|Philanthropic Hall Renovation Uncovers Unexpected Note From Past Renovators!
July 29, 2009
by Rachel Andoga ‘07
Installer Joe Hollingsworth hangs new drapes in Philanthropic Hall.
Everything old is new again this summer in Davidson College's Philanthropic Hall. This cherished and historic campus landmark has undergone renovations to its showcase upstairs assembly hall that not only restored its original grandeur, but also unearthed a friendly note from Davidsonians past!
The renovation primarily involved repairing water damage caused by leaks in the building's slate roof. In addition, windows were cleaned inside and out, a new coat of paint was applied, chairs were repaired and cleaned, and new carpet was laid. "I'm very pleased with how it came out," said John Christian, who directed the work as the college's project planner and coordinator in physical plant.
He continued, "I'm an artist at heart, and so much of this restoration was more art than construction. I've really enjoyed the process. All of the contractors appreciated the historical significance of the building and took care in completing the project."
Davidson alumnus Morrison Brown ‘59, who has directed several other campus restorations over the years, served as Phi Hall interior design consultant. Brown ordered new, red carpet custom manufactured to replicate the pattern of the original carpet. Custom-made draperies are also being designed in an original style.
Specialty craftsman Eric Cockrell from Mudwerks in Charlotte was contracted to restore some crumbling decorative plaster molding on the ceiling. A quarter-circle of concentric rings of acanthus, rosebud, and palmette motifs found in each corner is repeated as a full circle, large plaster medallion surrounding the chandelier in the middle of the room.
Cockrell painted liquid latex onto the salvageable portions of the classically ornamental trim to create a mold that allowed him to reproduce in his studio replacement sections of the design.
The chandelier, which had fallen into disrepair, was disassembled and taken to Summerour Lamps in Charlotte, where it was repaired, cleaned, and restored to its original beauty. A replica of a chandelier under which Napolean III in 1853 married Eugenie de Montigi, Comtesse de Teba, this French reproduction was exhibited at the Royal Palace in London in 1851 and at New York's Crystal Palace in 1853. William White of Sumter, S.C., purchased the piece and presented it to the Philanthropic Society during the latter part of 1853.
When physical plant workers took down the chandelier in February, they found a note testifying to its last cleaning. It read:
"Verite Sans Peur"
February 26, 1973
Bill Alexander, President
Gray Robinson, Member
Chip Schleider, Member
Today, we cleaned this filthy chandelier.
"Yes, we took it down a piece at a time and cleaned each one," recalled co-perpetrator Bill Alexander '73, founding attorney of W.G. Alexander and Associates in Raleigh. Though Alexander didn't remember writing and placing the note, he clearly remembered that about 10 members of the Phi Society had helped clean the chandelier. "We didn't ask permission, we just did it. We were aware of its history and value, and it was dirty. We were proud of our society and Phi Hall, and wanted the hall to look its best."
It turned out to be timely maintenance, because just a couple of months later Phi Hall enjoyed possibly its finest hour. Alexander said the Phi Society often hosted guest speakers, and had arranged for N.C. Senator Sam Ervin to address a meeting. Ervin at the time was a high profile politician, serving as chair of the Senate Watergate Committee investigating President Richard Nixon.
While Sen. Ervin was en route to Davidson, news broke about the discovery of an 18-1/2 minute gap in one of President Nixon's office tapes. The media sought out Sen. Ervin for comment, and he hastily arranged for a press conference in Phi Hall. It was a packed house of journalists from around the country and world. "Someone was upset because news media were standing on top of the antique chairs, but Phi Hall looked great with its clean chandelier!" Alexander recalled.
Because of the big news, Sen. Ervin's private talk to the Phi Society that evening was transformed into an all-college talk in Chambers Building. "Events overtook the invitation, but it was fabulous," Alexander said. "We hit the big time."
According to a 1973 article written by the late librarian, history professor and archivist Chalmers Davidson, that note from Phi Society members of 1973 isn't the first glimpse of the past unearthed during a Phi Hall restoration.
Davidson noted that Philanthropic Hall was dedicated on Feb. 16, 1850, and cost $2,500 to build. Its first renovation was in 1956 through a gift from Lillian Brown Hodson of East Orange, N.J. During that work, an old bottle was found that contained a valuable manuscript. It listed the names of the original members of the society, the names of the contractors and the persons responsible for "the brick part" and for "the wood part," and named Samuel Williamson as president of the college and professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and philosophy. The letter also observed that "The smallpox was spreading from Greensboro very rapidly. The cholera was in Virginia and in this state."
The manuscript ultimately declared, "Should it stand for two hundred years, Posterity may find this and know who were the persons who built it and those who had it built."
Philanthropic Hall has so far stood for only 159 years, but the skilled work of the current renovation should assure that it lasts to age 200 and beyond.
The hall's twin structure, Eumenean Hall, which faces it across the original campus mall, was built about the same time. Except for their staircase facades, the two buildings are almost identical architecturally. Like Phi, Eu's top story is dedicated entirely to a large meeting hall. Christian said Eu will eventually be scheduled for renovation, but it is not currently badly weathered.
Both buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. From Davidson's earliest days until the early twentieth century, the Eumenean and Philanthropic societies were the focus of student life and government. Four months after the college opened in 1837, the Philanthropic Society held its first meeting, and it had thirty members by the end of the first year.
The two societies, somewhat secretive and formal, were primarily debating organizations, but they also held great influence over the conduct of the young men who participated. Members imposed fines for "fighting, swearing, intoxication, and lying to the faculty," a heritage that grew into Davidson's first student government. The Philanthropic and Eumenean Societies still meet in their respective buildings. Phi Society members share literary readings and discourse, while the Eumenean Society allows students to engage in classic speeches and debates.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
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