Armentrout House Sits Empty

In an opinion submitted to the Purple, students of the Greenhouse call for a return to a permanent home for the environment/sustainability community on central campus.

In the Advent semester of the 2019-2020 school year, the Greenhouse relocated from its home in the Armentrout House. The building responsible for sheltering the environmentally conscious community of students for over a decade was deemed unsafe for student habitation. Although the Greenhouse community resides in a new location at Emery Hall near Morgan’s Steep, the goals and mission of the theme house are the same as ever: To cultivate long-term relationships between natural and social environments; to work to promote ecological awareness on campus and further care for the earth through positive interactions between people and nature; and (though not in our mission statement) to have a wholesome, good time. 

Juniors and seniors may remember a time before the Armentrout House (the white mansion near the junction of Alabama and Mitchell Ave next to McCrady) sat empty. A time when the revelry of late-night jam sessions made students dance like nobody was looking, when bonfires inspired conversations sincere and philosophical, and when both slacklines and chickens occupied the now-overgrown yard. 

The abandoned chicken coop at the Armentrout House.

At Emery Hall, the slacklines are still up, the bi-annual Arm & Trout / Leg & Salmon open-mic nights are still unforgettable, and events celebrating and sharing sustainability arts still happen. However, tucked away from the central campus, people walk by the house less, and the Greenhouse’s role in shaping Sewanee’s community is diminished. The community anchored by the house wishes strongly to return to a permanent home on central campus. 

Regardless, the Greenhouse operates every day to help steer the University community towards sustainability. Katharine Wilkinson (C’05) contributed to the Greenhouse’s predecessor, the Eco-House, before going on to become a writer and climate change activist through Project Drawdown Wilkinson recognizes how the community fostered by the Greenhouse is special: More than just a social hub or party scene, the Greenhouse is anchored in a set of shared values. It’s a gathering place for all people who want to do hard work towards a more sustainable future. She goes on to say, “it’s that sense of community and partnership, and, of being literally in it together that keeps you going.” 

The Sewanee Sustainability Master Plan exists to guide our institution towards pre-eminence in harmonious existence with the environment. The plan is only as strong as the dedication of the members of Sewanee’s student and administrative leadership. A centrally located Greenhouse once drew motivated students together in rich conversation and action towards pursuing those goals. 

Admittedly, a mansion from the end of the 19th century lacks many of the features that environmentally-concerned people would hope for. However, that almost gave it an advantage in developing habitually sustainable young leaders. Dr. Eric Keen (C’08), a founding member of the Greenhouse at Armentrout and current Greenhouse faculty advisor, explains why the Armentrout House is an appropriate location: “The world is full of unsustainable structures and you have to learn to live sustainably within those and develop sustainable relationships that change the type of structure that will be built in the future.” 

The door to the Armentrout House.

Inseparable from environmentally sustainable behaviors are socially sustainable behaviors that connect the community of residents, students, staff, faculty, and community members that utilized the home. Keen perfectly summarizes how this theme house threaded the needle of creating highly meaningful social events: “The key to social gathering for students is it needs to be organic, easy to do, attractive, and fun, and that’s everything that the centrally-located Greenhouse was.”

Keen goes on to recall a tradition made possible by the donation of the Armentrout House: ”One of the coolest things they did is they had these Saturday morning breakfasts and would invite seemingly unrelated people like a custodian, a faculty member, the Vice-Chancellor’s wife, or a community member. It was quiet, calm, and friendly. The community mixing that occurred there had not occurred anywhere else on campus as a result of student programming. This could occur because the house had a big living room, a big porch, a big deck, and it had a big yard. It was just a gathering space. It allowed students to play as hosts for events.” This could be the model for student flourishing at Sewanee, a place where young adults can have their own space that they are proud of and proud to share with others. 

Former Greenhouse co-director Annie Corley (C’20) explains what this kind of flourishing looks like in practice: “It’s okay to mess up at the Greenhouse. It’s ok to buy five roosters. It’s ok to have a garden fail. The Greenhouse is the place to do that. It’s all about learning and experience. It’s for people who want an experience, and an earth-based one at that. The Greenhouse was the place where I came into myself.” 

A fact that most underclassmen are unaware of is the role of the Armentrout House in building Sewanee’s admissions profile. There were innumerable academically prestigious Sewanee students that lived in the Armentrout House over its ten year run. There were multiple valedictorians, several Benedict Scholars, many members of the national honor society Phi Beta Kappa, and multiple members of student government. When prospective students visited Sewanee, they used to have the option to go to a bonfire at the Armentrout House, often getting the chance to meet some of Sewanee’s leaders and activists on their first visit. From the conversations there, the prospective students were made very aware of how enriching Sewanee’s culture could be. One of the pillars of the Greenhouse community, Dr. Bran Potter, put it like this: “The Greenhouse’s central location was key in bringing outstanding people to campus, and I don’t mean speakers. I mean exceptional students. During their college search these students would see what the Greenhouse offered and what it stood for. It’s been an essential part of the community for attracting and keeping people there.” 

The Armentrout House pictured at sunset.

Supporting the Greenhouse demonstrates a profound investment by the University towards making Sewanee a model for other institutions, by supporting efforts to build community and fostering student success. Because the institution itself is supported not only by “that never-ending stream of benefactors” but also a never-ending stream of totally stoked young people looking to create a meaningful college experience, and those people need a place to center their community. 

Sewanee striving for excellence among liberal arts institutions almost certainly involves the Greenhouse resuming its role as an institutional cornerstone. During the first move from the peripheries to the heart of campus in the early days of the Greenhouse, Keen says dialogues between student leaders and the administration were exceptionally amiable: “Something like this only happened because it was in partnership with the administration. It was seeking a mutual benefit for everyone, the students sought to prove to the administration that they were serious about their mission, and all it took was for the administration to approve the move [to central campus] and the Greenhouse did the rest of the work that made the institution look good as a result. The students who lived in Armentrout during that first year proved the concept. They proved that the University was right to expend resources to support us. If those students were less organized, prudent, or strategic the whole thing could have lasted only a few years rather than a decade.” 

To conclude our telling of this story, as it stands now, we — the current Greenhouse community — are here to reaffirm our promise: If we, in partnership with the administration, can find a path to a permanent home on central campus, we will play our role in restitching a beautiful piece in the quiltwork of the Sewanee community. The words of our faculty advisor, Dr. Keen, ring true, “In a way it’s good that Armentrout still sits right at the heart of campus, it’s a reminder of the opportunity here for something to happen.”