Wesleyan Hall, the historical centerpiece of what is now the University of North Alabama in Florence, is the state’s best surviving exemplar of the so-called “castellated style” style, which emerged, rather tardily, in mid-nineteenth-century Alabama as a facet of the broader Gothic Revival movement. It is also one of two extant Alabama structures confirmed as the work of noted antebellum southern architect Adolphus Heiman.
Geared mainly toward educating the offspring of the state’s nascent elite, Alabama’s earliest institutions of higher learning, including the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa (AL-01-125-0016), Spring Hill College near Mobile, and LaGrange College in the Tennessee Valley, adhered in their architecture to the prevailing neoclassicism of the 1820s and 1830s. Until the 1850s, so did every other Alabama school building of any architectural pretension, from Mobile’s impressive Barton Academy (AL-01-097-0024) to the men’s and women’s institutes found in towns and villages across the state. Between 1850 and 1860, however, the building committees of four Alabama schools decided to embrace the Gothic Revival that was already changing academic architecture in other parts of the country.
For an age immersed in the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, the fake bastions and battlements and pointed arches evoked, as one school promotional leaflet enthused, “the old castles of song and story.” The style also suggested erudition and, not least, piety. In fact, the schools adopting the style were all church-affiliated: the Presbyterian Huntsville Female Seminary, the Tuskegee Female College, Southern University in Greensboro, and Wesleyan University in Florence, which were all Methodist. Of these structures, costly and impressive for their time and place, only Wesleyan survives today.
Opening its doors in 1856, Wesleyan University was essentially a continuation of LaGrange College, founded in 1830, whose remote mountaintop location some seventeen miles to the southeast had proven disadvantageous. (The handsome buildings housing the parent institution became a private military academy, which prompted their destruction by invading Union forces in 1863.) Wesleyan’s architect was Adolphus Heiman of Nashville, a Prussian émigré who, after the death of William Strickland in 1854, was probably Tennessee’s most eminent antebellum architect. Heiman’s European background is evident in picturesque designs for houses, churches, schools, and public buildings that are variously neoclassical, Gothic, and Italianate in inspiration. Indeed, though modest and distinctly provincial compared to European counterparts, some of Heiman’s buildings seem to show the influence of Prussia’s Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
At Wesleyan Hall, the spare, planar massing and underscaled polygonal bastions, not to mention the stiff, almost toy-like quality of the crenellated roofline, recall elements of Schinkel’s 1819 Gertraudenkirche in Berlin, or Schloss Stolzenfels near Koblenz. These same characteristics had earlier appeared in Heiman’s schemes for the University of Nashville and the now-demolished Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, both completed not long before he began work on Wesleyan Hall. At Wesleyan, the use of an advanced entrance pavilion, anchored by slender, crenellated bastions that appear on the four corners of the main block, repeats the format for the Tennessee Hospital. Also, like the hospital building, Wesleyan Hall once boasted a tall, crenellated observatory, octagonal in shape and thrusting up from the center point of the roof. The historicist flavor of all three buildings—Wesleyan Hall and its Tennessee counterparts—was diminished by the use of broad, unmistakably American sash windows instead of the mullioned European casements and oriels one might have anticipated.
The basic footprint of Wesleyan is T-shaped, with a massive wing extending rearward to house a combination chapel/assembly hall and first-floor classrooms. Here, too, crenellated bastions (this time hefty, rectangular ones) anchor the outer corners of the wing. Dividing all three floors of the main block is a broad central hall, with a pair of rooms grouped on either side. A pair of broad stairways, their present balustrade dating from the early twentieth century, rises at either end of a transverse corridor linking the main block to the assembly hall wing.
When the Civil War erupted, only six years after Wesleyan’s first classes, the university’s grounds and main building were successively commandeered by contending military forces. At one point, General William Tecumseh Sherman established his headquarters in Wesleyan Hall’s library while his army passed through Florence. After the war, the school struggled unsuccessfully to regain its footing amid the South’s economic devastation. The Methodists deeded the property to the State of Alabama and in 1873, the school reopened as the first state-supported teacher’s college, or “normal school,” south of the Ohio River—ancestor of today’s University of North Alabama. An 1877 school catalog described Wesleyan Hall as containing “besides officers’ rooms, and six large Lecture rooms, . . . an excellent Chapel — convenient for religious and other public exercises — a Laboratory, two Library rooms, and two elegant Halls for the use of the Literary Societies.”
As the campus grew, Wesleyan Hall itself remained largely intact until a stylistically incongruous one-story laboratory wing was tacked onto the south side in 1902. Seven years later a large semi-detached annex was finished on the north side to a design by Birmingham architect William T. Warren. Linked to the main building by a crenellated arcade (what contemporary references dubbed a “cloister”), the annex carefully replicated Wesleyan’s original architectural character except for a slight variation in the brickwork. A corresponding annex proposed for the other side of the structure was never built. Piecemeal renovation over a century or more has modified the interior, but spared much of the original interior trim, including paneled doors and molded baseboards.
If Wesleyan Hall is a major early expression in Alabama of the shift away from neoclassicism in public and institutional architecture, and toward a more eclectic approach, it was also a harbinger of the Collegiate Gothic style adopted for many Alabama schools after 1900. Likewise, its association with Adolphus Heiman affirms the strong cultural, social, and economic ties existing at this period between the northernmost counties of Alabama and neighboring Middle Tennessee.
Manuscripts Collection, Collier Library, University of North Alabama, Florence, Alabama.
McDonald, William Lindsey. Beginnings of the University of North Alabama: The Story of Florence Wesleyan University.Florence: University of North Alabama, 1991.