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Rearview Mirror: Book Learning

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“Some day I hope to have a wife who loves me like President Matheson loves his library” - Anonymous

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Dr. Kenneth Matheson, third president of Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech Archive/Georgia TechPhotography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/4080)

As you probably realize by now, many of your favorite (or least favorite) buildings on campus are named after old fellows who used to be really important, hence the honor of having a dorm named after them, or what have you. It makes the legacy of Dr. Kenneth Matheson all the more ironic and intriguing to walk down Techwood Drive and see his most apparent lasting legacy on the grounds of the Georgia Institute of Technology is a modernist freshman dorm, though it is fittingly joined that of his fellow English professor, William Perry.


Captain Lyman Hall died very young, at the age of 45, and very suddenly, a death that went down in Tech lore as one from overwork and pure exhaustion. That left the most important leadership role on campus open for the second time in a decade. This time, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Hall, the Institute was in an entirely different place than when Hopkins renounced the position. Sure, money was still tight, but the very appearance of campus was changing almost daily, thanks to the constant fundraising and construction of the deceased president. The search committee was filling some gigantic shoes.

The prevailing sentiment on the Board of Trustees is that another clergyman should take the helm of Tech. Just as he had the last time around, and inevitably would the next time the spot opened up, Dr. H. S. Bradley, a Methodist minister, was suggested to take the top spot at Tech. With Bradley ready to leave the state, the trustees argued, the time to act was the present, and they pushed for the minister to ascend to the presidency. However, in the meantime, Dr. Kenneth Matheson, the head of the English department, was named chairman of the faculty, a lofty post that signaled him as one of the top contenders for the open spot. With the gears of power turning slowly, and Bradley on his way out, eventually Matheson rose all the way up to the office of the president. The third man to don the responsibilities of president was his own man, yet similar to Hall than most give him credit for.

Sure, Matheson was an English professor, not a mathematician. He was quiet where Hall had been decisive. Yet he was also a military man and just as demanding when the time came. There would be some continuity in the midst of all the change. Matheson’s first move was exchanging the class names of apprentice, junior, middle, and senior for the conventional standard. But it would be his biggest obsession, building Tech a library, that had been and would continue to consume his tenure at Tech.

Tech Tower, originally the only academic building on campus, was built without a library. With a little finagling, some bookshelves were acquired to store a sad, motley collection of what little literature the school had. The new president had designs on something bigger. More like an actual building. Full of books. You know, like a library. So he started writing.

Matheson contacted the most prolific philanthropist of the age, a bonafide steel magnate by the name of Andrew Carnegie. A man who had amassed immense wealth thanks to his wrangling of the American steel industry, Carnegie was looking for a way to make a more charitable legacy. Matheson asked him for a bold $20,000 dollars, quite a step up for a man who routinely got rejected when he asked the Tech trustees for $60 for the paltry interim library set up in Tech Tower. For his part, Carnegie ponied up the money, on the condition that the school provide an annual operating budget of $2,000.

The Carnegie Library
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/915)

Just twenty months passed from the initial donation to the opening of the library building in November of 1907. The Carnegie Library, nestled next to Tech Tower, was Matheson’s baby for the next sixteen years of his presidency. After a concerned Columbia University professor donated a shipment of books for the mostly-empty library, Matheson was emboldened, asking nearly every major school on the Atlantic coast for whatever literature they could spare to stock the shelves of his new building. The biggest came from a school you may have heard of in Boston. No, not MIT, but Harvard. The Ivy League schools were the primary reason the tiny technology school had the vast majority of its library stocked. By no means was the library Matheson’s only accomplishment, but it certainly was his proudest, and he continued to fiercely advocate for its growth.

The campus lacked an infirmary for the students, an issue rectified in the first major project after the construction of the library. Once again, Matheson, like his predecessor, was able to quickly obtain a sizable donation from the widow of Coca cola bottling magnate Joseph Whitehead. Though the location of the student health services building has moved since its inception, and the former hospital building is now known as the Chapin Building, the Joseph Whitehead Building next to the Campus Recreation Center houses Stamps Health Services to this day.

For the final piece of his student life crusade, Matheson turned to that other legendary monopolist and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller. Tech had long been lacking in services and extracurriculars, and all three of the third president’s early projects attempted to fix this issue. But, no matter the trouble, Matheson was going to build a library. Regardless of the financial situation, it was irresponsible not to have health services. Up until 1910, more than two decades after the school opened, giving the young men of Georgia Tech any form of extracurricular or social outlet was minimal. Sure, there were social organizations and football, baseball, and the beginnings of other sports teams, but there was nowhere for any other groups to meet, or space for the students to hang out. That is, until Rockefeller pledged the largest donation in school history, provided the school raise half as much, to build the campus a YMCA on North Avenue.

The YMCA provided the first recreational and indoor space for the student body.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/891)

The importance of this building cannot be overstated, because for decades, without a student center or recreation center until the Heisman Gymnasium and Wren Student Center, respectively, there were no other resources for the student body. The YMCA was the heart of campus for years, until the eventual construction of the Student Center. Of course, the effects of that building are for another time, but, suffice it to say, Tech students no longer meet up in the YMCA, which has since moved off of its old North Avenue location, and probably couldn’t tell you where it’s located. The old YMCA has been the L. W. “Chip” Roberts Alumni House for forty years.

Chip Robert himself, the legend.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/5169)

Matheson, not one to neglect academics, also saw the undertaking of the construction of the first phase of the new Mechanical Engineering shops, now named for John Saylor Coon. Also, the first endowment was created, thanks to the unexpected will of the Civil War-era Georgia governor, Julius L. Brown. Matheson was most excited for the sizable book collection Brown left for the new library, but the two thirds of his estate that he endowed to Tech would provide much needed resources for the school. Brown intended the income of the capital he left for the school go to establishing a professorship in the department of Electrical and Chemical Engineering, and for the purchase of necessary supplies for the department. The assets he left Tech included land in Atlanta, as well as nearly five thousand acres of Texas prairie. Though it was primarily leased to ranchers and farmers, not yielding much on an annual basis. In later years, with dreams of petroleum money, Tech set up oil wells on the property, but was yet to strike a mother load of black gold.

“I do not wish the capital spent. I wish it to be kept intact so as to do all the good that this fund will do, for I believe the Georgia School of Technology is worth all the Georgia colleges combined.” - former governor Julius Brown

Interestingly, much later, President Blake Van Leer attempted to use some of this meager income as part of his expansion of the Tech campus, yet he was denied. The reasoning was that it was not directly stipulated in the will, yet, to this day, there is no Julius L. Brown Professorship. It remains a historical idiosyncrasy lost to the sands of time.

Finally, after many years, the legislature and the school were at an agreement for the funding level of the school. Whereas Hopkins had fought, but lacked potency, and Hall had crusaded, but lacked tact, Matheson found a sweet spot. By the second year of his presidency, the school took in almost double in state funds as it did during Hall’s tenure, not to mention the sharp uptick in funds courtesy of the city and county.

The physical campus itself grew quickly in Matheson’s early years. As seen last week, Tech started his tenure by securing from what is now approximately the north red zone of Bobby Dodd Stadium to North Avenue for athletic fields. Additional purchases along Cherry and Fowler streets filled out square of land Tech sat on at the top of the Hill, before Tech started its first incursion to the north, thanks to the longtime friend of the school, Peters Land Company. The land Tech bought from Peters is still named after Peters today. Whereas it spent years as a park, as intended in the transfer to Tech, it is now a parking deck. But it has basketball courts on top. Because a several story concrete building is what everyone thinks of when they think of a park, of course. In time for Tech football to move back to the Flats, and in time for Heisman to oversee the completion of a true stadium to host the Yellow Jackets, Tech finished its purchasing spree by buying the rest of the Grant Field land. The Yellow Jackets came home, now that there was enough space to have them around. With that, the first major campaign of building for the wellbeing of the students was complete. They had a library, a hospital, a place to meet, a park, and a stadium for their teams. All in all, not bad for a school that had opened without even a dormitory.

Peters Park, as originally intended.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/2003)

As for the library, it kept growing in the Carnegie Building until long after that, too, became to small for the growing collection. First came the Price-Gilbert Memorial Library, followed by the Crosland Tower addition a few years later. Nowadays, these buildings are being reconstructed and renovated to better suit the increasingly digital society we live in. Ironically, considering their original construction was because Tech lacked inadequate space to hold its books, they are now mostly devoid of physical literature. Matheson would be aghast. Instead, his school is now taking books off campus, to be housed in a library with Emory’s collection. It’s a shame the library’s biggest champion has no connection to the institution in its current form. His construction project, the Carnegie Building, is now home to administration, including the office of the president. His collection sits in a warehouse miles off campus. The least Library Next could do would be to name a room after him, or something, in memory of this man’s proudest achievement. In the meantime, Tech’s third president will have to live with his name currently associated with a dormitory building exceptional only in its unexceptional nature. At least he’s paired up with his buddy, old Professor Perry.

We’ll see what Matheson was up to next in a week.

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, as my selection of resources here at Georgia Tech-Lorraine is a little bit thinner than what I have on my shelves in Atlanta. I am open to all ideas!