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Rearview Mirror: A. French History Column

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Your exotic trip starts just across the way from Highland Bakery, or if you prefer, Junior’s Grill.

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Captain Lyman Hall, second president of the Georgia School of Technology.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/3740)

Captain Lyman Hall was a mover and a shaker, in every sense of the word. Not content with a meager tripling of the academic majors, moving Tech away from the hybrid shop-school concept and into the institutional model we know today, the man kept working. And working. While his peers were pushing academic boundaries, and his impending hire of international Renaissance man and football coach John Heisman (spoiler alert: they were eventually seen in the same place at the same time), advanced athletics, Hall was busy campaigning for Tech, pushing investment past the limits of the financially strained young school.


Not content with his dormitory and three new majors, no sooner did the Knowles Dormitory top off, than did Captain Hall hit the fundraising trail again, literally. Hall was on the road, grinding out donations up and down the east coast. Sure, he could write two new departments into existence but without equipment to run them, they were essentially worthless. His start was a matching grant from the Rockefeller-supported General Education Board for $10,000, if he could raise the funds before the summer of 1902. Hall nailed that down before the year was even over, as he announced to the unsuspecting students and faculty during the graduation festivities of 1897. This coming hot on the heels of his construction boom notwithstanding, Hall secured the largest donation from a private donor in school history yet from one James Swann of New York, a non-alumnus.

Hall’s next expansion target was arguably the reason the school was able to open its doors in the first place. Had it not been for the unlikely alliance of industrialist-visionaries like John Hanson and Nat Harris, a minuscule minority, state university allies who figured the new school would be a department of the one in Athens, and competitive textile manufacturers, the legislation creating the school likely never would have passed. Harris rightfully proclaimed the Georgia School of Technology the perfect place for the cotton industry to churn out talented minds dedicated to streamlining their industry, and, more importantly, maximizing their profit. Thus, when Hall went to the legislature asking for permission to open a textile engineering department, friends in industry and of the increasingly important Harris were more than ready to back to Institute’s next expansion. The only problem was that, like usual, the state didn’t provide enough funding to get the doors open. Worse, Hall was out of space on campus to jam in more faculty, students, and equipment.

Nowadays, the long and storied textile engineering program is a part of materials science and engineering, a much younger agglomeration of the school of ceramic engineering and the chemical engineering department’s metallurgy wing, which the textile engineering department was merged with in 2010. But, back in 1897, it was the third new degree program, after electrical and chemical engineering. But first, Hall had to get the doors open.

Like usual, the $10,000 in state funding came with a catch. Tech had to raise at least that much if it wanted to get its hands on taxpayer dollars. Since it was chronically underfunded, that meant Hall had to hit the trail again, looking for donors. He was understandably worn thin and asked for a meager raise to his salary. The Board of Trustees, understanding the precarious financial situation, made it conditional to getting the textile school up and running. In creating an underfunded Institute under the guise of promoting industrial and manufacturing education in the state of Georgia, the state legislature left quite a lot of money up in the air.

Aaron French, Pennsylvania philanthropist.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/3734)

Within a year, Hall had secured enough cash to receive state funding and his raise. Not only that, but he tripled it, garnering almost $35,000 in cash and equipment. Sure, Georgia state industry scions were excited about the prospects, as one would expect, but another Northerner philanthropist kicked in the bulk of the funding to get the South’s preeminent textile engineering program off the ground, a man by the name of Aaron French.

Hall had run into French on vacation in North Carolina and roped the Pennsylvanian into the exciting prospects of quality textile manufacturing education in the heart of the cotton belt. French was quickly sold. His contribution was so substantial that not only was the department named for Mr. French, but A. French Building was dedicated in his honor. Home through the years to his namesake textile engineering department, and later Industrial and Systems Engineering, like most of the Hill, it is now office space. Incidentally, the building hosts some of the Office of International Education, so if you want to study abroad at Georgia Tech Lorraine or go on the French LBAT, first you must pay the folks in A. French Building a visit.

A. French Building, in all of its glory.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1504)

Hall had French so sold on the Georgia School of Technology that the philanthropist kept mailing donations to Tech, including an unsolicited $3,500 that kept the sub-freshman class open. This would be roughly equivalent to today’s pre-Tech summer programs (not to be confused with summer freshmen classes). For this, we can thank him for Dean George C. Griffin. But that man alone is worth about a month of columns sometime in the future.

Tech was still pressed for space, despite the new exotic-sounding building tucked behind Tech Tower. Returning to the legislature yet again, the beleaguered Board of Trustees once again asked the state for money. This time, the key piece would be a permanent home for electrical engineering. The majority of the request was for $40,000 to go to a maintenance fund, though, as the state neglected to fork over enough cash for upkeep of the buildings Tech already had, let alone fund new ones. The school was still not allowed to charge tuition, aside from special fees. Surprisingly, the state yielded the $40,000 for maintenance without matched funding, but the $16,000 request for the electrical engineering building and machinery for the A. French School was contingent on $25,000 from Tech boosters, representing more than a 50% increase from the usual matched-funds requirement. Captain Hall found $20,000, not for this project, but for a second dormitory, thanks to the New Yorker behind the first big Tech fundraising drive, James Swann. Swann was generous, but also expected a $15,000 matched grant as well. Samuel Inman, long one of Tech’s most prominent backers, the Atlanta representative on the original committee that found a site for the school, and quite well-endowed financially, led the way with his contribution. Today, we know these buildings as the Swann and Savant Buildings.

The campus, after the construction of Swann Dormitory and the Electrical Building.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1409)

Hall may have been a prolific builder, but his classes were being decimated by his intense discipline. However, this was also a consequence of his ratcheting up of academic standards. Tech’s movement from the split school/shop model, which almost every faculty member felt was outdated soon after the doors opened in 1888, was tricky. The student body caught in the middle was in for a huge realignment. Whether it was starting English professor Kenneth Matheson on what became his pyrrhic quest for a Tech library or enabling John Saylor Coon’s reshuffling of the shop curriculum, these initiatives had mixed success. What cannot be understated, though, was the readiness of the faculty to teach at the highest level possible - a standard they kept meeting and exceeding as each successive class was held to increasing standards. The evolution to an engineering institute with several departments and multiple degree offerings took just one full cycle of students. By the Insubordinate Seniors of 1901, the Institute model and its legacy on the modern Georgia Institute of Technology was in full force.

Hall, for all of his trouble, was compensated with bonuses at the conclusion of each major funding drive, as well as a house to reside in on North Avenue. The house would become the residence of all Tech presidents after Hall until the acquisition of the current house. President Brittain was the last occupant, residing in the house from his accession until his death in 1944, years after he stepped down from the post. It was torn down to build a parking lot for the Burge Apartments, another building that no longer exists, and one I could not find much on, other than it was an early example of modernist architecture in Atlanta, it housed married students and faculty with children, and that after 60 years, it more or less needed to come down. It was replaced by a parking lot.

Old President’s House, circa 1940.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/2021)

As for Hall, once his building program was completed, he settled down. Just kidding. With the construction mostly stable, academics elevated, and the disciplinary standing of most students level, he found time to enhance extracurriculars, most notably by his participation in getting John Heisman to the Flats. Hall was a fundraiser, not a poet, so his writing to the living legend wasn’t terribly convincing, but his monetary offer was competitive and the allure of a school in Atlanta was exciting. So Heisman wound up as Tech’s first true football coach, but you already knew that.

Hall was never one to rest, and in 1905, he set out on yet another fundraising trip, this time for a general chemistry laboratory building that would also provide space for the chemical engineering department. Hall was ultimately successful, but never lived to see the completion of the building. After swiftly getting ravaged by illness, Hall was rushed out to the North Carolina coast to recuperate. He never did, and died on August 16th, 1905. The man’s exhausted body couldn’t stand a chance against disease, so he quickly succumbed. It was said that Captain Lyman Hall, second president of Georgia Tech, worked himself to death.

The bizarre martyrdom of Hall for the cause of Institute success is a stranger way to go out than most. But in his nine years, what Hall did for Tech cannot be understated. He took Tech from a backwater psuedo-trade school to a nationally regarded engineering powerhouse, the best in the South, offering degrees in mechanical, textile, electrical, and chemical engineering, with more in the works. He quadrupled the size of campus and number of majors, and more importantly, constructed buildings we still use today. He was instrumental in getting Heisman to the Flats, father of our baseball, basketball, and football teams. The Institute would not look the same without Hall’s determined leadership. The second president’s legacy is vital. Was the arch-disciplinarian perfect? No. But he was a man so committed to making Tech excellent in every way, that, in the end, he gave all he had in time, treasure, and life to the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Lyman Hall Chemistry Laboratory
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/22340)

In October of 1905, the cornerstone of the chemistry laboratory was laid next door to the A. French Building. The new brick laboratory was dedicated to Captain Lyman Hall.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Cracking the Solid South, 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!