A sore back woke me up in the middle of the night and, looking at my iPhone for the time (“1:39”), I saw a post on Facebook of a fire with the caption “rebels rest dammit.” It had been posted about 1 AM; shortly thereafter, another friend posted something similar. Now I was wide awake, and decided I would go up to University Ave to see what was going on.
The pungent odor of fire was faint in my neighborhood and covered by a far stronger smell of skunk which receded as a I got closer to the University. Mindful of my wife’s remark, You’ll just be in the way, I parked by the bookstore and walked up to Convocation Hall. The odor was stronger now. There were many flashing lights but, with all the sirens off, the scene was oddly quiet. Small groups of people were gathered on the sidewalk though few were talking. The fire was over, but the firefighters were still pouring on water. The worst had passed.
My friend and former student Ryan was there with some other people, alumni now back for the Writers’ Conference. Ryan works at the Inn and had just gotten off duty when he came up–he was still in his uniform. “If you had been here an hour ago,” he said, “you would have thought it was going down. They saved the first floor, and I guess some of the back.” Some had photos on their phones, which I’ve posted below.
I milled around a little more. The building had been undergoing renovation, and evidently the alarms were not on. Someone said that a man walking his dog down University Ave around 11:20 had seen the glow from inside the building. The sprinklers were working, my friend Parker said, and eventually the firefighters had to turn them off when they got in. Chief Marie was there, her efficient and competent self, consulting with them. I saw the VC looking tired and sad.
For many faculty, Rebel’s Rest was the first place they ever stayed at Sewanee. It had a grand old aura about it, a throwback in time. My friend Ted stayed there once and praised its antique feel “without any damn doilies.” Under the wisteria on the front porch, I had had many a lively conversation and good laugh. I remember talking with my friend Jim about Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain very well. On the back porch, my student Sarah and I were at the bar set up for a Medieval Colloquium reception and when I asked for Chardonnay, she said, “Not you too!” like I’d just contracted smallpox. I recall driving Stanley Crouch up to the front door and much as he wanted to dislike anything with the word rebel in it, the wisteria was just too charming. From this morning’s photos it looks like the wisteria might have survived.
I have myself given a talk or two in the living room, most recently on the emperor Nero, who knew something about fires himself, it occurred to me as I finally walked back to the car. My back was still sore, as was my heart. Some of Major Fairbanks’ old house has been saved, but it will not be the same. Goodbye, Rebel’s Rest, and may you rest in peace.
Postscript. The following is from the August 7, 2014 edition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger: Members of the Sewanee Volunteer Fire Department respond to the blaze at Rebel’s Rest late on July 23. Photo by Buck Butler/University of the South