Just off the beaten path in downtown Columbia, Tennessee, there’s a hidden gem. It’s hidden in plain sight. This gem is a home tucked away just off the main drag in a quaint little neighborhood. It’s not just any home. It’s a rectory, the rectory of a learning institution for girls. The architecture reveals that there is some significance behind the building, but without digging further, it’s not easily known that this was the home for the principal of the Columbia Female Institute which later became known as the Athenaeum.
The Athenaeum was originally built to be the home for Samuel K. Polk, the nephew of the 11th President of the United States, James K. Polk. However, Samuel never lived in the home because soon after its completion in 1837, it became the rectory for the new learning institute that was being constructed adjacent to the Athenaeum. This new learning institute became known as the Columbia Female Institute (CFI), an Episcopal learning institution for girls. The families of the St. Peter’s Church intended this institution to be a finishing school for the women of the South. The prominent families of the church combined their wealth and power to build a glorious structure that dominated the skyline. The new school with its Gothic architecture was completed in 1838. You can click on any image to see it in the lightbox.
The CFI was suspended in 1862 due to the Civil War. During this time, it was used as a Federal Hospital where it endured significant damage. However, it did manage to reopen. It finally closed in 1932. Below is a message written about the above post card.
Regarding the above Columbia Institute Postcard Photo, Bill Bostick writes: I was viewing the Maury Co. school project, and saw the entry for Columbia Institute. Thought you might like another postcard image. It was given to me by my Aunt Ella Cathey Finley (1887-1988). On the back she wrote: “Columbia Institute, Columbia Tenn, School for Girls. My grandmother Tennessee Ella Smith Cathey (1838-1923) went to school here as a young girl. It’s a super market now. I (Aunt Ella) buy my groceries there.” Regards, Bill Bostick Oak Ridge, TN, March, 26 2002 WD
The Reverend Franklin Gillette Smith was recruited to become the principal of the CFI. After some alleged improprieties with a student, he was asked to resign. Soon after, Reverend Smith started his own school, the Columbia Athenaeum. The new school would not just teach girls the finer points of being a southern belle, but it would teach young ladies, physics, calculus and all the things that were commonly only taught to men. The reverend believed that the intelligence level of women was the same as men. I guess you could say that Reverend Smith was one of the original feminist. Starting the new school included adding several more buildings to complete the school facilities. Reverend Smith continued living in the rectory which became the rectory for the Athenaeum.
The Columbia Athenaeum flourished between the 1850’s and the early 1900’s. It developed a national reputation for its curriculum, a curriculum that was a bit bold for its time. Fast forward to present times, the Athenaeum is now owned by the Maury County Chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities . Unfortunately, the CFI and all the other school related buildings are gone. The CFI actually burned to the ground sometime in the 1950’s. It’s a shame that such a structure is not standing today for generations to see and learn about its history. My wife and I agree that if that building was here today, it would be the icon of Columbia. At least we still have the Athenaeum.
The Athenaeum was built by Maury County’s Master Builder, Nathan Vaught. It features Gothic and Moorish architectural elements which were designed by the famous Civil War Era Architect, Adolphus Heiman. Below is a picture of a plaque about Adolphus Heiman taken at the Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. You can read about my visit to the Confederate Circle in my blog post titled “Southern Roots.”
I really love discovering the Athenaeum. I find its history very interesting. I will definitely be back to make more photos. Maybe I can take a tour and get some shots of and from the porches and some shots from the inside. If I make this happen, I believe I’m going to shoot with a color film. It will probably be Portra 400 or Ektar 100. I’m leaning toward Ektar, but either choice would work. I believe the character and nostalgia that film brings to an image would be perfect for the Athenaeum. I hope you have enjoyed these photographs and this little piece of history. Thanks for reading!