Rebel’s Rest: Com’era, Dov’era?

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.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Education, Emblems, Italy, Military, Sewanee, Slavery, The South. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Rebel’s Rest: Com’era, Dov’era?

  1. William McKeachie says:

    Would a “reconstructed” (sic!) Rebel’s Rest be merely “some outdated symbol of the past” and “kinda Disney”? That’s hardly how one feels about the St. Mark’s campanile in Venice. God bless those Venetians of a century ago! And God bless Major George Fairbanks, by now truly at “rest” almost as long, for bequeathing to his Sewanee lineage an outward and visible, ‘sacramental’ embodiment of the Spirit of the Mountain, such that the better angels of the so-called “Lost Cause” need never be truly lost: a palpable memorial not to the peculiarly unworthy ‘institution’ of slavery but, rather, to those who, incrementally yet inexorably, took the essence of what survived ‘necessarily’ changed circumstances (far worse than a fire) and breathed more magnanimous life and resonance into it, adapting it to broader spiritual and moral perspectives without sacrificing its “remains” to the false gods of opportunism. (Such loss almost happened twice in the last century — to the building itself in the 1970s, and to the University’s very name a quarter century later.)

    Based on 40 years involvement (to say the least) with several historic rehabilitation projects, I have no doubt that the symbolic facade of Rebel’s Rest, along with a few interior spaces, could indeed be restored whilst allowing at the same time for a fully code-compliant facility to be created behind and beyond its iconic wisteria-draped porch. Does anyone think of Laura Plantation in Louisiana, splendidly reclaimed after an equally devastating fire, as “kinda Disney”?

    But what’s “in” the name? Why not let it “fade away” for the sake of revisionist history or political correctness? To adapt the words of Sewanee’s own late, great Fugitive Agrarian Andrew Lytle, movingly quoted by the Vice-Chancellor at the Honor Code induction of those just beginning their immersion in what it means to hail from Arcady: “Nothing lost save honor.”

  2. James K. Polk Van Zandt says:

    Apparently the professor who wrote the original post is being a bit coy. By “…to some the name is an embarrassment” he means the University administration and most of the faculty. This has been going on for years. Fifteen years or so ago a Chicago consultant recommended that we change the name of the University! The Trustees roundly rejected the idea.Bishop Polk is slowly being removed from the University’s history (the loss of Rebels Rest only accelerates this process). The next time you are in the new welcome center in the new Sewanee Inn, check out the historical time line of the University. You will find no mention of Bishop Polk! Anyone with any knowledge of Sewanee knows that the University would not exist with his vision and drive. In this day and age it is politically incorrect to have a former Major General (not Brigadier General) and Bishop of the Church as a founder.

    • You’re right-he wasn’t a Brigadier General. But I don’t think he was a Major General either, but a Lieutenant General? I’ll fix it. As to who’s embarrassed by the name, I don’t think many people around campus really are. I like the name, and liked the building.

  3. William McKeachie says:

    An Immodest (but conciliatory) Proposal for Rebel’s Rest

    [Originally posted on “Save Rebel’s Rest” Facebook page.]

    Vice-Chancellor McCardell has often and eloquently expressed his aspiration as VC to help nurture a “truer and better” University of the South, truer (it might be said) to Sewanee’s “better angels” — yet at the same time true indeed to its historically specific heritage. By the way, such also seemed to be an implicit aspect of Louise Cowan’s encomium at Founders’ Day last year. What an honor for Sewanee that the doyenne of the literary history of the Southern Fugitives and Agrarians should accept a D.Litt. from The University of the South! Despite my frustration with certain other institutional decisions and revisionist trends in recent years, at Sewanee as elsewhere (but not at the University of Dallas!), Vice-Chancellor McCardell’s own passionate love for Sewanee’s heritage is evident.

    The day after the Rebel’s Rest fire, the VC referred to the “miracle” of how much of the building was spared. That prompted me to hope for an immediate clarion commitment by the University to restore this building — which is so much more than a building — as completely and authentically as possible, irrespective of (predictably delayed) forensic and other “professional assessments.” Absent any such public commitment — and in the face of much sophistry about the implications of the name “Rebel’s Rest” — I am moved to share a personal story in support of the view that such a forthright willingness to rebuild could enhance the prospect for a truer and better Sewanee, could even play a timely role in our nation’s desperate need for cultural and racial melioration.

    Not so incidentally, I write as one who served for a time as a Board member of the Maryland Trust for Historic Preservation; helped to facilitate two rehabilitation projects (in the 1980s and 1990s) for the oldest free-standing house in Baltimore; and, a decade ago, presided over the $2 million rehabilitation of the Episcopal Cathedral in Charleston, at that time in danger of structural collapse.

    Here’s my personal “story behind the story” of why, at least for me, Rebel’s Rest is not only iconic but virtually sacramental. My parents were Yankees of the first water! They had a hard time understanding how it came to be that their son wished to enroll at The University of the South, of all places! But above all my parents loved people; they also loved to read, especially about people culturally different from themselves. The likes of Charles Harrison, “Red” Lancaster and Shirley Majors among the living (at that time), but also George Fairbanks, William Porcher DuBose and William Alexander Percy among the already departed, transformed their perspective: they came to appreciate a “truer and better” South than the stereotype, in large measure because of the heritage about which Arthur Ben Chitty wrote so vividly in Reconstruction at Sewanee; they came to appreciate as well the way in which the University Founders and their successors adapted their ideals in the wake of adversity, and of irrevocably transformed circumstances, incrementally yet inexorably shifting away from certain aspects of the ante-bellum South whilst reclaiming and reformulating a “truer and better” classicism. My parents were also deeply touched by the graciousness with which they themselves, Yankee to the bone, were embraced by the new/old Southerners who mentored their own son who, as it were, had gone South! It made them “truer and better” liberals themselves!

    Admittedly, I am personally nostalgic for the many nights I fell asleep with the windows of Rebel’s Rest thrown open to the sounds of Arcady. But here’s the burden of my plaint: with the gorgeous new Sewanee Inn up and running — replete with its many historic portraits, artifacts and resonances — perhaps a “reconstructed” Rebel’s Rest might serve a different function. Might it be adapted (and physically expanded behind a meticulously restored façade, wisteria and all) to serve as the initial home-base for a School of Southern Studies of the kind about which Vice-Chancellor McCardell spoke at his Inaugural Address? And might not such a School be suitably named for Robert S. Lancaster, political scientist, sometime Dean of the College, and the building’s restorer-in-chief in the 1970s? Even Major Fairbanks’s own name for it — notwithstanding the willful fallacy of anachronism manifested by some of its detractors among the “politically correct” — might thus acquire a renewed, more benign, “truer and better” and perhaps even conciliatory significance.

    William McKeachie, C’66; Parent ’10, ’17, and School of Lettters

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