Sunday will mark the 126th anniversary of the formal opening of Pearce Auditorium on Brenau University’s Gainesville campus.
Facing Boulevard, it remains the centerpiece of the front campus. The building jump-started what was then called the Georgia Female Seminary into a prominent educational institution. It was founded by W.C. Wilkes in 1878 as Georgia Baptist Female Seminary.
Hall County residents provided a chunk of the funds needed to construct the building. Led by lawyer H.H. Perry, who in 1896 was running for Congress, they had a goal of $10,000. It took months to put together the necessary financing. The school would furnish the balance, the total cost estimated by owners H.J. Pearce and A.W. Van Hoose at $25,000, including furnishings and a natatorium beneath the building.
Pearce and Van Hoose proposed the $1 purchase each of 1,200 marble blocks inscribed with the donors’ names and laid at the front of the building. G.W. Foote of Atlanta was the architect and builder for the auditorium, which he said would require a half million bricks.
Van Hoose took over the seminary after Wilkes died in 1886. At the time, there were only two boarding students, the campus containing just a small 30-by-70-foot brick building. Pearce had been planning a college in his hometown of Columbus, but Van Hoose talked him into coming to Gainesville.
The opening of what became Pearce Auditorium was a grand affair, much ballyhooed by the local press as the largest such facility in the South outside Atlanta.
A long line of speakers, including Atlanta Journal Editor Henry Richardson, proclaimed the building dedicated to “the women of the South.” Richardson elaborated, “(The auditorium) offers women the opportunity of availing herself of the higher education which has been accorded to man and which the civilized world now admits should not be withheld from her.” A progressive statement more than two decades before women had the right to vote.
The day was so significant, merchants were asked to close during the dedicatory program.
The Gainesville Eagle wrote, “Only a little while back the ground upon which this splendid structure is built was a huckleberry patch and this was somewhat a huckleberry town with huckleberry ways. We have escaped. The caterpillar has become the butterfly.”
Praises continued throughout the day with a concert in the evening, followed later that summer by a Chautauqua, an educational and cultural entertainment movement popular in the day.
In 1981, during Fall Honors Convocation at what was now Brenau College, plaster from Pearce Auditorium’s ceiling fell into an aisle, fortunately not injuring anyone, but serving as the impetus for its first major renovation. Pearce, site of graduations, vespers, concerts and numerous other community and college activities, was closed for a year and a half. Architect Jack Bailey of Gainesville directed the restoration. Dr. Jim Rogers was college president during this time.
The mural on the ceiling of “Aeneas at the Court of Dido,” donated by the school’s Class of 1897 and stared at by curious thousands who sat in Pearce over the years, also had to be restored, the work dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Lester Hosch by their daughter Elizabeth.
The entire renovation was more than a million dollar project, again supported mostly by local citizens and alumnae, including Gainesville major donor businesswoman and Brenau trustee Lilly May Martin.
When Pearce reopened in 1983, it was host to yet another celebrity, opera and Broadway star Roberta Peters, who thrilled the capacity audience with her coloratura soprano voice.
Over the years, Pearce has seen the likes of Helen Keller, the Boston Symphony, other concerts, church services, unnumbered politicians and annual performances by the Atlanta Symphony.
For years, before it was named for President H.J. Pearce, it was referred to only as “the auditorium.”
The university’s name, Brenau, is said to be the idea of Otto W.G. Pfefferkorn, music director of German descent who merged German/Latin words meaning “gold refined by fire.” The story goes that Pfefferkorn and the administration thought the formal name at the time, “Georgia Baptist Female Academy and Conservatory of Music,” was too much of a mouthful.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.