This place matters: The Florrie Chappell Gymnasium
By Evan A. Kutzler
AMERICUS — Parking at one end of Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) and walking to my office at the other end is an early morning ritual. I pass the U.S. flag, Jimmy Carter’s name in cement, and the Wheatley Administration Building flanked by its early dormitories, dining hall, and former president’s home. Walking gives me an opportunity to clear my mind, think about the day ahead, and absorb the tranquility of the historic campus at or just before sunrise.
I see changes, continuities, and cautionary tales written in the historic landscape. How complete would the early campus look if the university had not razed Terrell Hall — the dormitory where Jimmy Carter lived in 1941-42 — to increase the number of parking spaces in 1974? After passing the Wheatley Administration Building, I see the Florrie Chappell Gymnasium looming in the distance. Once a focal point, the gym now hides in obsolescence.
Building the gym
here are multiple ways to assess a building’s significance. From an architectural standpoint, the gymnasium is a Colonial Revival-style building with a one-story entrance room projecting from a two-story combination gymnasium and auditorium. The entrance has a Palladian-style opening. A thin white line — the building’s cast-stone coping — caps the parapet and a simple cartouche with swags ornaments the façade.
Are you still with me? There is more to the building than the sum of its bricks and architectural details. The Florrie Chappell Gymnasium also matters because it was part of an ambitious building program during the Great Depression. In 1935, the Public Works Administration built Georgia Southwestern a sewage treatment plant. Workers also paved a two-mile road from Taylor Street that looped around the campus, connected the university to Lee Street by Glessner Street, and put thousands of dollars into drainage systems. Construction crews finished Morgan Hall (a men’s dormitory) in 1936, and Sanford Hall (a women’s dormitory) in 1939. The Florrie Chappell Gymnasium opened the same year as Sanford Hall with the help of state and federal funding.
These projects coincided with rapid enrollment growth from 250 students in 1934, to 400 students five years later. The gymnasium represented the transformation from “Americus Normal College” to Georgia Southwestern College. These were steps, rather, strides toward becoming Georgia Southwestern State University.
Anticipation for the new gymnasium began in 1937, when the student newspaper, the Sou’wester, reported that design negotiations were taking place between school officials and the chancellor of the University System of Georgia. Construction started the following year. “Among the many features of the building,” the Sou’wester reported, “will be the recreation rooms, a swimming pool, and handball courts, in the basement, in addition to the stage and auditorium of the main floor.” When 78 students graduated in June 1939, they received their diplomas in the school’s new auditorium.
- Frank Myers Jr. walked across the stage that year. Before enrolling at Georgia Southwestern College, he graduated from Anthony High School, a historic school located adjacent to the GSW Baseball field and now owned by the GSW Foundation. While in college, Myers worked as a school bus driver. Thinking back in 2003, he recalled, “[I] did alright there. I didn’t set the world on fire. I think I had a B average. But I was more interested in politics and the women than I was in that.” Myers became a local attorney. Over his long career he served as a state representative in the Georgia House of Representatives (1949-50), the mayor of Americus (1961-62, 1971-74), president of the GSW Alumni Association (1955-56), and a founding member of the Georgia Southwestern Foundation Board of Trustees. Yeah, he did alright.
As World War II broke out in Europe that fall, the new gymnasium became a gathering place for students. Seventy-five students registered at the gym for touch football. When the recreation room opened, it contained a piano, shuffleboard, and table tennis. As one university official bragged, “It is generally recognized as being the finest and most complete building of its kind in the state.” That same official asked students to help “keep [it] looking as it does today” and to refrain from marking on the walls or damaging the floor. “Let’s take care of our new gymnasium!” Based on photographs in the Gale, Georgia Southwestern’s yearbook, the gym was one of the most utilized and loved spaces on campus in the 1940s and 50s.
Despite its popularity, the gymnasium may have lacked its formal name for several more years. In January 1943, the Georgia Southwestern men’s basketball team challenged the University of Georgia’s football team, which had just returned from winning the Rose Bowl, to a basketball game in the “college gym.” By 1948, though, the “college gym” also became known as the Florrie Chappell Gymnasium and Auditorium. State Rep. Allen Chappell had secured the funding for campus building projects in the 1930s, but it went against the University System of Georgia’s policy to name buildings after living people. Naming the building after Allen Chappell’s deceased mother, Florrie Allen Chappell (1859-1937) credited the representative without violating the policy.
Exploring the building
After skimming through the Gale and the Sou’wester, I could no longer restrain my urge to get inside the building. Campus security unlocked the door and I scoured the inside with a flashlight and a camera for clues into the building’s history. A previous renovation walled off the stage, making the combination gymnasium/auditorium into a gym with adjacent office space. Buildings, like historic landscapes, have layers of history. This one has seen many uses in its 80 years.
The basement tested my skepticism of ghost stories. I sometimes tell my students that ghosts are bad for the history business. After all, if anyone can communicate with the past by just walking into an old building, why do you need historians? And yet, those steps down into the basement still smelled like chlorine, and the empty pool had the feeling of a horror movie. I watched each step and peered carefully around corners (just to be safe). More interesting than ghosts though were the remnants of a weight room given away by the many mirrors and the artwork still adorning the walls. It was like stepping into a forgotten world.
Its architecture, its construction, its role in student life, the story behind its name, and my own explorations are just some of the ways to tell the history of the Florrie Chappell Gymnasium. Walking through the building convinced me that all of my methods come up short. This place meant too many different things to too many people for one person to capture it. There were hundreds of concerts and dozens of graduations. It was a place for intramural sports and ballroom dancing lessons. The baseball and softball teams used it a refuge and practice facility during bad weather. The history of this building is like the history of our beautiful campus, our city, and our region. It has more depth than at first glance.
Preserving your history
Unable to tell the full story of Florrie Chappell Gymnasium, perhaps the best a historian can do is try and facilitate the future telling of it. For those who know the old gym and the pool, what did this place mean to you? What are your memories, your parents’ memories, or your grandparents’ memories of this place? It is your campus and your history. Email or mail me your story of the old gym and I will place them in a folder that I will send to the library for preservation in the room where the Sou’wester and the Gale are archived.
Understanding the gymnasium’s past also means considering its future. To be sure, the gym is not in danger of demolition; moreover, as with all my articles, I write only as a public historian sharing my discipline-specific expertise and not on behalf of the university. As I walk past these buildings on campus, though, I think that most of our buildings are not old, they are historic — even the “ugly” ones.
The transformation of Florrie Chappell Gymnasium will be determined by state law, the GSW Campus Historic Preservation Plan, and the local community. The big questions are the same. What will rehabilitation look like? How will the class of 2030 or 2050 remember this building? From an academic standpoint, historic preservation is not about sentimental “firefighting” or second-guessing. Landscapes change. Even historic buildings must go. Preservation is more comparable to a specific outlook that considers the long-term consequences to individual historic places and their larger landscape. Florrie Chappell Gymnasium represents a challenge in how to update a building’s relevance not for another decade but for another century.