent Houston businessman, Henry Fox Sr. When Marian Martel died in 1956, her will endowed four chairs to the university in honor of each of her parents; her first husband, William Gaines Twyman; and her sister, Gladys Louise Fox.

The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation was established that same year and has since supported a variety of philanthropic causes, including cancer research, the Houston Symphony, the Houston Holocaust Museum, and Project GRAD, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase the graduation and college attendance rates of inner-city students. With the building of Martel College, the Martels’ dream of having a profound influence on the students of Rice University and the residents of Houston has become even more concrete.
The literal and figurative foundations of the new college were laid in 2000. The official groundbreaking took place on April 10, 2000, and was attended by newly instated Martel Masters Joan and Arthur Few. Masters at Baker College from 1994 to 1999, the Fews were chosen to give the newest college a leg up.

Martel Chalk too much cuteAttention soon turned to the most important aspect of a residential college – the students. Applications for Martel’s founding committee went out in Sept. 2000, and two students from each existing college were selected.

We are looking for people who are able to see the possibilities this is a new college and a new millennium and people with leadership, because they have to write a constitution, recruit other members and new associates,” Arthur Few said in a Sept. 2000 interview with The Thresher. A lot of the jobs that the founding committee has to do will require students with leadership and vision. During the recruiting process, Martel also filled various positions within the college. Martel’s first parliament was elected with then-junior Alice Hill as president. Maria Byrne, who had worked with Arthur Few in the Space Physics and Astronomy Department, became the first Martel College coordinator.

I was excited to start something new,” Byrne said. “I didn’t have much interaction with students [in the physics and astronomy department].” The first students accepted as new Martel members had to live off campus during the fall 2001 semester until the completion of construction, scheduled for the beginning of 2002. Excitement mounted as Martelians anticipated the completion of their brand-new building. Then disaster struck. In June, Tropical Storm Allison dumped 28 inches of rain on the Houston area, causing an estimated $4.88 billion of damage. The heavy flooding delayed Martel’s construction schedule by two months, and the administration scrambled for a plan to house the incoming Martel students during the beginning of the spring 2002 semester. Hill, a senior, said the uncertainty was nothing the college couldn’t handle.

“Martel students possess great integrity to accommodate the administration’s demands,” Hill said. The Rice administration has also been doing all they can to make the whole process run smoothly. Eventually, Rice administration and Martel students worked out three options for housing during those two weeks. The students could either stay in their current housing situation from the end of last semester, live with an on-campus friend through the Adopt-A-Martelian plan, or stay at the Warwick, the same hotel where Speros and Marian Martel made their home more than half a century before. In October, applications for freshman transfers became available. Sixty-three freshmen were accepted: five each from Brown and Jones Colleges, and up to 12 from each of the other colleges. While freshmen were being recruited, Martel members named physics instructor Gary Morris and intramural sports director Tina Villard as Martel’s first resident associates.

[Adapted from an article by Dylan Hedrick in The Rice Thresher, February 22, 2002]