The Symbolism of the Place

By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66
Photography by Robert Benson


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While the life of Rhodes College is as vibrant as its students, the architecture of the college is definitely set in stone. It is the stone fashioned into the collegiate Gothic style that Dr. Diehl called “enduring.” For, he said, “we were building for generations to come.

Succeeding generations of trustees and presidents have followed Dr. Diehl’s dictum, and like his predecessors, President William E. Troutt is fiercely determined to uphold Dr. Diehl’s vision.

In his 2000 inaugural address, President Troutt set out initiatives for the college that have since become the Rhodes Vision. Included in those initiatives was equipping the campus with improved library resources and innovative technology. Another was “to provide a residential place of learning that inspires integrity and high achievement through its beauty, its emphasis on values, its Presbyterian history and its heritage as a leader in the liberal arts and sciences.”

The Paul Barret, Jr. Library embodies these criteria, enhancing the beauty and inspiration of the campus. The architects knew this full well. They also knew the importance of continuity, as they repeated architectural details from other campus buildings while adding touches of their own.

Starting at the top

  • The Paul Barret Jr. Library Tower rises 120 feet and is the second highest point on the Rhodes campus. Its proportions are based on the Fibonacci series, a series of proportions found in nature. Leonardo Fibonacci, a 13th-century Italian mathematician, uncovered the mathematical relationship of the series; each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc.). The Fibonacci series is frequently found in historic and modern architecture, and is the series of proportions used by Henry Clinton Parrent, Jr., in the design of the Richard Halliburton Memorial Tower, the highest point on the Rhodes campus.
  • The finials at the top the library’s major tower are the same design as those on the buttresses of Berthold S. Kennedy Hall and the entrances to Catherine Burrow Refectory and Hassell Hall.
  • The stone crosses found in several of the gables reflect the Christian and Presbyterian heritage of Rhodes College.

Windows ’05

A tour of Rhodes reveals that some of Barret’s windows are similar to the style used in Burrow Library more than 50 years ago, reflecting the architects’ concern for campus continuity.

  • Stained glass windows on the second floor contain abstract designs representing the trees in the Rollow Avenue of Oaks, planted in 1925 when the college moved to Memphis from Clarksville, TN.
  • The yin yang design in the windows in the second floor offices represents life’s opposing forces.

At the doors

  • Above Barret’s east walkway are stone carvings of the trivium and quadrivium, the basic elements of a contemporary liberal education, repeated from those above the main door of Burrow Library. Trivium—Rhetoric (writing desk and quills), Dialectic (two dragons in combat), Grammar (scroll and ferrule) Quadrivium—Astronomy (astrolabe), Geometry (ruler and compasses) Arithmetic (abacus), Music (lyre)
  • Above the west entrance to Barret, also in stone, are the seven virtues. They were to have been placed, but never were, in stained glass in Burrow when it was built in 1953. Justice (scales), Wisdom (open book), Courage (sword), Temperance (bridle), Faith (cross), Hope (anchor), Love (heart)

Inside

  • The Rhodes seal is everywhere to be found, from the striking carpet pattern on the first floor to the wooden bench frames in the coffee shop to glass doors on the upper levels. The jewel in the crown is the stained glass version in the third-floor conference room in the minor tower.
  • A new symbol in Barret is the triskelion motif on the walls of the main floor. It is historically found on Celtic crosses, where it is thought to represent the Trinity. The symbol has carried other meanings throughout history. It has been frequently used to represent solar movements such as the sun rising, its zenith and setting. The triskelion appears in Greek art dating from the sixth century B.C. and on coins throughout history.
  • The college’s trademark oak paneling runs throughout Barret. Special treatment has been given to the college archives, where Dr. Diehl’s desk is the centerpiece of its main room. There, the same linenfold pattern on the presidential desk is repeated on the walls.

Looking heavenward

The apse at the north end of Barret is high drama indeed. The ceiling is painted to represent the arrangement of stars on the first day of Rhodes’ first year, January 1849, when the constellation Lynx ruled the northern evening sky. In the direction of the constellation is a galaxy cluster located far, far away — five billion light years, to be exact, with a star-forming region in the same direction that is about 12 billion light years distant. In 2003, with aid from the Hubble and ground telescopes, astronomers with the European Space Agency and NASA identified this remote region of star formation, called the Lynx arc, as “a super-cluster that contains a million blue-white stars twice as hot as similar stars in our Milky Way galaxy,” according to the European Space Agency’s Web site. “The Lynx arc is nearly one million times brighter than the well-known Orion Nebula.” The college’s mascot, the lynx, has never been held in such high esteem.