Date on the Cornerstone of Walsh-Ellett, Sewanee

Perhaps the most charming spot on the Sewanee campus is Guerry Garth, the green space between Convocation Hall, Guerry Auditorium, and Walsh-Ellett Hall–I have often taught classes here, near the large gingko in the middle, while Breslin Tower chimed away the quarter-hours. Recently I noticed something in the Garth that has to do with another sort of time-reckoning, however.


It’s in the southeast corner of the Garth, in the upper right hand of the picture above but you can see better what I’m talking about below– by the drainpipe, halfway between the windows and the ground.


It’s the cornerstone for “Walsh Memorial Hall.” What struck me as odd about it was the rendering of the date. While Roman numerals are common enough, this inscription is given in a Roman calendrical form rarely seen outside of ancient monuments.

photo-17It reads:



Ad Dei gloriam, “to the glory of God,” reads easily enough, as does the year, MDCCCXC, 1890. But the third line, A.D. XIV. KAL. OCT., requires some explanation. One thing, though–the A.D. does not mean Anno Domini.

The Romans had, more or less, the same month-names that we have, but their system of specifying days was different.  This may or may not have had to do with phases of the moon, but no matter, it worked like so:  the first day of the month was called the Kalends, the thirteenth day of the month was the Ides (except in July, October, March, and May, when it fell on the fifteenth), and the Nones fell eight days before the Ides.

The days of the month were reckoned backwards from the nearest of these marked days.  Hence, what you and I would call February 1st was the Kalendis Februariis (Kal. Feb., in standard ancient abbreviation).  Februay 13th would be the Idus Februarius (Id. Feb).  February 12th was pridie Idus Februarius, i.e., the day before the Ides of February (pridie Id. Feb).  February 11th was ante diem iii Idus Februarias, or three days before the Ides of February (a.d. iii Id. Feb.).  See, a.d. = ante diem, “day before.”

Now I know you’re saying on that last one–hey, wait a minute, February 11th is only TWO days before February 13th!  But you have to recall that Romans didn’t have a concept of zero, and so they counted inclusively, meaning they counted both the first and the last number in their reckoning.  Imagine if you were to crucify a man on a Friday and he rose from the dead on a Sunday:  the way you and I count, it’s only two days later, but according to the Romans, he rose again on the third day.

Anyway, back to the dedication of Walsh.  According to the inscription, it reads  A.D. XIV. KAL. OCT., that is, fourteen days before the Kalends of October.  September 30 minus 14 days, counted inclusively.   That would make it September 18th.  If you don’t believe me, you can check this nifty Roman Date Calculator.  If you have a degree from Sewanee, in fact, you might want to check it out, as all the dates on the sheepskin are rendered in this Roman style.  But the inscription on Walsh, with the dating that includes Kalends, strikes me as being unusual for a cornerstone dedication.


About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Sewanee, Time, Trees & Flowers. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Date on the Cornerstone of Walsh-Ellett, Sewanee

  1. Gerald Smith says:

    Ah, Chris, what a marvelous piece. That piece of stone (and the date) holds a greater story than you may be aware of. It may not be too much to say that the cornerstone of Walsh, almost unknown and hidden from sight, is the most important piece of rock in University history not withstanding the original cornerstone. The Walsh cornerstone brought to an end an entire era in University governance, saw the resignation of a Vice-Chancellor, the end of the influence of the last of the Founders, George Fairbanks, and established forever in campus planning a new footprint for the campus that was radically at variance with the original campus plan of Vermont Bishop John Hopkins. The story is a bit complicated and involved fundamentally differing views of the layout of the campus. It had been the dream of Vice-Chancellor Hodgson to create a campus center strongly influenced by Anglican ecclesiastical architecture. Hodgson–not quite with Trustee approval–began an elaborate building program consisting of Convocation Hall and Breslin Tower which were intended to serve as the chapter house and bell tower of a three part construction, the third part of which was a University chapel planned by architect Halsey Wood for the site now occupied by Walsh. Hodgson, acting with some urgency and wanting to have things underway before the Trustees came to town in 1886 rushed up the laying of the Convocation Hall cornerstone–along with rushing up the foundational work which by 2005 was crumbling to pieces along with substantial flaws in the wall structure near the cornerstone. A map of the mid-1880s has in Hodgson’s hand the Walsh site marked as “New Chapel Yard.” It was not to be. Between 1886 and 1890 Hodgson’s standing and his capacity to govern as Vice-Chancellor would be called into question, and a three (or four) way power dynamic emerged between the Vice-Chancellor, the Board of Trustees, the Executive Committee–and some might say, the Associated Alumni of the University. Between 1886 and 1889 Silas McBee, an alumus and an ecclesiastical architect, would emerge as both a major fund raiser and as a rival of Hodgson and of the Commissioner of Buildings and Grounds, George Fairbanks. By late 1889, McBee was in receipt of a gift of $20,000 from Col. Walsh to erect an academic building in memory of his daughter. The Executive Committee endorsed McBee’s plan not only for building Walsh Hall on Hodgson’s chapel site but McBee’s extended plan which made Walsh the anchor building of a proposed campus quadrangle design–to be followed by a science building and a much different and larger chapel anchoring the south side of this proposed quadrangle. Although Sam Williamson notes that the Board of Trustees meeting in August of 1890 must rank as one of the ten most important meetings of this board, the issue had been decided even before the board met. With funds in hand and with the endorsement of the Executive Committee, work had already begun on Walsh Hall before the Trustees arrived on July 31, 1890. Hodgson’s resignation on August 5 was anti-climatic. (Bishop Gailor was quickly elected as a transitional Vice-Chancellor.) The powerful new axis of Sewanee men–men who were Sewanee graduates–were now calling the shots in governance and McBee’s plan won the day. The erection of Walsh Hall forestalled permanently Hodgson’s dream of an ecclesiastical center for the campus; it also determined the fundamental geometry of the campus reaching from the Sigma Nu house to Gailor and from University Avenue to Alabama Avenue. Hopkins vision of grand, curving avenues circling isolated buildings erected on knolls vanished as well. As a final note, the date you calculate is itself of interest. September 18 is the anniversary of the matriculation of the first students in the University in 1868. For many years that day was referred to as “Foundation Day” and was celebrated as more important than what we now celebrate on October 10 as Founders’ Day. Once the University made the shift from its winter vacation plan to the more common summer vacation plan, the fall semester began in mid-September and keyed on the 18th as the beginning of term. September 18, 1890 was a foundation day indeed.

  2. Jerry, as always, your remarks are far more interesting than my original ones! Thanks for this message.

  3. Family Connection says:

    For your interest on a more personal level- it is my understanding that Col Walsh donated the funds for the hall in honor of his diseased only daughter, Susie. He, being alone after the death of his daughter and wife, also donated a large portion of the funds for the erection of St. Johns Church in the plantation area of West Feliciana LA. He wished to sit in his pew and look out at the graves of his loved ones in the adjacent family cemetery in the lovely country setting where it is located. His descendants worship there and live nearby to this day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s