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The Old College building on the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College was originally chartered as the Odd Fellows Female College in 1854. That year, the McMinn County Lodge #54 of the International Order of Odd Fellows began construction of the three-story brick Green revival structure, but before the building was complete, they ran out of funds and sold the partially finished school building to the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1857. The church raised sufficient funds to complete the building that year and it opened in 1858 as the Athens Female College.
By 1861 the attendance at the college reached seventy pupils, whose instruction included two courses of study: a scientific program, or a more difficult program in arts and classical literature. As in other schools for women in this time period, the college carefully regulated the activities, clothing and morals of the young women who attended class. The expressed purpose of Athens Female College as noted from its 1862 catalog was "...to develop the mental and moral powers of the pupil, and to educate the mind to habits of thinking with clearness and force."
The school was suspended during the later stages of the Civil War and the minutes of the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South mentioned the leasing of the building to the Confederate Army for a hospital. The building was sold after the Civil War to pay a debt owed to its president, Erastus Rowley. He gained ownership of the building and donated it to the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1867.
When the school re-opened in 1867, its emphasis changed as well as its name. Now called the East Tennessee Wesleyan College, it served as a preparatory school and college for both sexes. In 1886, the school was renamed Grant Memorial University to honor Ulysses S. Grant after his death. The move was seen to have larger political overtones and the school received kudos from the various United States senators and congressmen for such a significant display of unity for the south. In 1889 the Holston Conference organized another school, the University of Chattanooga, and appointed the governing body of U. S. Grant University, as the school was now called, to control it. In 1909, the two schools merged and U.S. Grant University became the Athens School of the University of Chattanooga.
In 1925 the board of Trustees of the University of Chattanooga voted to separate the Athens School from the University after pressure from locally prominent alumni and a charter renaming the school Tennessee Wesleyan College was drawn up. This reorganization has carried the institution into the present.
Architecturally, the building stands as one of the few extant pre-Civil War Greek revival academic buildings in Tennessee, and is the oldest building on the campus. It is in excellent condition, and both exterior and interior remain unchanged from their original states. Rehabilitation work began on the Old College Building in late 1981, to house the McKinn County Living Heritage museum. The museum officially opened its doors to the public on June 13, 1982. Offices for the President, Dean of Institutional Advancement and Director of Annual Giving are also housed in Old College. Located in the center of campus, Old College serves as a reminder of the college's heritage and longstanding service to the area.
Krawitz, Robin. Old College [Tennessee Wesleyan College]. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1983.