By Tess Steele
Following the Board of Regents meeting on September 22, the University of the South has established that there will need to be more information collected before any decisions are to be made regarding the construction of a new University Commons. With an active Facebook page, a spike in community interest, and even an awareness concert on September 21, it can almost go without saying that the anticipation surrounding the Regents meeting last month was directly pertaining to the future of Fulford Hall. Fulford Hall, located on University Avenue across from the Quad, is the current home of the Admissions Office for Sewanee. Built in 1890, the house has served a variety of roles since its construction. Having been the home of each Vice Chancellor, a hospital, and the home of Admissions, Financial Aid, and Marketing and Communications, there is little question to the importance the structure has served for both the campus and the community. With that in mind, when rumors of the possible demolition of the house started circulating in June, many locals and alumni were quick to seek answers as to why the status of such a seemingly quintessential part of campus was being brought into question.
The source of the Fulford demolition concerns can likely be attributed to fire safety investigations of the building that took place in the Easter semester of 2015. Following the burning of Rebel’s Rest in July of 2014, a concern was brought up that Fulford Hall was not up to fire codes itself. “Once the question of safety was asked, we had an obligation to find out how safe Fulford Hall was,” said Dean Terry Papillon. From these investigations, it was established that the building was not a significant danger. Around this same time, the interest in the future of the building grew considerably, with rumors about the building being torn down sparking new waves of enthusiasm and concern. “I wish there had been more conversation at that point,” expressed Papillon. While in reality there had been no decision made about the future of the building, there was misinterpretation among the community following the University initiated professional investigation of the building. This investigation was seen by some as an indicator that the school was seriously considering tearing down the hall, yet the administration never formally announced such intents. The misinterpretations perpetuated rumors, and eventually the “Save Fulford Hall” movement was in full swing. Richard Tillinghast (C’62), an active participant in the movement, both virtually and in the community, ardently wishes for the building to remain standing in its current location. When asked about the initial responses from the community regarding the rumors of the Fulford’s destruction, Tillinghast shared that “many were saddened, some were outraged, some were indifferent. Some were fatalistic.”
As the future of Fulford went unaddressed, the concerns and hopes of community members needed an outlet for discussion and organization, and Facebook proved to be the method of choice. A major platform for the “Save Fulford Hall” movement is Facebook. The social media presence of the page has been a notable mechanism for the dissemination of information regarding the hall, as well as opinions of community members and alumni. With the combination of such a passionate group freely voicing opinions (as the page promotes) and a lack of communication with those in knowledgeable positions pertaining to the building, it is understandable that there have been false, even accusatory, posts on the page. Vice Chancellor John McCardell himself has been mentioned in various comments on the page, sometimes from negative and untruthful angles. “Social media has its place. But it also can be an echo chamber, when a handful of active participants can create the impression of a large movement and appear to speak with authority, especially if what they say, even if factually inaccurate, goes unchallenged. More troubling is the seeming anonymity that social media can encourage, leading to not simply false, but mean, even hateful, postings, which do no credit to those posting those things or to the University from which they graduated,” shared the Vice Chancellor when asked about his stance on the Facebook page. While he may not always agree nor support the content of what is posted, he still expressed an understanding for the enthusiasm of the page’s participants. “I do not for one moment doubt the sincerity or the passion of those who would ‘Save Fulford Hall.’ I know many of these individuals. They care. I have never, and will never, disparage them or their motives or direct any personal criticism toward any of them. And I forgive their occasional rhetorical excesses, even when those mention me by name. Everyone wants what is best for the University, no question.”
While the subjective side of the Facebook page has certainly been controversial, the objective content of the posts is also disputable. The goal of the “Save Fulford Hall” movement, as made clear twice, on July 10 and July 12, by Tillinghast, is to prevent the destruction of the building. While the possibility of demolition has been officially ruled out, there are currently still many references to the University tearing down the hall. This could be an additional source of confusion for those who consider the page to be a credible news source for any information relating to Fulford.
Stepping back from the frenzy surrounding the movement, the question arises as to how and why Fulford Hall went from being under a simple fire safety investigation to a major campus renovation and revitalization project. Going back a few years, the regents, Cabinet, Provost, and deans created the 2012 Strategic Plan, a master plan to improve the campus in a variety of ways. One such way was reenergizing central campus. Having a university commons would be an ideal way to not only revitalize that part of campus, but to also provide an array of much needed amenities for students. According to the 2012 plan, it was decided that the designated site for the University Commons would be the current location of Thompson Union. This plan seemed very solid until last year, following the burning of Rebel’s Rest. “Suddenly we had a prime piece of property right on central campus, and this threw the master plan out the window,” said Papillon. It is because of this significant shift in available land that Fulford Hall was brought into question. It was the possibility of serious safety concerns and exceptionally costly renovations that resulted in demolition even being mentioned. “Somebody said something about tearing down Fulford being an option, and from there it blew up to what the Fulford Hall movement is now,” stated Papillon. While demolition is no longer an option, it should be acknowledged that for a time renovation, relocation, and demolition were all viable options for the building. After further investigation, deliberation, and fiscal evaluations, demolition has been completely eliminated as a possibility for the hall. This decision was simple once numbers had been crunched. To tear down and replace the same square footage of Fulford currently, the university would have to spend at least 2.5 million dollars. In comparison, renovations can be done for $750,000. If moving the building ended up being best for the university, this would only cost an additional $200,000 to $250,000. Even with renovation and relocation combined, the school would be saving around $1.5 million.
Since demolition is no longer a viable option, relocation and renovation are under the spotlight as the options are considered in more detail. Relocation has been discussed for a few months now, and there has been much deliberation in the community as to whether Fulford’s structure can handle a move. Specifically, the director of the Tennessee Historical Commission has predicted that Fulford Hall may be destroyed in the process of moving. When asked about this issue, the Vice Chancellor responded by stating, “I’m not saying that the historical commission is wrong, but there are conflicting opinions. Houses much older and more fragile can be and will be moved.” The cost of renovations has been another subject of concern. The Vice Chancellor remarked, “We know we need to make renovations, and now that we have the estimate, I feel safe saying we can afford it. If we can extend the building’s usefulness, finances should work themselves out.” The interest in the future of Fulford has been approached from a spectrum of angles, but the current role of the building as the home of Admission, Financial Aid, and Marketing and Communications should not be overlooked. Associate Dean of Admission Lisa Burns, having worked for the University of the South since 2008, shared a few thoughts about the functionality of the building as well as its role on central campus. “The significant increase in applications and visit numbers, when combined with many competitive institutions having newer visitors’ centers, definitely increases the appeal of having a newer facility that could accommodate larger groups. That being said, this is southern hospitality at its finest. The building is warm and welcoming and is located in central campus.” When asked about how the office personally felt about the hype surrounding their workplace, Burns responded, “As an office, we are so busy traveling that all of our attention is on our work, not on the ‘Save Fulford Hall’ movement. We have confidence in our leadership, and what is most important for us as an Admission team is timing. We cannot miss a beat with work, so regardless of whatever happens to Fulford, having a work space is priority.”
As much of the community waits in anticipation of a decision for the future of Fulford, the Vice Chancellor has noted that the university will not make one with haste. “We need to consider what is the best long-term use of Fulford, and we need to decide the best site for a University Commons. This will take time. A decision cannot be, and should not be, rushed,” he said. There are many strategic decisions to be made, and with the University Commons hopefully becoming a student hub on campus for many years, the administration is being thoughtful with the process. Community input is encouraged, and for those who wish to participate in the planning process for the University Commons, the school will be hosting a planning session, following the recent October 10 session, on November 13 at 4:30 p.m. at Convocation Hall.
Regarding the decision making process, Papillon stated, “I understand that Fulford has nostalgic value, and that is absolutely part of the equation. I know that people have emotional ties to it. As the administration, what I am concerned about is what we want and need to provide the students in the future. This is a decision for the next 50 to 100 years, and it is not one we will take lightly.”