The Fire at Rebel’s Rest

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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.

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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

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About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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16 Responses to The Fire at Rebel’s Rest

  1. GSW says:

    Sad to hear. I’ve stayed here many times and imagined its history with great appreciation for it.

  2. Julie Berebitsky says:

    Thank you, Chris, for this lovely reflection. I would be one of those faculty whose first encounter with Sewanee was staying at “Rebel’s Rest.” The name was enough to make me turn and run, but there was no taxi to call. Turned out there also weren’t any locks on ANY of the doors and no phone in the room! (It was, of course, before cellphones!) After dragging the bureau in front of the door to ward off intruders I tried to get some sleep, but to no avail. I imagine Kelly had a similar experience. Both of us were on campus to interview for a sabbatical replacement…who would have thought we’d still be here!

  3. Sydney Norris says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Chris. Rebel’s Rest is/was so dear.
    Sydney

  4. William McKeachie says:

    Many thanks for these thoughtful and poignant reflections. Had my family been up there (my elder daughter just left, after the School of Letters finished its term, having stayed in ‘Little Fulford’ around the corner on SC Avenue — the only cabin older than RR on the Domain) my own wife would surely have admonished me with the same words uttered by yours; thank you for not minding her!

    Things like this seem almost predictable during renovations; measures often seem inadequate. I also worry about how often older buildings at Sewanee stand wide open 24/7, not infrequently with electricity ‘blazing’. The VC seems to think much more was spared than sacrificed. Surely many of us would support — and contribute to — as authentic a restoration (without “damn doilies”!) as might be possible. And I will pray both for the wisteria and for your back.
    William McKeachie
    Alumnus (’66) & Parent (’10; ’17; SofL)

  5. Mark Cobb says:

    What a tragedy. Rebels Rest is so important to the Mountain that I’m confident it will be restored and better than ever!

  6. Nick Moschovakis says:

    With excruciating vividness, I remember sitting on the back patio of Rebel’s Rest one night in early 1997, licking into shape my class lecture on The Tempest for the entire English department (and its best students) to judge me by the following day. Little did I know I would actually be judged as much for my fortuitous choice of liquor during cocktails at Bill Clarkson’s house – true rebel that I am, I opted for bourbon, giving me the edge over my competitor, and now everlasting friend, Chris Cobb. Chris was just not the rebel that I was. He not only didn’t drink Chardonnay, he drank water.

    • Hi Nick– Thanks for the note. It’s funny just how many memories came back to me while I was standing in front of Rebel’s Rest. “Excruciating vividness” is just the phrase for it. We had Bill and Marcia over last night, as a matter of fact.

    • Julie Berebitsky says:

      Ahh…. I am noting a pattern here. My interview dinner was at Evie and Brown Patterson”s, and when I asked for a bourbon, Brown said, “I approve!” I knew I had the job from that moment on…I wasn’t a bourbon drinker, then…just following the “when in Rome” approach! Hope you’re well! Best, Julie
      ;

      • Nick Moschovakis says:

        I guess the secret of being hired at Sewanee is out. For the secret of leaving, PM me.

  7. Kathy Freeman says:

    My memory of staying there for my campus visit in 1992 was being kept up all night by the bells ringing every quarter hour. In the morning when Ted Stirling picked me up to go give my talk to his Romanticism class, he told me to leave the front door of Rebel’s Rest unlocked and all I could think about was my plane ticket home being stolen.

  8. William McKeachie says:

    Oh, dear … As one who facilitated the installation of bells in two towers elsewhere, Baltimore and Charleston, and who passionately welcomed the realization of blessed Paul Engsburg’s dream to add change-ringing bells to Breslin, I must demur from the anti-campanological sentiment here.
    I am (importunately!) looking to the University to commit to as faithful a restoration and as complete a “reconstruction” (sic!) as possible of this building which is so much more than a building, iconic as it is of what is unique to Sewanee. I can hardly wait to throw open those windows again, sooner rather than later, in order to fall asleep to the sounds of Arcady! But I do of course agree, going forward after the fire, that security at Rebel’s Rest (and indeed other historic buildings on the Domain) should be a higher priority than in the past.

    • Nick Moschovakis says:

      Sewanee campanology inevitably reminds me of Wil Mills playing the carillon. RIP.

      • Are you familiar with the Italian term, “campanalismo”? “The word campanilismo, which doesn’t have a specific English translation, derives from campanile (bell tower). The campanile, traditionally the tallest and most prominent building in any town or village, has become, in the concept of campanilismo, an enduring symbol of devotion to, and love of ones region, city, town, village or even quartiere (quarter, small district of a town).”
        http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/campanilismo/

  9. William McKeachie says:

    Implicit incentive to upgrade Italian to ‘Major’ status in the curriculum of a “tower’d city set within a wood” — although I do believe that little, low-lying Rebel’s Rest is Sewanee’s truly ‘iconic’ building; may it ‘rise again’ sooner rather than later! (BTW — where in Italy is the picturesque campanile and environs pictured on Sewanee’s Italian Studies website?

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