LaGrange College was a Methodist institution founded in 1830 near Leighton in Franklin County, Alabama. It was the first state chartered college in the state.
As the college faced financial strains in the 1850s, then president Dr. Richard Rivers sought better support and struck a deal between the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the City of Florence to relocate the college to nearby Lauderdale County.
The City agreed to provide a large building and an endowment for the college. In fact, Florence residents made gifts and bonds to help raise the initial $25,000 endowment. To reflect these changes, the name of the institution changed to Florence Wesleyan University.
Though the move occurred in 1855, the building was not completed until 1856, so the college met downtown temporarily in the Masonic Lodge building.
Wesleyan Hall was designed by Adolphus Heiman, an engineer, stonecutter, and architect born in Potsdam, Prussia, who immigrated to the United States in 1834. Heiman worked in Nashville from 1837 until 1840, when he left to fight in the Mexican War. He returned to Nashville after the war and was commissioned to design churches, government buildings, private homes, tombstones, schools, and other community landmark buildings, some of which are no longer extant today.
Heiman frequently incorporated the Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, and Italianate styles into his designs. He is credited for designing Nashville's oldest extant church building, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Seven Dolors, today known as St. Mary's Catholic Church, in the Greek Revival style c. 1845. Also in Nashville, he designed the Italianate-style Belmont Mansion, built between 1849 and 1853, as well as several other private homes.
Heiman designed other buildings throughout the Southeast, including the Giles County Courthouse in Tennessee, St. John's College in Little Rock, and the First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. In the 1850s, Heiman gained a reputation as a bridge engineer as well and designed the first suspension bridge in Tennessee over the Cumberland River.
Unfortunately, Heiman's career ended abruptly with the start of the Civil War. While serving as a colonel in the Tenth Tennessee Regiment (C.S.A.), he was captured in 1862 and was a prisoner of war for six months. During his imprisonment, he contracted pneumonia from which he died in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1862.
Adolphus Heiman is credited with the architectural design of Wesleyan Hall, however he was not directly involved with its construction. The builder of Florence Wesleyan University was Zebulon Pike Morrison, a local builder and several term mayor of Florence.
Zebulon Pike Morrison was originally from Virginia and served as the sixteenth mayor of Florence from 1880-1890. He was employed as an undertaker and owned a distillery in Florence. He is credited with the construction of several other local buildings in addition to Wesleyan, including the Florence Synodical College, the Elks building, and Patton Grammar School.
Morrison relied on the labor of enslaved persons to construct Wesleyan Hall. He used locally made materials, such as the brick, which is rumored to have been made on the southern edge of campus by enslaved laborers.
Wesleyan was completed in 1856.
The Annex was added in 1909 to provide additional classroom space. It was designed to replicate the Gothic Revival style used by Adolphus Heiman.
In the early 1860s, Florence Wesleyan University saw its highest enrollment rates to date at 225 students. That changed swiftly with the start of the Civil War in 1861. During the Civil War, Wesleyan Hall was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops. Some of its most famous occupants include Union General William T. Sherman and later Confederate General John Bell Hood, who used the building and grounds as headquarters in late 1864, shortly before his ill-fated battles of Franklin and Nashville.
Other Confederate officers who may have headquartered at Wesleyan Hall during these years include Generals Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Stephen D. Lee. Both headquartered either on adjoining properties or in the building itself.
Following the end of the Civil War, the University's sole instructor, Dr. Septimus Rice, continued offering college-level courses in Wesleyan Hall.
By 1871, despite the University's efforts to recover after the war, Florence Wesleyan University closed. In 1872, the Methodist Episcopal Church offered the building and surrounding twelve acres to the state of Alabama for use as an agricultural college. According to a local newspaper, a legislative committee visited the area and had reservations about the location for an agricultural college. The article says, "They said that the property was highly satisfactory for the proposed use but it would be a great mistake on the part of Alabama to locate an A & M college in this section where the land was too rich to need any further attention or experimentation." The committee selected Auburn for the agricultural college instead, and acknowledging the need for qualified teachers in the post-war South, the decision was made to use the Florence Wesleyan campus as the state normal school.
As such, it became the first coeducational teacher training institution south of the Ohio River and one of only few in the nation. In addition to a coeducational student body, the first woman joined the faculty in 1879.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Wesleyan Hall was still the only building on campus, and the normal school was growing. Increasing enrollment led to the construction of a three-story building attached to Wesleyan Hall known as the Wesleyan Annex in 1909.
In 1911, the State Normal School at Florence was the first institution in the state to offer a regular summer session, which led to another enrollment boom, and by the 1920s, enrollment so outnumbered the college's capacity to house students that some male students lived in tents around campus and roughly 600 female students rented rooms all over the city.
In 1929, the name of the institution changed again to reflect a change in accreditation from the State Normal School to Florence State Teachers College, then offering a four year curriculum that culminated in a bachelor's degree in elementary education.
It was around this big institutional change that the campus experienced a boom in building and growth. Wesleyan Hall was no longer the only building on the landscape, and its future was in question.
By the mid-1920s, Wesleyan Hall was in need of repair. The Boston ivy that had so beautifully covered the castellated towers for many years unfortunately damaged the brick and mortar beneath it.
In fact, campus-wide plans created by the Olmsted Brothers actually suggested replacing the 1856 structure with a more "modern" science building, equipped with updated equipment and laboratory space.
It is not known who made the decision to keep Wesleyan Hall and restore it for continued use, but this was one of very few suggestions made by the Olmsted Brothers' firm that was not fulfilled by the college. The ivy was removed, the brick and mortar restored, and the building maintained for future generations to enjoy.
Wesleyan Hall was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 for significance in education and architecture.
Today, Wesleyan Hall is home to the university's Geography, Psychology, and Foreign Languages departments.
The Department of Military Science is located in the Wesleyan Annex.
Wesleyan Hall was constructed in the Gothic Revival Style, however, unlike the many other buildings on campus built in this style, it represents an earlier sub-type of the style known as castellated or Elizabethan.
Alabama State Architectural Historian, Robert Gamble says that the Gothic Revival style was most prevalent in churches throughout the state, however he adds, "Mid-century Gothic enthusiasm in Alabama also produced a handful of 'castellated' school buildings variously bedecked with battlements, buttresses, turrets, and other paraphernalia presumed to impart an air of cloistered academic respectability." Another extant example of this style in the state includes Woods Hall at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Wesleyan Hall features Gothic arches over the entryway and octagonal towers and battlements across the roofline that give the building the appearance of a medieval English castle.
Adjacent to Wesleyan Hall in a specially constructed tower is the Wesleyan Bell, which tolled regularly throughout the last quarter of the 19th century to summon students to class.
Sometime around 1910, the bell was removed from Wesleyan Hall and placed in storage. In 2002, it was rediscovered, and the 130-year-old bell was restored and placed in the newly constructed Smith Bell Tower in 2004.