Chambers – The Old and the New

This magnificent building of power and prestige was named after the memorable Maxwell Chambers. He generously left his inheritance to Davidson, laying the monetary foundation of this grand structure. Even though tragedy struck Chambers, its strong tradition and spirit was never lost and still lives on today.

Old Chambers
A view of the original Chambers Building
DC 9-0098

The source of Maxwell’s fortune remains a mystery to many. Born in 1780, in Salisbury, NC, he entered the business field as a planter and cotton trader in Charleston, SC. Some suspect that he entered the slave trade and prospered from this enterprise. Even though he did purchase his own slaves, he also freed about 150, providing them with supplies and money to lead them to freedom (Chambers’ Gift, 3).

It was Davidson College that received his largest financial gift. Chambers was a member of the building committee of the Concord Presbytery, which, in 1836, directed construction of the Old Campus. When he died on February 7, 1855, he left $260,000 to the college. This became the largest sum of money ever given to an ante-bellum southern college (3).

This generous gift from Mr. Chambers did, however, bring controversy. Davidson’s 1838 legislative charter limited the college to possessing no more than $200,000. The college appeared before the Superior Court of Rowan County in May 1856 and twice before the Supreme Court of North Carolina to explore whether the charter would prevent the college from receiving the funds. Davidson lost the ruling, and the money was given to Maxwell’s next of kin: Judge D.F. Caldwell. Soon after, Davidson College revoked its old charter, changing it by allowing the college to possess no more than $500,000. After much negotiation, Mr. Caldwell agreed to return all claims to the legacy back to the college, in exchange for $41,000 and 160 acres of land.

Many claimed that the college would have fallen apart if had not been for the gift from Maxwell Chambers. In 1857, Davidson College hired Alexander Jackson Davis from New York as the architect for the building. At the time, he was known as one of the most talented architects in the nation. The cornerstone was laid in 1858 and the building completed in 1860, with commencement following that summer. It cost the college $81,000 to build. It contained 72 sleeping rooms, 5 classrooms, dormitories for 1,000 students, 3 laboratories, a commencement hall (80 sq.ft), and a chapel (Old Chambers Building).

It had very little ornament on its exterior, yet was a resemblance of the distinctive Southern architecture. The nearest railway was 29 miles away, making it extremely difficult to transport building materials to the site. The brick for the building was made using local clay. After it was completed in 1860, it was considered one of the finest academic buildings of the South (Burnett 13).

Chambers’ most noticeable features were its Tuscan columns which stood at 45 ft high each with a diameter greater than 6ft (Burnett, 12-13). After over two years of construction, its first classes were held on January 6th, 1860.

After the fire
The remains of Old Chambers after the fire on
November 21, 1921

DC 9-0111

The building flourished until disaster struck on the morning of Nov. 28, 1921. For reasons still unknown today, a fire broke out in the central part of Chambers at four in the morning, and within three hours all of Chambers lay in ruins. For hours, a bucket brigade hauled water in an attempt to put out the fire. Luckily, no one was injured in the fire. Students gathered in amazement as the flames furiously destroyed the heart of campus.

President William J. Martin gathered all of the students around the college well and addressed to them challenging, “to hear the call of the college in its hour of distress, to rally around its standard on this day of misfortune and disaster.” They then all began in unison to chant the famous, “OLD DAVIDSON” (Beaty, 285).

You are the best old College in the east or west;
You play a fair game, and you win in everything-
And when the Red and Black machine is out to fight and looking mean-
Then I am happy as for you I sing.
(Chorus) O’Davidson! We will conquer ere the day is done.
Down [opposing team] as through their lines we run;
Win for the honor of old Davidson.”

After this unfortunate tragedy, immediate plans for reconstruction began. The Davidson College Board of Trustees began the “Greater Davidson Campaign” with the goal of raising $600,000, of which $400,000 would be used for the construction of the new Chambers building. The cornerstone was laid 1928, with the goal of, “putting teaching and learning at the center of the college” (Burnett, 12-13).

New Chambers

Newly constructed Chambers Building DC 9-0216

Construction began in 1924, the building completed in 1929, and its dedication held June 3rd of the following year. The cost of building the new Chambers was $125,000, compared to $81,000 in 1858 when Old Chambers was constructed.

Today lives a ghost story that dates back to the history of Chambers. It is said that one can see the outline of old foundations when the ground is dry. There is a brick in the new Chambers from the original burnt building that has the engraving, “1858” and a plaque describing its historical significance. In Chalmers Davidson’s 1977 article for the Rowan Museum Newsletter, he describes the new building as, “the richest college south of Princeton.”

So when you step foot upon the grand campus of Davidson College, look carefully and you may be lucky to see the outline of the old Chambers building. In a sympathy letter to President Martin, an alumni enthusiastically claimed, “Hail to Old Davidson!! Even though fire should destroy her material equipment, her great spirit shall never die”(McLeod). The great spirit of Chambers still lives on strong today.

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Historic Buildings, Chambers Building, Martin Chemical Library,
President’s House, Carolina Inn – Works Cited

Anonymous. A Tribute: William
Joseph Martin, Junior, Flyer. Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. A Tribute: William Joseph Martin, Senior, Flyer. Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. “History of Martin Chemical Laboratory,” Fact sheet. Martin
Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. “Martin Chemical Laboratory (1899-1941),” Flyer, Martin
Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. “Martin Science Building to Be Dedicated April 14,” Newsclipping.
Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. Newsclipping, Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Beaty, Mary. The History of Davidson College. Briarpatch: North Carolina, 1988.

Beaty, Mary. A History of the Town from 1835 until 1937. Briarpatch: North Carolina, 1979.

Boyte, Jack. “Survey and Research on the Helper Hotel.” Architectural report. 1976. Carolina Inn Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson,

Burnett, Lee. “The Evolution of Chambers.” Davidson Journal Spring
(1987) : 12-13.

“Chambers’ Gift: The Legal History” Davidson Journal Spring (1999) : pg.3

Davidson, Chalmers. “Lives of a Wayside Inn.” The State 15 November 1971: 8-10.

Davidson, Chalmers Gaston. The Plantation World Around Davidson. Davidson: Briarpatch Press, 1982.

“Davidson Has Undertaken Vast Improvement Program.” The Charlotte
Observer Newsclipping. Chambers Building- Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives., Davidson, NC.

Flyer, Davidson College. “The President’s Home.” President’s
House Davidsoniana File. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Hamrick, Jason. The President’s House at Davidson College: a brief pictorial
history compiled from the Davidson College Archives. Davidson: Davidson College, 1999.

Herran, Kathy Neill. They Married Confederate Officers. Davidson: Warren Publishing,

Invitation from President’s House Davidsoniana file. 15 Dec 1976. Davidson
College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Kuykendall, Missy. “Notes on the President’s House, Davidson College.”
Davidson ollege, NC. 1996.

McLeod, R.A. Letter to Dr. Martin. 30 November 1921. RG211.11. Davidson College

Archives, Davidson College, NC

“Old Chambers Building.” Data Sheet. Old Chambers Building-Davidsoniana
file. Davidson College Archives., Davidson, NC.

Park, Leland. Memo from Alumni Weekend, Davidson College. 22 May 1971.

Photograph of Louisiana. Photograph Collection, number 9-0885. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of President’s House. Photograph Collection, number 9-1007.
Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of Robert Hall Morrison. Photograph Collection, number 19-0698.
Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

President’s House Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson,

Published essay. “The President’s House.” President’s
House Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Rumple, Jethro. “Davidson College in the Forties,” Quips and Cranks.
Vol. I. Davidson
College, 1895.

Author: Jennifer Fernandez ’07
Date: October 2003

Cite as: Fernandez, Jennifer. “Chambers – The Old and the New” Davidson
Encyclopedia October 2003 <>

Related Entries: Fires at Davidson College, Historic Buildings

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