Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, has been recognized for its beauty since 1925, aptly earning it the moniker “Garden in the City.” But oddly enough, Rhodes’ history goes back quite a bit before its relationship with the birthplace of rock and roll. A history that, in fact, goes back roughly 200 miles and several names ago.
Rhodes College started out as the Masonic University of Tennessee in Clarksville in 1848, after the Masonic Grand Lodge of Tennessee gained the property from the Clarksville Academy. A few years later, it was renamed Stewart College, in honor of former University President William M. Stewart, a Presbyterian elder. Under Stewart’s leadership, the university moved from under the wings of the Masonic Lodge to the Presbyterian Church. Almost expectedly, in 1875, the school was renamed Southwestern Presbyterian University. But in fact, the third time is not the charm when it comes to university names.
Fifty years had passed at Southwestern Presbyterian University, under its most recent name. But with new leadership comes change, and the new leadership would be under one of the most influential men to grace the university’s halls, Dr. Charles Edward Diehl. A West Virginia native, Diehl graduated from John Hopkins University in 1896 before receiving his Doctor of Divinity from Princeton four years later. In 1907, his path led him close to the university as the pastor of Clarksville’s First Presbyterian Church. Ten years later, in 1917, through what the university calls a “venture of faith,” Diehl joined Southwestern Presbyterian University.
Diehl served Southwestern Presbyterian and the city of Clarksville through World War I, taking on the role of administrator and professor. It was Diehl that first allowed young women to come study at Southwestern Presbyterian, not just as home economics majors (which was a far cry from what it is in modern universities), but as academic equals to their male peers. Looking out for the university’s best interests and the growth they envisioned, Diehl made the decision with the board to move to a larger city in 1919. It was then that they set their sights 200 miles southwest to Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1925 doors were open at the university’s new location. But Diehl still felt something wasn’t quite right, and so, wanting to distinguish his school from others with similar names, he shortened the name to Southwestern at Memphis. And Southwestern was, and still is by a different name, a beautiful sight. Nestled on 110 acres in historic midtown Memphis, Southwestern was designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, a popular choice for educational facilities in the early twentieth century. Much of the style was influenced by the Gothic Revival campuses of Cambridge and Oxford Universities.
The original buildings, including Palmer and Kennedy Halls, were designed by Henry Hibbs and Charles Klauder, who previously designed buildings for Diehl’s beloved alma mater, Princeton. Diehl oversaw every detail of the construction of the new university. After serving Southwestern wholeheartedly for more than thirty years, Diehl retired in 1949. Even after his tenure, the university has kept all building strictly within the Collegiate Gothic style. In 1962, an associate of Hibbs, H. Clinton Parrent, designed Halliburton Tower to Palmer Hall. Named for explorer Richard Halliburton, the 140-foot bell tower holds a collection of the adventurer’s papers.
Although there were times of highs and lows, Southwestern at Memphis grew and thrived in the heart of Memphis. But once again, as other universities claimed the name Southwestern in their titles, the time came for a change. From 1984 to today, the university that started as the Masonic University of Tennessee has been known as Rhodes College, aptly named for longtime professor and university president from 1949–1965, Peyton Nalle Rhodes. During Rhodes’ fifty years at the university, he doubled the school’s financial assets, served as a physics professor and vice president, and coordinated the Thirteenth College Training Detachment stationed at the college during World War II. His legacy of hard work and devotion to Southwestern at Memphis left a legacy for students to live up to during their time under his leadership, as well as for the forthcoming generations at Rhodes College.
Rising to academic and moral challenges is something that has highlighted the life of students at the university over its more than 160 years. Students have always been called to live by higher standards than the masses, in their studies and everyday life. Each fall, freshmen are called to a ceremony in which they pledge to abide by the school’s honor system—not to lie or cheat and to help create a community of respect and compassion.
Along with the architecture that defines the picturesque beauty of the campus, the grounds are what make Rhodes College the “Garden in the City.” From Oak Alley, two rows of oak trees lining an entrance to the campus, made from seedlings from the Clarksville campus, to Hubert F. Fisher Memorial Garden, also known as the place of graduation, where students end their time under the safe wings of Rhodes College to enter the bright, waiting world ahead. But it is the heart that has been put into the university, from its architectural and landscape delights, to its history of achieving high moral character over its near century in Memphis that makes this college campus consistently named among the most beautiful campuses in the country. A college that by many other names is just as sweet.
SEE MORE RHODES COLLEGE PHOTOS HERE