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Rearview Mirror: Replacing Matheson

The man’s successor was going to be judged far harsher on the merits of his predecessor than any of his own accomplishments.

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The man is such a savage that he’s reading his own book.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (

It’s been a long time since we’ve had the chance to look at the history of the Institute. Sure, each week since the middle of August has featured football, traditions, or even notes about fight songs, but the relentless march of time took a short hiatus to allow the other stuff, like sports, to catch up on the timeline. But now, with the last echoes of homecoming fading off into the distance, we take a look back into an institute in flux, having lost its longtime president to the less politically-charged Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, the biggest concern on anyone’s mind was what would come next.

Though many candidates were considered to be the next at the helm of the Georgia School of Technology, it took just three ballots for Marion L. Brittain to be elected unanimously. The interim head of the school, N. P. Pratt, was the next closest contender, while a former professor from the school in Athens and former Arkansas governor fell off in the selection process. Say what you will about the latter handling the whims of state politics better, but not having an Athenian lead Georgia Tech was certainly for the best.

Ultimately, it may have been counterproductive for the school’s coffers not to chose the battle-tested politician for the role, but Brittain, an educator by trade, was a great candidate to continue the process Matheson started, aiming to make Tech an increasingly prestigious institute of research and advanced studies, outside the already solid undergraduate programs. His experience mostly concerned high schools, after holding posts at Boys High, Fulton County Schools, and as the state superintendent of schools. On second though, the man knew state politics. This was productive.

Brittain would go on to serve as president for twenty two years and would repeatedly tussle with heavyweights Tom Watson and Eugene Talmadge. With the growth of the school, the Board of Trustees had become less preoccupied with the nitty gritty and basically turned Brittain loose with one restriction: do not overspend your means. If that’s not wholesome advice everyone can live by, I don’t know what is.

The primary source for the state of the school at the time is Brittain’s own book, The Story of Georgia Tech, so perhaps it may be worthwhile to note the potential bias in the source, but Brittain took the state to the woodshed financially almost immediately. The second Greater Georgia Tech campaign had gone off swimmingly, but gigantic public displays asking for money were not seen well by students or alumni. Brittain, at long last, decided that it was time for the state to properly support Tech. Tech’s faculty had been cut by attrition during the Great War, and, conveniently, when a smaller nearby school started mocking Tech for its small salaries in recruiting pamphlets, Brittain was able to nearly immediately get the legislature to work for him.

With the faculty mended, he was able to build the physical plant as well, just as his predecessors had. The first new construction was the the Physics Building, now known as the D. M. Smith Building. The Physics building was the first building constructed in the English Collegiate Gothic style, which would dominate the rest the $2,250,000 worth of buildings constructed, and then for nearly two decades after that. To top it off, he midwifed the first southern ceramics engineering department, seizing a public hoopla caused by important railroad construction work being contracted out to Ohio State University, rather than somewhere closer to home.

Also in that time, Brown Hall was completed as the first dormitory on what is now the east campus freshman complex. It was named after Julius Brown, that guy that essentially came out of nowhere to give Tech a bunch of money, land scattered around the southwest, and demanded an endowed professor chair be named after him, though one never was. The Chemistry department was also expanded, with the new construction dedicated to William Henry Emerson, who passed the year before and was the last of the original Tech faculty still on staff. Next up was Harris Hall, named after former governor Nathaniel Harris, father of Georgia Tech. The original south end zone was bowled in, also in 1925, without a cent of public funds, a standard that continues to this day at the Georgia Tech Athletic Association. The addition of the south and east stands to Grant Field made it the largest and most modern football stadium in the region.

A full list of the works of Brittain, prodigious builder, are listed below:

  • Julius Brown Hall (1924)
  • Grant Field East Stands (1924)
  • Emerson Annex to the Chemistry Department (1925)
  • Nathaniel Harris Hall (1925)
  • Grant Field South Stands (1925)
  • Army Headquarters Building (1927)
  • M. L. Brittain Dining Hall (1928)
  • Rose Bowl Field (1929)
  • Josiah Cloudman Hall (1931)
  • Naval Armory (1934)
  • Techwood Dormitory (1935)
  • Chemistry Annex pt. II (1936)
  • Heisman Gymnasium (1937)
  • Civil Engineering Building (1938)
  • Engineering Drawing Building (1939)
  • George Harrison Hall (1939)
  • Engineering Experiment Station (1939)
  • Athletic Office Building (1941)
  • Chemistry Annex pt. III (1942)

Despite all of this construction, Brittain maintains his greatest achievement was the attainment of the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics in 1930. The prestigious grant was bestowed on just a few, and Tech students can still bask in the same building built for that program today. Talk about a connection to living history! He was incredibly frustrated, though, with the reception of this immense accomplishment on campus.

“Either because they were still dazed by the glamour of their athletic victory in the Rose Bowl or more likely because, conscious of their hard work and the stern academic proficiency required of them, the Tech students took in their stride, as a matter of course, the receiving of the greatest honor ever bestowed upon the school, or, for that matter, any Southern College, for it was quietly received and without fanfare,” (M. L. Brittain).

Naturally, Brittain understates his own major role in securing the Guggenheim grant. Only Michigan, New York University, Stanford, Caltech, and MIT were counted as Tech’s peers, once the presumptuous hire of the vaunted Montgomery Knight and a considerable amount of time and effort had been validated by the official recognition of Tech’s new gift. According to Wallace, Tech students received it with “no more enthusiasm than they would greet the announcement of the coming of a new dormitory.” Brittain’s validation came not from the money, though, but rather that Tech was at last recognized as one of the preeminent institutions in the country by the last acts of a well-respected national education philanthropic organization. Vanderbilt’s president attributed the reception of the grant to the presence of one D. M. Smith, though perhaps that is an overstatement, but, regardless, he is one of several historical figures that deserve a little attention in their own right in a future week.

But, regardless of the escapades of Brittain, both in construction-related work and otherwise, he had a clear vision for what he wanted the school to look like and stand for. Constructing much of the school’s present physical plant between the former Hemphill right-of-way in the west and Williams Street in the east, between North Avenue and Bobby Dodd Way, was a big part of that. As was finally achieving that which his predecessors, especially Kenneth Matheson, had always coveted the most for the humble technology school on the north edge of town: respect by its intellectual peers and by the powers that controlled the purse on the south end of town. By each of these standards, Brittain was well on his way to success.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to delve into it when I am back in Atlanta tomorrow. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in a future column. Hope springs eternal on the Flats. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.