By Fleming Smith
As the School of Theology continues its plans to move onto central campus within the next several years, planners have reconsidered the use of the Bishop’s Common as its new site. Instead, they are now looking to choose a different, unoccupied location on central campus.
According to Dean of the School of Theology Neil Alexander, a group has identified eight locations on central campus that could be suitable, all within a five to 10 minutes walk from St. Luke’s Chapel on Georgia Avenue, which will be used by the seminarians. These locations have been turned over to an architectural firm that will present its recommendations to the Board of Regents in mid-October.
All of the locations currently in consideration are not occupied by another building, and Alexander said that a new building will be built on one of these sites. Not all of the locations were named, but parts of Manigault Park were identified as possibilities, as well as some locations near Gailor Hall.
“I think the support for the School of Theology move has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s not to say that there’s not a few people who decided that they don’t think it’s a good idea, but this has been a conversation both internally on campus and in the community as well as alumni and friends and donors for about four years now,” Alexander said.
The move was officially approved by the Board of Regents in June 2015. Initially, the plan called for the Bishop’s Common to be remodelled for the School of Theology. A design for the building is available online, including a 250-seat auditorium intended for use by the entire University. However, Alexander said, this design will inevitably be changed by a new location.
“While the architects had done a really wonderful piece of work, we’re nonetheless forcing the School of Theology program into a pre-existing building. And when you put something in a pre-existing building, in many cases no matter how hard you work, you’re still forcing something into a building that was built for a different purpose,” Alexander explained.
Additionally, the original plan was based on a former proposal for a University Commons at the Thompson Union that would include the Social Commons, Wellness Commons, and Learning Commons now distributed to other areas of campus. Now, some of those services must remain at the Bishop’s Common.
Alexander commented that constructing a new building will actually cost several million dollars less than the estimate for renovating the Bishop’s Common. According to University Treasurer Doug Williams, approximately $12 million has been raised for the building out of a goal of $15 million.
However, the question of where this new building will go is “still a pretty active question,” he said. “We’re just waiting to hear what proposals are made to the Board, and what their reaction will be.”
The School of Theology was located in St. Luke’s Hall, now a residential hall, until 1983, when it moved to Hamilton Hall on Tennessee Avenue. Alexander noted that they didn’t leave St. Luke’s Hall because they “didn’t like central campus,” but rather because the building badly needed renovations.
Although they were originally scheduled to move only temporarily, St. Luke’s Hall then became classroom space and a residence hall, then purely a residence hall. “It’s had two or three different lives since the School of Theology left,” Alexander explained.
Now, it’s Hamilton Hall that needs renovations, with several systems only “marginally functional,” Alexander said. However, remodeling plans were deemed “enormously expensive,” particularly in infrastructure.
According to Alexander, moving the School of Theology falls into a larger plan of shifting offices on campus. He said that offices with more foot traffic by students and faculty will be located on central campus, while those not critical to daily use will be moved into the periphery, perhaps even into Hamilton Hall.
Alexander hopes the move onto central campus will re-invigorate the seminary, and he remembers fondly the days in which he taught at the seminary when it was located in St. Luke’s Hall.
“We were a very different school in those days,” he said, “when the faculty of the School of Theology and the faculty of the College actually lived and worked in the same place, got our mail in the same mailboxes. We knew each other at a level I don’t think we know each other at now. And then the commingling of students was more obvious in those days.”
In their current location, Alexander feels that the School of Theology is isolated from the rest of the University.
“There are people who will ask me questions like, ‘Do you ever talk to anybody at the University?’ Well, we are the University. They think of us as the School of Theology at Sewanee, not the School of Theology of the University of the South,” he commented.
Alexander continued, “Even internally, there’s this sense of separation that is just not the case. I believe all that will be greatly improved by us being back at the heart of campus.”
However, it will be several years until the move becomes a reality. Once the Board of Regents chooses the most suitable location, the architects must then re-design the building and submit that for approval. Currently, there is no timetable for when the School of Theology’s move will occur, Alexander said.
According to Alexander, the eight sites currently under consideration were chosen mainly based on vacancy and centrality to St. Luke’s Chapel. Additionally, the sites had to be connected to the campus infrastructure.
“I think they just took an aerial view of campus and said, ‘Where is there grass?’ No magic to that,” Alexander said with a laugh.
No matter the choice, Alexander said he is excited to learn what their new home will be.
“We honestly believe that the School of Theology being back at the heart of campus strengthens the School of Theology, it strengthens the College, it makes relationships between the faculty and students of both colleges easier and more accessible, and the hard work that we are doing now in a variety of areas to work together…will be easier and more facilitated by us being in the heart of things rather than on the periphery,” he said.
Charles Jenkins (C’04, T’19), an alumnus of the College and a current seminarian, agreed that moving the seminary back to central campus will strengthen bonds between the College and the seminary.
“I graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2004 and while I am older now, the experience is still uniquely Sewanee. I still wear my gown and class dress and I still pledge all of my tests and papers,” Jenkins said. “Overall, being in the School of Theology shares many of the same aspects of being a student in the college.”
Jenkins commented that Hamilton Hall is “worn out and tired” and “completely antiquated” at this point. “As one of the leading seminaries in the Episcopal Church, it is only fitting that Sewanee have a state of the art learning center to house the School of Theology in order to remain effective in the church today.”
For Jenkins, moving the School of Theology to central campus means restoring the seminary’s original purpose and place.
“The School of Theology was on central campus when it was formally organized in 1878 and its theological library is still housed on the third floor of duPont Library, so it is only natural that the School of Theology would find its home back where it all started. Not only would all of this, plus many other factors such as the proximity of McClurg prove to be beneficial, but the University would be living more fully into its motto of Ecce Quam Bonum,” Jenkins said.