In August 1890, the Board of Trustees for the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee met for their annual deliberations. When the Board left Sewanee several days later, they had accepted both the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, the Rev. Telfair Hodgson, and the first long term architectural plan for the University since before the Civil War. The events were entirely related. A young trustee and architect named Silas McBee came to the meetings bearing a new plan for the university: a grand quadrangle built in the latest collegiate architectural style. This style, collegiate Gothic, was only four years old and existed entirely in the North. Silas McBee wanted to bring it South to his alma mater.
After McBee and his partner, A.M.Mc. Nixon, an architect from Atlanta, Georgia, presented their plan, a debate broke out over more than just what The University of the South should look like, but what vision the leaders of the small university should follow. A small group led by George R. Fairbanks from Florida saw the new plans as a betrayal of the founder’s vision for a university with colleges for every discipline covering their land on the Cumberland Plateau. The rest saw the $20,000 and beautiful plan that Silas McBee had brought with him, and sided with the new plan.
Seeing the act as a betrayal of his own vision for the University, Vice-Chancelor Hodgson went to his office during the lunch break and drafted a letter of resignation, which he left for the Board when they returned for their afternoon session. To these men, architecture meant more than just appearances; it was a crucial part of the educational mission of the University of the South. As the-turn-of-the-century approached, a new way of viewing architecture made its way from Victorian England stressing that architecture created the morals of a society, rather than the conventional view that architecture reflected the values of that society.
Architecture, then, was as much about the morals of the men designing and building churches and schools throughout the turn-of-the-century as it was about aesthetics. At Sewanee, architecture revealed a belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority rooted in antimodernism. This same impulse influenced how these men viewed the wider nation, and the South’s role in the modern world, connecting them to larger national discussions about race in the national and international context.
Others have not seen the connection between Sewanee and the wider nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, Samuel R. Williamson Jr., a former Vice Chancellor of the University, identified a martial spirit at Sewanee, but saw it as separate from the Lost Cause until 1910. Williamson thought it was simply Southern nationalism. He identified a measure of racial respect as well as charity through the Episcopal Church. The racial respect Williamson observe, however, was more likely a result of the small number of blacks and the paternalism that the Sewanee leaders displayed towards African-Americans, rather than Sewanee actually being a bastion of racial good will in the South.