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Ramsay Hall

Ramsay Hall

Ramsay Hall was built in 1925, from money raised during the school’s “Million Dollar Drive,” a campaign to augment capital improvement funding from the state.  It was named for Mrs. Janet Erskine Ramsay, mother of Erskine Ramsay, one of the drive’s prominent benefactors.

The second dormitory was built on campus; it was designed by architect, John Davis of Warren, Knight, and Davis, and erected for $100,000.  In the words of contemporary accounts, it was said “to surpass anything in the way of dormitory construction in the South.”  Rooms to accommodate 200 students were of varying sizes and featured built-in vanities flanked by closets.

The laying of the cornerstone on College Night, March 9, 1925, was directed by the Grand Lodge of Masons of Alabama.  The building was dedicated on Founders’ Day, October 12, 1925 by Governor W. W. Brandon; the ceremonies, followed by a campus barbecue for 2000 guests, featured a number of speeches – one of them by Mr. Ramsay – and a variety of musical numbers, including a dedicatory song, lyrics by Judge W. H. Taylor, a member of the Board of Trustees.

The building was used as a dormitory for upper-class women for a number of years, then by men, after coeducation came.  For a couple of years Ramsay was idle, and in great need of repair.  In March 1979, based on plans drawn by Dampier Harris and Associates of Alabaster; bids were let for major renovation; Bachus Engineering won the contract and 55 years after $100,000 the dormitory was built, over $900,000 was spent on its conversion from a dormitory to Ramsay Conference Center and Lodge.  It was ready for occupancy in the late summer of 1980.

The first floor of the building houses meeting rooms and several campus offices.  The upper floors contain 39 double bedrooms with baths and a suite with kitchen facilities.  The rooms are used by overnight guests and conference participants; 25 to 30 organizations such as the Alabama Library Association, Elderhostel, WCTU and the FBI hold meetings there each year.

Janet Erskine Ramsay

Little is recorded of Janet Ramsay’s life.  She was never famous, never a highly educated career woman.  She was an immigrant and a wife and mother.  It is through the generosity of her sons that her name is remembered at the University of Montevallo.  She was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, and married Robert Ramsay in 1861.  In 1863, she and her husband, his father and brothers, immigrated to Six Mile Ferry, Pennsylvania, where the men worked as miners.  Her second son, Erskine, was born on September 24, 1864.  The Ramsays prospered and a large family of children was raised to appreciate hard work, industry, education, and loyalty.

Erskine Ramsay was indeed an exemplary product of such loving, hard-working, ambitious household.  His story is typical of the American dream – if not exactly from rags to riches, at least from an immigrant working class family to a position of wealth, power, and influence.  His formal education was sketchy; his father trained him to be a miner, but he received additional schooling at St. Vincent’s College in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, graduating from a commercial technical course in 1883.  At the age of 19 he began his career in mining, as the superintendent of Monastery Mines.  He came to Birmingham in 1887 as mining engineer for Pratt mines division of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company.  During his 15 years with TCI, he received over 40 patents for devices and machines used in mining manufacturing.  In 1902, he became vice-president and chief engineer of the newly organized Pratt Consolidated Coal Company.

Throughout a long and active life, Ramsay’s interests were varied.  He was a leader in the Masons, Rotary, and Kiwanis, and on the boards of over a half dozen businesses, including Alabama By-Products, Buffalo Rock, Avondale Mills, and First National Bank of Birmingham.  Although he never married, his concern for young people and their education was deep: he was director of Boys Clubs, president of the Birmingham Board of Education, and contributed to scholarship funds in Alabama and Pennsylvania.  His generosity was renowned.  Over his lifetime, it is estimated that he donated over $2,000,000 to an amazing variety of groups, institutions, and individuals.  One of the institutions to benefit from his interest was Alabama College, which received a $100,000 contribution in the 1920’s as a part of its Million Dollar Drive to raise capital funds.  As a result, Ramsay Dormitory was built and was named for his mother, Janet Erskine Ramsay.

He was a much beloved man and a number of honors came his way.  In 1911, he was a member of commission sent to Europe by the U. S. Bureau of Mines to study conditions there; during World War II he served on the National Committee on Coal Production.  In 1925 he was awarded the Birmingham News Loving Cup as the outstanding public servant of the year; he was named Birmingham’s Man of the year for 1947.  In 1934, he and a group of Americans, which included Birminghamian Victor Hanson, were invited to Italy to “observe developments of the Mussolini regime.”  In 1937 he was awarded a gold medal by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers.  In 1952, he received an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Alabama.

For a number of years his birthday parties were occasions for city-wide celebrations.  At one party, over 3000 guests were present to share in an immense birthday cake, barbecue and Brunswick stew.  The host clad in kilts of the Ramsay tartan was accompanied by a bagpiper.

Mr. Ramsay died on August 15, 1953, just a few weeks short of his 89th birthday.

(This is an excerpt from White Columns & Red Bricks by Lucille Griffith, Ph. D.)

Palmer Hall

Palmer Hall

The enrollment of Alabama College grew rapidly in the 1920’s until in 1929-30 there were 899 students, far too many to be accommodated in Reynolds Chapel.  The problem was solved by building Palmer Hall, named for the third president.  As President O. C. Carmichael reported to the Board of Trustees in the spring of 1930, the building had an auditorium that seated 1600 and office spaces for all the administrative offices, the first time they had all been housed under one roof.  The pride of the college, and especially of the Department of Music, was the four-manual Skinner organ, one of the finest in the South.

Palmer Hall was dedicated on the weekend of April 26-28, 1930, with appropriate ceremonies: a play, a Sunday church service for everyone in Montevallo, an organ recital and a formal dedicatory service.

Warren, Davis, and Knight were the architects; Oklahoma Scenic Company had the contract for the stage equipment and the American Seating Company furnished the seats in the auditorium.

By the middle of the 1970’s the building needed extensive repairs.  In 1977-78, Renniker, Smith, Kirkwood and Associates were selected the architects for the million-dollar-plus project which included the dismantling of the old Skinner organ and the instillation of the Holtkamp organ, all new seats and a restored and rearranged stage and orchestra pit.  The contractor was Bachus Engineering Company of Birmingham.

On May 3, 1980, Palmer Hall was rededicated, fifty years after the dedication.  Dr. Palmer’s grandson, the Reverend Richard B. Palmer of Colorado Springs, gave the invocation and dedicatory prayer.  Dr. Palmer’s youngest daughter, Miss Lula Palmer of Montgomery, spoke of the pleasure it would have given her father to know that his memory was being perpetuated in the beautiful building which provided “for activities in all forms, such as arts, religion, politics and current affairs.”

Thomas Waverly Palmer (1860-1926)

Dr. Palmer, the third president and the man from whom Palmer Hall was named, came to Montevallo after many years in higher education in Alabama.  He had graduated from the University of Alabama with degrees in both engineering and mathematics and had taught mathematics at his alma mater for many years, eventually becoming the head of the department.  In 1905, he was made Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the position held when he was elected president of Alabama Girls’ Industrial School in 1907.

For all his experience in education, there had been nothing to prepare him for heading an industrial school.  Recognizing this limitation, he spent the summer of 1907 in visiting various schools that had programs similar to the one in Montevallo.

Dr. Palmer was president for almost nineteen years, the longest presidency in this school’s history.  It was also the period of many changes.  Alabama Girls’ Industrial School gradually added years of college work and dropped high school courses until by 1922 it was Alabama College, the State College for Women, granting degrees.  Shortly before Dr. Palmer’s death the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools granted the school full accreditation, the goal Dr. Palmer worked toward for years.

During the Palmer years the physical plant was greatly expanded.  New buildings were erected to care for the increased enrollment and expanded programs: Bloch Hall, Peterson Hall, Wills Hall for the library, and Calkins Hall.  The first major fund drive, the so-called Million Dollar Drive (1924), raised the money to help build the new president’s home as well as Ramsay Hall, the high school, and Palmer Hall.

Many traditions and institutions also had their beginning in this era: College Night, the first newspaper, the yearbook, student government, the employment of student help on campus, and the first summer school.

Dr. Palmer was a thorough scholar and a good administrator but he was also an affectionate, fun-loving, gregarious man.  He loved a good joke; he was an excellent story-teller but according to his secretary, he never said an unkind word about anyone.  At the hour of his funeral in Tuscaloosa, the students assembled in the chapel here and after a brief devotional sat thinking “of how and why they loved him.”

(This is an excerpt from White Columns & Red Bricks by Lucille Griffith, Ph. D.)


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