Historic Sewanee Homes featured in new University Archives exhibit

Community members view historic homes in the University Archives. Photo by Robert Mohr (C’21).

By Robert Mohr
Staff Writer

Students, professors, and community members gathered at the University Archives on Thursday, February 8 to celebrate the launch of a new exhibit which highlights the historic homes of Sewanee. The gallery, which features 92 homes, around 53 percent of which are still standing, is the culmination of a year’s work involving people from all over the Mountain. Several speakers were on hand to share their experiences with historic home ownership and the greater project.

First presenting was Landscape Analysis Lab Technician Molly Elkins (C’18), who helped create the interactive map and driving tour. A building of interest for her was the Magnolia Dining Hall, which burned down as the result of arson in 1956.

Built in 1872, roughly where Spencer Hall now sits, Magnolia Dining Hall served as a quasi-boarding house until 1918, when it became the University dining hall. It served in this role until Gailor Hall was constructed in 1952. At this point, Magnolia became an office building for language faculty and student activities as well as costume storage for the Purple Masque until its aforementioned fire.

Professor of Geology Bran Potter, alongside his wife Cindy, own what is known as the Wyndcliff House, which resides on Kentucky Avenue. It was built in 1867 by W. H. Tomlinson, who was Sewanee’s first postmaster. A notable resident was William D. Boone, who served as the Bishop of Shanghai and likely hosted Bishop Joseph Schereschewsky as he translated the Bible into Chinese.

After falling into disrepair and nearly being torn down, the Harper family began renovating the house in 1984. In 1987, the Potters acquired the house and continued renovations to its current state. It is said that the legend of the Headless Gownsman, a student whose head fell off from studying too hard, originated from this house.

English professor Virginia Craighill (C’82) told the story of her home, known as the Atkins House, on Roarks Cove. Built in 1903 by an unknown family that had recently returned from France, it was acquired by the Craighills in 2002. At one point the house was referred to as the Robert E. Lee house. This, however, was a reference to its resemblance to the Robert E. Lee steamboat and not the Confederate general.

Residents of note include Major General William Ruthven Smith who served as the Superintendent of West Point from 1928 until 1932 and then took on the same position at the Sewanee Military Academy. Sewanee review editor Allen Tate, who held the role from 1944 through 1946 and his wife, author Caroline Gordon, also lived in the home.

Finally, Leslie Richardson spoke on behalf of Nancy Gailor Courtner and gave the history of the Gailor House. Constructed in 1874, the house was torn down in 1991 to make room for Chen Hall. The house remained in the Gailor family for almost 100 years, starting in 1882.

Members of the Gailor family worth noting include Frank Gailor, who, during World War I moved to Britain so he could join the fight before the US entered and Charlotte Gailor, a painter and also the first female professor at the University. Her studio behind Chen Hall still stands today. A stained-glass window with the initials of Max Theiler, known for creating the yellow fever vaccine, is now located in the Archives lobby.

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