The Biehl Commons is a long-awaited student-focused building that resides on the corner of South Carolina Avenue and University Avenue. This building will provide a new space for students to study or hang out in a comfortable and intimate space. While the exact time of the opening is currently unknown, and “soon” is the only date being thrown around, anticipation grows. The Biehl Commons, formerly known as the Thompson Union, replaces it as a new student space.
The dean of students and Sewanee’s dining services collaborated to create a space for student recreation and relaxation. The interior will include pool tables, couches, a fireplace, and rocking chairs. For more activities such as movies, plays, or presentations, there will be a stage that can only be reserved by students. For Sewanee’s sunny days, there will be a sunroom and terrace that will allow students to bask in the sun while chatting or catching up on the day’s homework. Biehl allows for a space that prioritizes the comfort of students and their feedback to maximize the homey feel of the commons.
On the food front, Tanya Ingvoldstad-Otero, manager of the food in Biehl, and Caroline Thompson, associate director of dining, are excited to share with the students their new project. Thompson best describes the style of food by calling it “choose your own adventure.” The bowls that will be served can carry the customer’s choice of base, protein, topping, and sauce. There will be a variety of flavors “inspired by cultures around the world.” Otero stresses, “the food is going to connect with the idea of a community space for the students.” While a new restaurant takes a village to start and uphold, Otero and Thompson have high hopes and big ambitions. The restaurant will have specials either weekly or biweekly after it’s up and running, and the menu will be highly guided by student feedback. There is no name yet, but student’s will have a voice as they did in the naming of Cup and Gown.
The new building will also provide more student job opportunities, further increasing the appeal of the Commons. As Thompson put it, having student workers “helps with feeling a part of the place.”
To truly feel a part of the place, it is important to know the history of the building. Biehl Commons used to be the Thompson Union. Dr. Woody Register, director of the Roberson Project, describes the building as “one of the oldest and probably the most prominent Confederate memorial” on campus. Jacob Thompson, a member of the Confederate secret service, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior under Buchanan, and a plantation holder, donated money for the student union after becoming a trustee of the University. The Thompson Union was much loved by the older graduates, Dr. Register adds, as it offered “interaction between faculty and students.”
The original structure was two stories, and the second floor housed a movie theater which was segregated. “It formally built in segregation into a major university and community facility,” Dr. Register says. The building’s history is one of exclusion and memorialization of a Confederate figure. However, in the years before it was torn down, the Sewanee Union Theater (SUT) was a popular community gathering space and beloved by many. There was upset from students who still attended movie showings when it was announced the SUT would be shut down.
The plaque memorializing Jacob Thompson as well as his name carved in stone above the doorway have been removed. One history professor recently told their class that the plaque was going to be thrown away but was rescued by members of the Roberson Project. Even so, most students are probably unaware of the building’s history, Dr. Register said. Keeping the conversation going about Sewanee’s history is important since Sewanee today is much different from the days in which it started.
The new commons will be a place where everyone can come together and feel at home in a building that prioritizes them. Whenever the doors finally open, it will be an asset to the campus and hopefully a relaxing new spot for students.