Tuesday, September 27, 2011

27 September 1881: A Chapel for Lucy Cobb Institute

On this day in 1881, the
Southern Banner told of the path forward to building a chapel at the girls' school, Lucy Cobb Institute:

Nellie Stovall wrote her letter as part of a class exercise where all the students wrote letters to philanthropists in hopes of raising money to build the chapel. She chose New York banker and philanthropist George Ingraham Seney, who had given $130,000 to Emory University just a few years earlier. 

As luck would have it, her letter arrived at Seney's desk while Reverend T. S. Burke of Macon was visiting, and extolled the reputation of the Institute, thus encouraging Mr. Seney to reply to Miss Stovall with the proposition to donate $5,000 if the friends of the school could raise $4,000 "before the expiration of this year, 1881." 

The funds were raised, and Mr. Seney later donated another $5,000 to the chapel project. The design, "an octagonal building with an exquisite Victorian interior," was created by architect W. W. Thomas, who would later build the  Thomas-Carithurs House, aka "The Wedding Cake House," at the corner of Milledge Avenue and Baxter Street. The cornerstone for the chapel was laid on Mr. Seney's birthday, May 12th, in 1882. 

Seney-Stovall chapel was dedicated in 1885, by which time Mr. Seney had lost his fortune to the Panic of 1884 and was in the process of selling off his assets, including his beloved art collection, to pay his creditors. One of his largest philanthropic projects, a Methodist hospital in Brooklyn, New York, was temporarily put on hold until 1887 when more funds could be raised to complete it. Though the New York press was somewhat hostile to Mr. Seney's predicament, in Athens, he remained an honored patron of education. He expressed his thanks after an 1884 visit to Athens in a letter to Nellie Stovall, telling her,

I came into Georgia somewhat depressed & reserved, but every where have met such uniform kindness and delicate attention that the culmination at Athens quite overwhelm(ed) me. 
Suffice it to say that Athens places a glorious crown to the steady and magnificent ovation that has accompanied me since my entrance within your borders.
Georgia has vastly exceeded my anticipation in all that goes to make the elements of a happy home.
The Lucy Cobb Institute kept in contact with their patron, observing his birthday and sending Christmas packages each year of cakes, magnolias, holly, and smilax. In later years, he would also donate a pipe organ, eighteen paintings from his reconstituted art collection, and provide scholarships to worthy students. 

Miss Stovall kept in touch with Mr. Seney, and after writing to him to tell him of her engagement to Billups Phinizy, he responded that,

My recollections of Georgia and especially of Athens are of the most pleasant nature. Although my acquaintance is so limited, I have become very attached to the people of Athens to our lovely "Lucy Cobb." I don't know whether Georgia girls are brighter than average, or wither the instructors at Lucy Cobb are more competent, but certain it is a more sasisfactory exhibition of scholarship I have never witnessed than that at your Alma Mater.
The Seney family attended the wedding of Nellie Stovall and Billups Phinizy in April, 1886, as guests of the Lucy Cobb Institute. George Seney later rebuilt his fortune by investing in railroads, and died in 1893.

The Seney-Stovall chapel was somewhat abandoned after World War II, and was acquired by the University of Georgia in 1953. In 1961 it was saved from being razed, but a partial restoration was not completed until 1982. A group of alumnae and friends of Lucy Cobb raised the rest of the funds required, and a full restoration was completed in 1997. 

The chapel is now used by local theater and choral groups for performances, and as a venue for weddings as well.

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