If you could transport yourself in time to September 2014, a century ago, – to Thursday, September 17, 1914, to be specific, and if you were standing on the campus of what became known as the University of Richmond, you would feel electricity in the air as the new campus and the new college for women opened for its first session at its suburban location.
President Frederic W. Boatwright and the contractors were determined that the new campus would open in September; and as the date approached, they put 200 men to work on the finishing touches. Students were arriving with their steamer trunks, footlockers, and suitcases.
Most were coming by themselves and arriving by train at Main Street Station in Richmond. Day students arrived by streetcar from the more populated areas of Richmond. They could ride for five cents. Once at the streetcar stop a wooden carriage drawn by mules would meet the Westhampton College women to transport them across the campus to their side.
The campus was an expansive wooded area of about 280 acres with a large lake in the center; but in September 1914, it still was raw-boned where construction had carved out the forest and plopped down buildings of an architectural style more suited to Europe than Old Virginia. The landscaping was modest at the beginning because money was tight.
Returning students – those who had been at the old campus downtown – a distance of almost four miles from the new campus – were told that some of the old could be found at the new site. The very sod of Westhampton College was brought from the old campus. Bricks from sidewalks at old Richmond College were placed alongside the main academic building known as Ryland Hall. Granite steps from the old campus were incorporated into the landscape.
It was not just enough to relocate Richmond College, which primarily was a men’s school, and to build an entirely new campus beyond the city. President Boatwright also wanted to create an entirely new college for women. Since 1854, Baptists had operated a school primarily for their daughters. It was called the Richmond Female Institute. In 1893, it was reorganized as the Woman’s College of Richmond. In many respects it was a combination of a finishing school along with higher learning.
Some young women and their parents wanted more. In 1898 women began to be admitted into Richmond College and over the years there were 51 women who received degrees. Boatwright and the trustees moved forward on several fronts: a campaign to relocate and a campaign to launch a new college for women that would be coordinate with the men’s college. First, he needed a dean to plan and lead the establishment of the new college.
Several candidates were considered and the choice was May Lansfield Keller, a graduate of Goucher College in Baltimore who had completed graduate studies in Germany. She became the first woman dean of an academic institution in Virginia.
She established the curriculum, hired faculty, supervised students and created Westhampton from something on paper to a college which could rank alongside the leading schools for women in America.
The brand new Westhampton College opened with one building, North Court, which was everything: student residences, dining hall, classrooms and even an exercise area in the tower. There were gates to divide the women’s college from the men’s college. On the Richmond College side of the lake besides the steam plant there were four new buildings: two dorms for men, the men’s refectory or dining hall, and an administrative/academic building which contained the offices, classrooms and a central library.
There also was a large wooden pavilion on the high bank overlooking the lake. It was a reminder that the site had been an amusement park and the wooden building appropriately was named the Playhouse. The whole area had been considered the far western reaches of Richmond and was a cool, wooded retreat from the heat of the city. Families could get on the streetcar and come out to the amusement park and enjoy boating and swimming in the lake.
The Playhouse had been the pavilion for the park. Located where Boatwright Memorial Library now stands, it served as an auditorium for chapel services, programs and student productions.
The people most proud at the opening of the $1 million campus were the Baptists of Virginia. They had founded the school, sent it their sons and, later, their daughters, called many of its graduates as their ministers, rescued it in hard times and considered it their prize jewel among the several Baptist-affiliated schools in Virginia. They also had led the way in raising funds for the new campus and each district association had goals to reach in the campaign.
Churches established scholarships and encouraged their students to apply. The Baptists were so committed and involved with the institution that across the years most faculty and trustees were Baptists and the school’s loyal alumni base represented a vast number of Baptists. (The official affiliation between the BGAV and UR remained until November 1999 when a new relationship was adopted.)
As the date of the opening approached, Charles Ryland – the school’s treasurer and librarian – reflected upon what should be done at the done at school’s new beginning. He was a son of alma mater (Class of 1854) and devoted most of his adult life to the growth and development of the college. Although he belonged to the old campus, he labored to ensure that the school’s modest endowment was intact for future development.
In considering the relocation, Charles recalled that the poet Robert Burns, upon entering a new home, had his servant to go in first, bearing a bowl of salt and the Bible. Charles Ryland suggested: “The formality of the opening at Westhampton [should] include a revival of this unique old Scottish ceremony; that some servant of the corporation be commissioned to bear through the open portals of the new home a copy of the Bible, which is the source book of all true wisdom, and a bowl of salt, representing the preserving grace of God, while a proud and rejoicing throng of officers, faculty, students and other representatives of the great family of interested friends, shall take possession of the Temple of Learning…” Charles Ryland died in August 1914, a month before the relocation to Westhampton. He never got to join the opening procession with a bowl of salt and the Bible.
The Virginia Baptist Historical Society has created a large exhibit on the centennial of the campus. Entitled “Redeeming the Time,” it offers an overview of the beginnings of the new campus. The exhibit is located in the Boatwright Memorial Library, itself a gift of the Baptist General Association of Virginia in 1955.
The very first item in the exhibit is a bowl of salt and a Bible. After a century Charles Ryland’s suggestion has been fulfilled. Indeed the school, founded by the Baptists, remembers the source of true wisdom and that God’s preserving hand still guides this educational institution.