I wrote the following post on July 30, but decided not to post it publicly, as it seemed (for lack of a better word) incendiary. But as the two postscripts indicate, perhaps now is a good time to raise the issues.
When the four-hundred year-old bell-tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice collapsed in 1902, the city council voted to restore the famous monument com’era, dov’era, “as it was, where it was.” It took some time, but a decade later, a replica tower rose on the very spot of the sixteenth-century original.
Last week, one of the oldest buildings on the Sewanee campus caught fire. Rebel’s Rest, built in 1866, had been the home of Major George Fairbanks, and stood on the site where the house had stood of University founder, Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana and Confederate
Brigadier Lieutenant General. Its name, “Rebel’s Rest,” is a conscious, intentional allusion to the Civil War. The structure itself, a log cabin with a red roof that wisteria covered in front, had been used for some time as a guest-house. When it caught fire, it had been undergoing renovation.
Part of the first floor was salvaged, as was the charming porch, but the rest is a burnt and water-soaked wreck. Down the street stands the new and palatial Sewanee Inn, with views of the refurbished golf course. It is already, though only open a month or so, a successful going concern.
So, the question arises. What to do with Rebel’s Rest? The University has no need of more hotel space. Most of the original building is destroyed. And, to some, the name is an embarrassment. Located as Rebel’s Rest is at the center of campus, the real estate is the most valuable in all of Sewanee. The student body is growing, and dorm space is a desperately felt need. We have no adequate student union or performance space, and rental housing is at a premium.
Rebel’s Rest. Com’era, dov’era, or not?
Postscript 1, 8/15/14. I took my freshmen in the Finding Your Place program around campus this morning. We were welcomed by Rev. Tom Macfie at All Saints, climbed up Shapard Tower to enjoy the views and an up-close rendition of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire. Eventually we would make our way down to Abbo’s Alley, where Louis Rice would greet us warmly.
But between All Saints’ and Abbo’s Alley, we stopped off in front of Rebel’s Rest and sat on the lawn. The acrid smell of burnt wood still hung heavy in the air. I pointed out some of the issues above to them, and shared a few pictures. Then I asked these newly-enrolled first-year students what they thought ought to happen to this site.
Many of them were uncertain. “I stayed here once with my mother,” said one young man. “It was pretty charming. It would nice if they rebuilt it.” Another student pointed out that it would be a replica–it could look like the same buiding, but it would never be the same building. “I don’t like the idea of re-producing it,” one of my female students remarked. “This is the middle of campus. I think a student center should go here, not some outdated symbol of the past.” As we walked away, another student caught up to me to say that part of the reason he’d come to Sewanee had to do with the school’s “sense of tradition,” but he wasn’t sure if rebuilding Rebel’s Rest would be “real or kinda Disney.”
Postscript 2, 8/27/14. Vice-Chancellor McCardell addressed this issue in his remarks opening the new school year yesterday at All Saints. As he noted,
This is probably as good a place as any to provide an update on Rebel’s Rest. All of us were disheartened, to say the least, by the terrible fire that engulfed so much of this beloved, iconic building in late July. Though I know the wait is frustrating and the desire for more news understandable, we are still awaiting final reports from the several investigators engaged to determine cause and extent of damage. The preliminary reports, however, suggest that, while more of the old building has been saved than any of us might have expected – this thanks to the skill of the Sewanee Fire Department – the likelihood of our reconstructing Rebel’s Rest in its old form is becoming increasingly remote. For one thing, any new or renovated building on the site would need to comply with building code requirements. Thus, even if we desired to replicate the old building, we would be prohibited from doing so. For another, the fire appears to have rendered dangerously unstable much of the exterior walls, to the point where they would be unlikely to support, in their present condition, anything we might decide to build within them.
Yet there is likely to be much that is salvageable. And I have been overwhelmed by suggestions of what might be done on the Rebel’s Rest site. On the first point, we are likely to begin soon a very careful removal of what is still standing. We will mark it; we will store it safely; and we will incorporate it into whatever building may rise on that site. On the second point, I am persuaded that any decision about what might be done as a successor building should not be made in haste. This will surprise some and possibly disappoint many, even those of an otherwise conservative disposition whose inclination is more often to allow plenty of time to make careful decisions. And so we will take our time. We will welcome, and consider, many options. The process of sorting through those options and recommending next steps will be inclusive and transparent. No one of us, or group of us, has a premium on the wisdom required to make the right decision for the University. So I ask you to be patient, please, and I promise that we will communicate regularly as we learn more.