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.)