Building a strong foundation
Godchaux Hall has a spirit that speaks with the voices of the thousands of students who have passed through the gothic doorway at the front entrance and sought knowledge and a career here.
These walls can talk.
Buildings come to life because of the lives lived within them, and by that standard Godchaux Hall is rich beyond measure. Life-saving knowledge has been routinely passed on from teacher to student here. Lifelong friendships were forged in its rooms and hallways. Improving the lives of others in the world outside its walls has always been the point of the education imparted here.
The building we now know as Mary Ragland Godchaux Hall opened in 1925, the same year that saw the opening next door of the “new” Vanderbilt Hospital, the building now known as Medical Center North. Its construction was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation which, in that era, had a special concern with fighting disease and poverty in the rural South and likely saw a stream of well-educated nurses pouring into the Nashville region as a powerful ally in that fight.
Starting in 1934, the building was known as Mary Kirkland Hall, named for the wife of Chancellor James Kirkland. For the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing and its students, this building is, above all, home. For the first 40 years or so of the building’s history, it contained not only classrooms and offices, but on its upper floors, also housing — often for more than 100 nurses.
Above: A sampling of pictures from the building’s history. Top: A typical dorm room from the 1930s, Middle: Classes from the 1940s; Bottom: A study group on the Dean’s patio from the 1970s.
The typical dorm room from that era was a cozy space with a bed, sink, closet, a dresser with wood-framed mirror, a small wooden desk, and a radiator for heat from the boiler in the basement. Some students had a radio in the room, but there were strict rules against loud noises, so the volume was usually low. The floors were bare wood, but most students had a small rug or two to take away the shock of the first footfall on cold winter mornings.
These were the rooms that saw the tears of the homesick students who had come in on the train from somewhere that, on that first lonely night, felt like a thousand miles away. These are the rooms that saw the students studying nervously for tests, laughing at a joke from a new friend or stealing a few minutes to write a letter home to tell everybody that things were fine. Later, phones were installed in the dorm areas, one per floor, bringing students a little closer to the people back home.
“We did everything together,” remembers Virginia Crenshaw of the class of 1942. “We all acted like we were sisters; we knew each other well; we would get mad and make up just like sisters.”
“One of my memories about attending Vanderbilt is walking up six flights of stairs to get to my room,” recalls Hattie (Blanche) Swain Yeargen, who entered the School at the depths of the Great Depression and graduated in 1936.
Another student from that same class, Ann Hughes Looney, roomed together with her twin, Agnes Looney McGothlin on the third floor, then moved to the first floor for their senior year. “We shared a double room and our suite-mate was Julia Hereford. We were the only seniors who lived on the first floor,” she says.
“My first room was on the fourth floor and it looked over 21st Avenue,” remembers Beth Winchester Isaacs, class of 1947. “This was a beautiful view, as it faced east and I could see the sun rise every morning.”
Typical scenes for today’s nursing students include (top to bottom) historic doors, a renovated Godchaux Hall and Frist Hall added in 1998.
Many students were indeed up early enough to see the sun rise. Communal baths on each floor required planning access — taking a bath was forbidden after 10 p.m. — and each morning rooms had to be tidied for the day. Attendance at morning chapel was required.
The School of Nursing Student Handbook from the 1933-34 school year gives some of the taste of life on the upper floors of Mary Kirkland Hall:
“In order to protect those students who elect to study in their rooms from unnecessary noise and confusion, ‘quiet hour’ is maintained in the Hall from 7 to 9 p.m. each day (except Saturday)... A bell will be rung at 7 and 9 p.m. to indicate the beginning and end of ‘quiet hour.’ A bell will likewise be rung at 9:55 p.m. to indicate the closing of the Hall and again at 10:25 to indicate ‘lights out.’”
There was a 10 p.m. curfew and no men — no brothers, fathers, and certainly no boyfriends — were allowed above the first floor. This rule may have been violated on occasion but now, even decades later, nobody is talking. Certainly not the walls of Godchaux. Your secrets are safe with them.
In the winter, steam heat upstairs and a few fireplaces downstairs kept the chill at bay, but in the pre-air-conditioning South, warm months — well, let’s just go ahead and call them hot months — proved a challenge. Some students even resorted to creating a sleeping porch on the roof of the building, in the hopes of catching a nighttime breeze. One story goes that this was discontinued after the sleepwear-clad students found an appreciative (male) audience on the upper floors of nearby buildings.
The first floor was the home of the dean, and also the location of common areas such as the kitchen, infirmary and living room. The laundry room was down in the basement (the Vanderbilt Hospital laundry would, the handbook assured students, wash without charge 45 items of clothing per week).
The living room deserves special mention for what it has meant to students over the history of the building. It is the place where students gathered for communal studying, social occasions, dances, huddling by the fireplace on cold winter days and singing by the piano. During World War II, when most students were members of the Cadet Corps, which trained nurses for the war effort, events in the living room took on a distinctly military air, as off-duty servicemen and nursing students in their Cadet Corps uniforms danced and sang around the piano.
When the building got a television in the 1950s, it was in the living room. It was this set that students and faculty huddled around in 1963 when news of President Kennedy’s assassination came from Dallas. From time to time, even the World Series found enthusiastic viewers here.
And, 1975 MSN graduate Carol Etherington recalls, it was in the living room that the first rape support group in Nashville met: “I needed a safe and welcoming space to conduct therapeutic support groups for rape victims. The living room of Godchaux Hall became that space, serving as a... haven for wounded women to recover.”
Just as the living room witnessed students living their lives through the decades, so the building changed with the times. The classrooms and labs which had seen generations of Vanderbilt nursing students acquiring the knowledge of their profession, were always a vital part of the building, and became more so as the school grew. “I can remember watching the faces on my fellow students when we first walked up to the top floor of Godchaux Hall,” one student from the class of 1984, Sarah Hutchison, remembers. “We opened the doors to the anatomy lab, smelled the formaldehyde, and witnessed our first cadaver.” That kind of intense, hands-on instruction is part of the legacy and spirit of this building as well.
Beginning in 1958, Mary Kirkland Hall was renamed Mary Henderson Hall, after Mary Kirkland’s maiden name, because of the longstanding confusion resulting from having two buildings on campus named “Kirkland Hall.” In 1962, the integration of nursing students into the undergraduate population of Vanderbilt began with the freshman class, and Mary Henderson Hall was given over completely to classrooms and faculty offices.
It was the end of an era when the last residential students moved out in 1966.
In 1971, following a renovation that converted dorm space to other uses, the structure was again renamed, this time after Mary Ragland Godchaux. Mrs. Godchaux was the wife of Frank A. Godchaux Jr., whose family had funded the late ‘60s-early ‘70s remodeling of the building.
The 1970s also saw the construction of the Annex, which opened in 1978. It included the underground addition at the rear of the building that housed large lecture halls and additional classrooms. Students from all over the University sitting on the grass reading textbooks in the sun or enjoying a sandwich in the field outside the back of Godchaux often had no idea that they were literally only a few inches of topsoil above the ceilings of the lecture halls below.
The changes in the building were being mirrored by changes in the curriculum. In 1988, the School’s innovative Bridge program graduated its first MSN students who entered as non-nurses and in 1989 the BSN program graduated its last. Joint programs, new specialties and doctorate programs were added, keeping Vanderbilt in the forefront of the profession.
The School of Nursing facility underwent another major change in 1997 with the opening of Patricia Champion Frist Hall, a state-of-the-art classroom and office building. Frist Hall connects to both Godchaux Hall and the Annex, providing a vivid architectural metaphor for the school’s connections to the past while looking to its future, and the future of nursing.
And in a development that would leave members of the class of 1925 shaking their heads in wonder, now hundreds of students of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing rarely set foot on the campus at all, earning their degrees through distance learning over the Internet.
But even a Vanderbilt School of Nursing student who is a thousand miles away, earning his or her degree over the Internet, is forever tied to this place. Godchaux Hall, its predecessors, and its additions, carry within them the spirit of the students who have gone before, and that spirit is a legacy that is passed on, a gift to the students and to those who are touched and influenced by those students.
The stories may change — the world certainly has since 1925 — but the walls of this place continue to speak in the voices of the students and teachers who called it home, and who still do.
Alumni Board Meeting
Country Music Marathon
(Nursing Alumni Association will have a team who will begin training in January under the leadership of Whitney Simmons, president of the board)
May 6 — 12
Nurses Week 2009
Senator Bill Frist, M.D., “Health Care as a Currency for Peace”
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, “What the Future Looks Like in Health Reform”
Donald M. Berwick, M.D., M.P.P.