When I tuned in to a live webcast of “Shaking Up Retirement: Rethinking Financial Security for Americans” on the morning of March 3, little did I know that in just a few hours, I’d be so shaken up about something that it would be difficult to concentrate on anything else.
As I scanned my e-mails during the conference’s lunch break, a new message titled “Important Update from Sweet Briar” arrived. Eager to read the latest news from my alma mater, I opened the message first.
“I am writing to you today with important and difficult news,” the message from James F. Jones, Jr., president of Sweet Briar College, began. “At our Board of Directors meeting over the weekend, the Board unanimously voted to wind down academic operations for Sweet Briar College due to insurmountable financial challenges. The Class of 2015 will be our final graduating class, and the College will close on August 25, 2015.”
This stunning news came with no advance warning. Ever since I read it, I haven’t been able to get this warm, friendly community where everyone works so hard to make young women succeed off my mind.
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Amherst County, Virginia, Sweet Briar College provided me with exactly what I wanted my college experience to be like. Surrounded by delightful fellow students, talented professors, caring staff members, and a breathtakingly beautiful, historic 3,250-acre campus, I flourished.
The campus is a former plantation where a profusion of wild roses once bloomed. It was the summer home of Elijah Fletcher, a schoolmaster from Vermont, who purchased the property in 1830. His daughter, Indiana, inherited it in 1858, continuing to live there after she married James Henry Williams in 1865 and gave birth to their only child, Maria Georgiana (“Daisy”) in 1867. Sixteen-year-old Daisy died in 1884, Henry followed in 1889, and then Indiana passed away in 1900. To honor Daisy’s memory, Indiana bequeathed practically her entire estate to establish a school that would provide young women with a fine education. A charter was obtained for a liberal arts college in 1901, and it opened in 1906.
Sweet Briar’s Georgian Revival campus is the work of Ralph Adams Cram, one of America’s leading architects. Cram transformed a portion of the plantation’s undulating landscape into a series of terraces, where monumental flights of steps lead to elegant brick academic buildings and dormitories connected by arcades.
The buildings surround a central green that culminates at the college’s chapel, a serene place made all the more lovely by hand-stitched pink floral needlepoint kneelers.
Other brick buildings housing campus support services complement Cram’s vision for the campus. The Boxwood Alumnae House first was a teahouse and an inn for overnight visitors to stay, then became a dormitory, and now serves as the operational base for Sweet Briar’s alumnae association. I spent many happy hours working as a student assistant there, posing for a picture promoting the Alumnae Association’s tulip bulb sale, stuffing mailings to alumnae while watching television coverage of the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush, and making special friends with the office’s staff.
Almost daily, I stopped in the neighboring Book Shop to visit Kleo and Mr. Fitts, try on Susan Bristol outfits, check out the latest pink-and-green Sweet Briar merchandise, and bring home treasures like hand-painted Easter eggs, Dedham Pottery rabbits, Pimpernel coasters, Salt Marsh Pottery Sweet Briar Rose dishes and a hand-knitted Blueberry Woolens cardigan that I still wear.
Sweet Briar House, the original plantation home and the home of Sweet Briar’s presidents, may be the finest building on campus. Like Cram’s campus complex, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. Built in the late 18th century, the two-story, six-room, red brick farmhouse was originally called Locust Ridge. After traveling to Italy in the 1850s, the Fletcher family remodeled the home, adding three-story Tuscan-style towers with wrought-iron balconies at either end, connecting them with upper and lower arched galleries and painting it pale yellow to transform it into an Italianate villa.
Inside, the 22-room home features heart pine floors, keystone arched doorways, two formal parlors, and 12 fireplaces, some with carved Carrara marble mantels imported from Italy. Many of the furnishings on the lower level of the house play an important part of its history, such as a blue enamel and ormolu 19th century Sevres clock and urns, brass and crystal girandoles, great pier and overmantel mirrors, and family portraits in gold leaf frames.
Elijah Fletcher planted many of the Norway spruces, cathedral yews, black walnuts, Southern magnolias, hemlocks, holly and horse chestnut trees that surround Sweet Briar House. He also was responsible for the magnificent boxwoods which are such a striking feature of the garden.
Behind Sweet Briar House stands the Garden Cottage – the plantation overseer’s cottage that later served as a guest house — and a one-room 19th-century slave cabin that later served as a museum of farm tools.
The neighboring Sweet Briar Museum houses the Fletcher and Williams family collections of lace, clothing, silver, jewelry and decorative arts, including Chinese and Japanese artifacts from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia. Daisy’s harp is one of the original pieces of Sweet Briar Plantation furniture on display. The museum also displays memorabilia like the daisy pendants given to the first graduating classes and the elliptical class rings with blue, green, purple or black gemstones etched with the Sweet Briar seal and adorned with columns and roses on the shank, immediately recognizable on the little finger of an alumna’s left hand. Other memorabilia illustrate the four class symbols rooted in Sweet Briar plantation history: the swans that swam on the lake; the peacocks that roamed the grounds of Sweet Briar House; the cement lions that flanked the front steps of Sweet Briar House; and the magnificent oak tree that once stood beside Fletcher Hall. Artifacts illustrate other charming Sweet Briar traditions like the tap clubs for which students displaying certain talents or characteristics are selected. I was a member of Tau Phi, a group of 13 juniors and seniors who promote scholarship and learning.
My daily walks were my time to relish Sweet Briar’s gorgeous surroundings. Some days, I’d go to the boathouse and watch fellow students canoeing in the lake that had been formed when the little stream where Daisy used to fish was dammed. Other times, I’d stroll by the charming homes of professors and staff that line Faculty Row, Woodland Road and Elijah Road, the road to what was in plantation days the only route to Amherst, Sweet Briar’s neighboring town.
On my way to check on the 19th-century apple orchard in another part of campus, I’d admire the octagonal-shaped reception room of the Florence Elston Inn and Conference Center. Its mantelpiece, Hepplewhite-style end tables, coffee table, hunt board and butler’s tray were all hand-carved from local cherry wood.
Longer excursions took me on the “Dairy Loop,” a three-mile route that winds its way up and down hills, past fields, woods and dells. The loop begins at the former Sweet Briar train station that was turned into a ceramics studio, with a large red caboose parked outside.
A bluebird box-lined gravel path leads to Monument Hill, the burial ground of the Fletcher and Williams family. On Founders’ Day in early October, a bagpiper leads the entire Sweet Briar community to Monument Hill to place daisies on the graves of Indiana, John Henry and Daisy. The route continues past the Harriet Howell Rogers Riding Center, one of the best equestrian facilities in the country. Sweet Briar’s national-champion riders train in three spacious outdoor rings, a hunter trials course and one of the largest indoor arenas in the country.
The Dairy Loop ends at the Sweet Briar Farm, which grew and sold feed crops such as hay, alfalfa and corn, and the Sweet Briar Dairy, which produced whole and lowfat milk, cream, butter and for years, the only European-style yoghurt produced in Virginia. From the early 1960s until 1994, Jan Osinga, a native of Holland, supervised the college’s 450 Holstein cows in providing over 3 million pounds of milk to the Sweet Briar community, the Lynchburg area, and the Air Force and Navy in Newport News annually.
Three meals a day at Prothro Commons made those walks necessary. Menus of my day featured fudge pie, made-to-order omelets, scrambled eggs with cheese, London Broil, squash casserole, grilled shrimp, “Cheese Betty,” Mexican buffets and Easter dinners with a huge bunny-shaped sheet cake. Sweet Briar’s signature chocolate macaroons and “Rosa Franklins”– brown-sugar meringue cookies with pecans — are served at special events. On Doughnut Thursday, a Sweet Briar tradition for more than 30 years, at least 135 yeast doughnuts are made by hand with an old-fashioned cutter, fried and glazed by hand each week. For a time, special Sweet Briar events called for the college’s own white, red and Chardonnay table wines, each made from Virginia-grown grapes and bottled in Virginia, with distinctive pink and green Sweet Briar labels.
This situation may be devastating, but it may not be hopeless. Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. was formed by a group of alumnae. Its mission is to halt the closing of the college and create a plan for Sweet Briar’s long-term viability.
As I sang at my graduation on May 26, 1991, may beautiful Sweet Briar’s foundations ever be as strong as her hills.