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National Register: Old College

Campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College, College Street, Athens built 1857

Located in the center of the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tennessee, the Old College building looks much as it did when it was completed in 1857. Although chartered as the Odd Fellows Female College in 1854, the unfinished educational building was sold to the Wolston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South who had completed the three story, red brick, Greek Revival building by 1858. Despite the various name changes throughout its long history, the structure has always housed an educationally oriented facility that was connected with the Methodist Church, Recently the building has been sensitively rehabilitated to house the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. The structure retains much of its historical and architectural integrity.

The Old College building of the Tennessee Wesleyan College is being nominated under

National Register criteria A and C for its historical significance as an early and influential

East Tennessee college and architecturally as one of the few remaining pre-Civil War Greek Revival school buildings in Tennessee.

The Old College building on the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College was originally

chartered as the Odd Fellows Female College in 1854. That year, the McMinn County Lodge #54 of the International Order of Odd Fellows began construction of the three-story, brick, Greek Revival structure, but before the building was complete, they ran out of funds and sold the partially furnished school building to the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1857. The church raised sufficient funds to complete the building that year and it opened in 1858 as the Athens Female College.

By 1861 the attendance at the college reached seventy pupils whose instruction included

two courses of study, a scientific program .or a more difficult program in arts and classical literature. As in other schools for women in this time period, the college carefully regulated the activities, clothing, and morals of the young women who attended class. The expressed purpose of the Athens Female College as noted from its 1862 catalog was " develop the mental and moral powers of the pupil, and to educate the mind to habits of thinking with clearness and force."

The school was suspended during the later stages of the Civil War and the minutes of the

Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South mentioned the leasing of the building to the Confederate Army for a hospital. The building was sold after the Civil

War to pay a debt owed to its president, Erastus Rowley. He gained ownership of the

building and donated it to the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in


When the school reopened in 1867, its emphasis changed as well as its name. Now called

the East Tennessee Wesleyan College, it served as a preparatory school and college for

both sexes. The first enrollment was comprised of fifty-two males and thirty-four females,

Of the total eighty-six students, only three were enrolled in an actual college


In 1886, the school was renamed Grant Memorial University to honor Ulysses S. Grant after his death. The move was seen to have larger political overtones and the school received kudos from the various United States senators and congressmen for such a significant display of unity for the South. The school attendance grew during this period to approximately three hundred pupils. In 1889 the Holston Conference organized another school, the University of Chattanooga, and appointed the governing body of U. S. Grant University, as the school was now called, to control it.; In 1909, the two schools merged and U. S. Grant University became the Athens School of the University of Chattanooga.

In 1925 the Board of Trustees of the University of Chattanooga voted to separate the

Athens School from the University under pressure from locally prominent alumni and a

charter renaming the school Tennessee Wesleyan College was drawn up. This reorganization has carried the institution until the present.

Architecturally, the building stands as one of the few extant pre-Civil War, Greek

Revival academic buildings in Tennessee. Rehabilitation work began on the Old College

building in late 1981 to house the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. The museum

officially opened its doors to the public on June 13, 1982.


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