Thompson Union to be renamed Biehl Commons

Thompson Union. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).

By Colton Williams

Thompson Union, as a part of its renovation and transformation into a new student social commons, will be renamed Biehl Commons. Vice-Chancellor John McCardell announced the name change to the University in an email on February 12. 

A $4.5 million gift from the estate of Carl Biehl (C’32) “will provide a stream of funding for this proposed new University social and gathering space,” the email read. Biehl and his estate’s previous donations to the University established the Biehl Chair in International Studies and the Biehl International Research Fellowships. 

Currently, the building is named for Jacob Thompson (1810-1885), inspector general for the Confederate States Army. Thompson was effectively the leader of the Confederate Secret Service, and is most well-known for a suspected meeting he may have had with Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Thompson was also a trustee of the University for twelve years. 

“Since it is not a restoration of the historic space, but rather a reimagined, 21st century student commons for Sewanee, it is both fitting and appealing to rename the building,” said Sarah Boykin, assistant vice president for campus planning, design, and construction. “In doing so, it will be understood as a newly created space with a name that recognizes a generous donor and an alumnus of the university.”

A group of both college students and seminarians had been pushing for a name change to the building, including Emily Badgett (C’20), Klarke Stricklen (C’22), Malcolm McLaurin (T’21), and Murdock Jones (T’20). 

“As the student center will start a new chapter in the Sewanee Story, the name change is also the beginning of a new understanding of what it means to be the University of the South,” said Badgett. “A group of seminarians and undergraduate students is hoping to continue the conversation with the Provost and other parts of the administration to have a dialogue about Thompson Union about what the next steps can be.”

Badgett also emphasized that discussions over building names need to happen on other parts of the campus.

The Biehl Commons itself will be an entirely new space. Provost Nancy Berner said that the goal of the student commons is to encourage healthy social engagement for college and seminary students alike.

“Accessible 24 hours, the vibrant programming and events at night as well as during the day, along with food and beverages, will bring together the campus community by creating opportunities for meaningful engagement and casual conversation among students, faculty, staff, and families,” Berner said. “While not necessarily an alcohol-free space, it will offer some alcohol-free programming. The flexible, multifunctional spaces will be designed intentionally to foster community.”

Since October 2019, the planning group for the project, along with the architectural firm Williams Blackstock, have held six design workshops. “At this time we cannot be sure what the new commons will look like because this semester the architects working on the project will begin to develop design drawings that represent programmatic priorities and cost estimates,” Berner said.

The University expects to finish the schematic design for the Biehl Commons this semester. This will be followed by more detailed drawings and bidding for the project, with renovation hopefully started by spring of 2021, and an estimated completion date of spring 2022.