Athenaeum, the name given to the temples of Athena, goddess of wisdom, is a word that has evolved to mean “seat of learning.” In the Roman Empire, the Athenaeum was a school for the study of the arts; the building may be visited in Rome today. Several buildings in Western Europe and the United States have been named Athenaeum.

The Athenaeum Rectory

The Athenaeum Rectory, located in Columbia, Tennessee, is Moorish-Gothic architecture, not typical of the general building style in 1835. It is the design of Adolphus Heiman, architect in the early 1800s of many buildings and homes in the Nashville and Middle Tennessee area and built by the master-builder of  Maury County Nathan Vaught. The Athenaeum Rectory was begun in 1835 as a residence for Samuel Polk Walker, nephew of President James K. Polk.

It was completed in 1837 as the home of The Reverend Mr. Franklin Gillette Smith. In 1837, The Reverend Mr. Smith came to Tennessee to be president of The Columbia Female Institute, an Episcopal school for girls. He was a native of Vermont and a graduate of Princeton University.

In 1851, The Reverend Mr. Smith resigned from the Institute to found The Columbia Athenaeum School and the Smith family home continued to be the Athenaeum Rectory. It contained the reception room and parlors for the Athenaeum. The bedrooms on the first floor and an upstairs room were used by the Smith family. The house never had a kitchen; however, the small two-room building was probably built for that purpose but was never used as such since the Smiths had their meals in the school dining room.

In the reception room, original to the house is the chandelier made of seven metals; and the front door side panels are “flashed glass,” containing gold made in Europe. Over the mantel hangs a portrait of The Reverend Mr. Smith. A portrait of Mrs. Smith is in the parlor. The floors are walnut and oak; the design is known as wood carpeting.

The 10-piece parlor set was made by Joseph Meeks of Philadelphia in the mid-1800s. It was owned by Sally Ward Smith Gustine, Mrs. Smith’s daughter by her first husband, another Mr. Smith, William Ward Smith. The harp in the front parlor is the same harp that is in the painting of Sally W. S. Gustine. The harp found its way back to its Athenaeum home in 2013 from a female descendant of Mrs. Gustine. The fountain gracing the front lawn is French and is original to the property.

The Columbia Athenaeum was in operation for 52 years and developed a national reputation for its quality and breadth of the curriculum. The school offered students well-equipped departments in art, music, history, and science. By 1890, a commercial department was furnished with typewriters and telegraphic instruments.

The girls enjoyed gymnastics, bowling, croquet, and tennis, and were given instruction in Bible and etiquette. The library contained over 16,000 volumes, and the department of natural science held over 6.000 specimens, a few of which remain today. The school buildings and the rectory stood on 22 acres among a grove of large trees. There were dormitory rooms for 100-125 boarding students in addition to many day students.

During the Civil War, Reverend Mr. Smith was a refugee because of his outspoken sentiment in favor of the Confederate cause. Mrs. Smith operated the Athenaeum. Two of the Smiths’ sons, Robert Davis and William Austin, were active in Company B, Second Tennessee Infantry, known as the Maury Rifles.

Organized by Mr. Smith in April 1861, the unit saw action in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia before surrendering in North Carolina in 1865.

After The Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Smiths’ deaths, the Athenaeum was operated by the son, Captain Robert Davis Smith, until 1904. The property was sold by the Smith heirs, and the school became the high school until 1914. In 1915, a high school was built by the City of Columbia on the property. The rectory was retained by the Smith family members as their residence until 1973, when it was given to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities for the use of the people of Maury County by Franklin Gillette Smith’s grand-daughter, Fannie Louise Smith Davis of Lamesa, Texas.

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