Monday, November 27, 2017

“Beauty, Service, and Grace” - The History of the Alumnae House

Not long after the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) opened its doors in October 1892, graduates began to discuss the possibility of an alumnae building. As they often returned to the college to participate in official events and social occasions, they wanted a comfortable place to hold meetings and to stay during overnight visits. Although the alumnae had limited access to accommodations in dormitories and on the third floor of Students’ Building, they dreamed of a spot at their alma mater to call their own.

Drawing of the Alumnae House, 1937
 Serious discussions began in 1916 and after the end of World War I in 1918, the plan was revisited by the new Alumnae Association Secretary Ethel Bollinger (Class of 1913). Miss Bollinger hoped to use the prospective building for an office and a residence for unmarried faculty. Yet it wasn’t until Clara Booth Byrd (Class of 1913) assumed the position of Alumnae Association Secretary in 1922, did the plan for an alumnae house truly begin to take form. Miss Byrd convinced Julius Foust, the college’s second president, to choose the site and to begin raising money for the project. Foust was committed to the project and threw his formidable efforts behind fundraising. Miss Byrd felt that the most practical location for the building was on the site of the old wooden residence hall alternatively called Guilford or Midway Dormitory. One of the original campus buildings, it occupied a prime location on College Avenue and was in poor condition, requiring either complete renovation or demolition.

Clara Booth Byrd
A committee was formed to explore the financial feasibility of an alumnae building and to revisit its purpose on campus. Originally conceived as a residence for faculty and for overnight alumnae visits, this vision was expanded and the plan altered to create a building that would be “the very center of college life outside the academic realm.” The committee set a fundraising goal of $250,000, which was to be procured by alumnae, faculty, and students.  Yet by the early 1930s, only $53,000 had been collected. As the country slipped into an economic depression, hopes for the building looked dim. Finally, with financial assistance from the Public Works Administration, construction could begin. By all accounts, Miss Byrd chose the architectural design for the Alumnae House. She selected Homewood, a Maryland estate built by Charles Carol in 1800, as a model for the new building. Homewood's exterior, considered an excellent example of Georgian architecture, was practically duplicated on the Woman’s College campus by Penrose V. Stout of Bronxville, NY.
 
Alumnae House Dedication, January, 1937
But even before the building was formally dedicated in June of 1937, there was controversy, as alumnae and students began to question the close involvement of Miss Byrd in every aspect of the Alumnae House’s design and use. Her possessiveness of the building and her fear of damage to the new furniture that she had been so instrumental in selecting, led alumnae to see her as a “dominating and inflexible” force.


In an Alumnae House Bulletin dated January of 1937, Miss Byrd set out guidelines on how best “to preserve the beauty and dignity” of the new space. She specifically asked that students “establish a tradition of order and spotless cleanliness” to be preserved at all times. The situation became so contentious that there were plans afoot to have Miss Byrd dismissed.  But she weathered the storm and continued in her role as Alumnae Association Secretary until her retirement in 1947. She must have been pleased that the Alumnae House, which had occupied so much of her life, ultimately became a hub for student and alumnae activity.

The Byrd Parlor
Fittingly, when she passed away, her funeral was held in the building that she had fought so hard to bring to fruition. In November 1972, almost a decade after the university had become co-educational, the building’s name was officially changed to Alumni House. It is said by some that Miss Byrd never let go of her strong attachment to the house and still ensures doors are closed at the end of the day.


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