In 1918, the George Kinnett family moved into their new home perched atop a hill on Forsyth Road, in the scenic countryside of north Macon. There were few paved roads outside the city limits, in the semi-rural setting, on 63 acres that had once been farmland.
After living in the house for close to 10 years, the Kinnetts could see from their house the ambitious construction project underway next door, which would be the new campus for Wesleyan College, at the corner of Forsyth and Tucker Roads. The facilities were ready for occupancy in 1928, when all of the programs offered by the college would be part of the curriculum at the new campus except for the arts and music, which remained housed in the old buildings on College Street.
For years the president of the college lived with his family on campus in unremarkable dormitory quarters. Not until one of the presidents suggested alternative housing in the early 1950s, citing the increased enrollment at the college and therefore, the need for more student housing, did anyone consider a separate house for the president and his family.
Supporters of the college and associates of B. Joseph Martin, president of the college at the time, met to discuss the possibility and to explore financing that would not negatively affect, for the long term, the college’s endowment or its working capital. In 1954 the W. C. and Sarah H. Bradley Foundation in Columbus, a longtime benefactor of Wesleyan, purchased the Kinnett house from the family of Eliot G. Fay, who had bought it when he was department chair of romance languages at Wesleyan. Fay worked for the college from 1943-1945, after which he joined the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta. (According to an article from the archives in Willett Library at Wesleyan, Dr. Fay died unexpectedly on April 11, 1955.)
By the fall of 1954, Martin and his family had moved into what is known as the Bradley House, an event that was celebrated with much fanfare on campus and in the local Macon Telegraph. Society editor of the newspaper, Blythe McKay, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1928, the year the college moved from College Street to Forsyth Road, covered the excitement in her column, with several photographs of the house’s interior, to pique readers’ interest.
Another Wesleyan graduate, Margaret Ferrell Robinson, class of 1918 (the year the Kinnett house was completed), and a local interior decorator, was engaged by the college’s board of trustees to work with its chairman of the buildings committee, to renovate and to refurbish the house for the Martins.
In addition to the gift of the house from the Bradley Foundation, alumnae and friends contributed to an endowment to maintain the house in perpetuity. The initial sum raised, $25,000, seems insignificant in today’s dollars; however, in 1954, the money was generous seed money for a house the size of Bradley House.
Other Wesleyan alumnae enthusiastically contributed to furnishing the stately president’s home. Lottie Felder Bowen, also class of 1918, donated the furniture used in the sun room, adjacent to the living room; Alice Domingos furnished the guest bedroom with an ensemble that had been in the bedroom of her grandmother, Minnie Bass Burden, class of 1874, daughter of former Wesleyan president, William C. Bass. Some of the framed canvases in the living room of Bradley House were painted by Helena Ogden Campbell, class of 1897, and were part of Wesleyan’s permanent art collection.
During his term as president, Martin was notably involved in the improvement of the property – he planted gardens for produce and flower beds for their enjoyment; he raised horses, dogs and pigeons and was often seen using his tractor to create walking paths and drives through the grounds of the house. However, in 1960, Martin was replaced by W. Earl Strickland, who remained president until 1979.
Bradley House underwent several renovations over the next 16 years to address normal maintenance and to meet the needs of the presidents’ families that lived in the house. In 1997, the question, “Why wouldn’t a woman’s college have a female president?” was answered when the board of trustees selected Nora Kizer Bell to lead the college into the next millennium.
Martin had the reputation of not being a “typical college president,” possibly because he liked to ride horses on campus and in the surrounding countryside and was personally vested, with proprietary zeal, in the development of the grounds around the president’s home. Bell’s arrival at Wesleyan created another kind of buzz away from her academic role – she redecorated Bradley House in a style that made visitors sit up and take notice.
In an article I wrote for Macon Magazine in 1999, that was reprinted in Wesleyan Magazine that year, Bell spoke of her affinity for unusual patterns and for bold colors. She and her husband, David Bell, who became president of Macon State College, infused Bradley House with a new image, and with energy matched only by the anticipation for a new century which promised even more advanced programs for the women that attended Wesleyan, expecting to be equipped with the tools to be highly competitive after graduation or when pursuing advance degrees.
Unfortunately, Nora Bell’s career was curtailed by illness, but she had set a precedent which made students and faculty comfortable with a woman at the helm. Her successor was one of Wesleyan’s own – a chairman of the board of trustees and a president of the national alumnae association – Ruth Austin Knox, who graduated from the college in 1975.
After 15 years as president, Knox retired to her hometown of Thomson, leaving a legacy of new courses of study added to the curriculum which further raised the profile of Wesleyan College to attract women seeking degrees in science and in technology. On her watch, a memorandum of understanding was established between Wesleyan and the South China Normal University, in Guangzhou, China and with Wuhan University, in the People’s Republic of China, adding international cachet to the college’s reputation.
Vivia Lawton Fowler came to Wesleyan 10 years ago as academic dean, moving to the position of provost during Knox’s tenure as president. She was selected by the board of trustees to succeed Knox as president, taking office on July 1, 2017, as the first female, ordained United Methodist minister at Wesleyan, where for years only Methodist ministers served in that capacity. Fowler, who left the ministry to pursue a career in academia, was instrumental, as provost, in developing the bachelor of science in nursing degree at Wesleyan, now in its fourth year.
The 25th president of the college and her husband Richard, have moved into Bradley House which now celebrates 100 years since the Kinnett family envisioned a rural idyll on Forsyth Road. Although the landscape has changed, the house, with generous expanses of glass, high above the adjacent campus, now looks over the stables and scenic paddocks, across the lake to the Mathews Athletic Center, situated on the back of the campus, and designed to be reminiscent of the original gymnasium which can be seen from Tucker Road.
In the brief time the new president has lived in Bradley House, she and her husband have invited more than 500 people into their home to share the history and the hospitality of Wesleyan and of Bradley House. The generous proportions of the rooms make Bradley House a great place to entertain; one of the president’s missions is that the house be used so that it becomes familiar to friends of Wesleyan.
If its walls could talk, Bradley House would be the repository of history as it happened on Wesleyan’s campus since 1928. Fortunately, access to Wesleyan’s archives allows readers to relive the past years on line, and more importantly, to read more about Wesleyan’s future.
Katherine Walden is a freelance writer and interior designer in Macon. Contact her at 478-742-2224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
100 YEAR OLD BRADLEY HOUSE STEEPED IN WESLEYAN’S HISTOR