Tag Archives: rhodes hall

a circa 1900 Culture of Health

The original gymnasium at Rhodes Hall

The original gymnasium at Rhodes Hall

It’s always been a bit of mystery, why this room on the 3rd floor of Rhodes Hall is called the “Gymnasium.” It resembles nothing of a gym today and even so, wouldn’t heavy exercise equipment be more suited to a basement? One of our volunteer tour guides even speculated on the regular that he believed it was a reference to the German “Gymnasium”—an academic grammer school. This theory that it was used as a school room could be justified by the fact that the Rhodes grandkids (Rhodes and Wilmotine Perdue) lived here for a time and visited frequently when their mother (Louanna Rhodes Perdue) remarried.
In previous attempts to research the matter I’ve come up empty-handed but recently I’ve visited both the Biltmore Estate and the Carnegie Mansion in New York and the realization that both of these grand homes for retired wealthy gentlemen at the turn of the century had private gyms encouraged me to delve back into the matter.

The notion that we take responsibility for our own health—by eating right, breathing fresh air, and getting enough sleep and exercise—has been around for much of human history, since Hippocrates published books on regimen and the Greeks started the Olympics (from “Excercise is Medicine: a Historical Perspective”. The emphasis on exercise and health has fluctuated in importance, resurfacing it seems, during eras of prosperity, when humans had time to step back from basic survival and develop more philosophical pursuits and high individualistic ideals, such as during the Renaissance.

1866 London Gymnasium, in the German model

The Industrial Age in Europe and America brought about more economic prosperity and further advancement in medicine, which at that time was mostly focused on preventative health. In Germany, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, “the father of modern physical education as we know it today” was “a fervent German nationalist, and believed that the best kind of society was one that had established standards of physical strength and abilities. The first Turnplatz, or open-air gymnasium, was opened by Jahn in Berlin in 1811, and the Turnverein (gymnastics association) movement spread rapidly.”(<a href="http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Physical_education">New World Encyclopedia)

In America, the importance of physical education seems to have gained significant ground in the late 1800s. By the 1880s, the "physical education" movement led to the formation of a professional group, the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education, signifying renewed attention on the importance of maintaining personal physical health in the field of medicine.

With the social movement of physical education, it should come as no surprise that the well-read and wealthy philanthropists of the Gilded Age would have taken an ardent interest in their own health as well. The ideals of social reform for these leaders were not limited to the masses, they maintained high expectations of themselves and their family members as well. Responsibility for one’s own health fit perfectly with the individualistic ideals these men and women set for themselves and society at large.

The earliest evidence of a private gym in America might be the gym at the c.1870s Hegeler Carus Mansion in LaSalle, Illinois (I’d never heard of it either). One self-described fan of 19th century physical culture described it:

The mansion was built during the 1870s and the gym was part of the original plans. It’s a large space, 35.5′ x 17′ and the ceilings are roughly 25′ in height. Along with a collection of 35 wooden dumbbells and 4 large Indian clubs hanging from racks on the walls, it also houses the remnants of a Victorian rope-and-pulley weightlifting system, two large gymnastics ladders and support platforms, a horizontal bar of adjustable height, a set of parallel bars, “flying rings” hanging from the ceiling, a c1920 electric exercycle and miscellaneous bits of sports equipment (wooden stilts and skis, etc.) (ArtofManliness.com)

Biltmore gymThe gym at George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Mansion (c.1895) is also located in the basement next to the indoor swimming pool. Swimming pools at this time were also strictly for health and sport, not the leisure and play we mostly associate with pools today.

However, it is Andrew Carnegie’s gymnasium that most resembles the gymnasium at Rhodes Hall. Andrew Carnegie, like Amos Rhodes was a self-made businessman. Both men built their respective “mansions” late in life, a retreat on the northern reaches of their respective cities from which they could still conduct business in their retirement (though Carnegie did raise a daughter here, she wasn’t born until he was in his 60s). Their mansions are extremely modest in comparison to the Biltmore which was built for hosting guests, partying and raising a young family. Perhaps for this reason, the addition of a swimming pool was just too extravagant, and their gymnasiums were located in the privacy of the 3rd floor.

from the Cooper Hewitt Museum at the Carnegie Mansion, New York City

from the Cooper Hewitt Museum at the Carnegie Mansion, New York City

Of course, the 3rd floor at Rhodes Hall was also home to Mr. Rhodes’ billiard table and a smoking room, it seems the household amenities of the wealthy over a hundred years ago are not far from those of today.

on Olmstedian curves

> they are all well and good for automobiles and park-like vistas, but for trying to get from point A to B, the Olmstedian curves of parks and parklike subdivisions only frustrate and delay! (:

I’ve been biking to work more and more lately thanks to the October Bike-to-Work challenge. My most bike-friendly route takes me straight through Piedmont Park followed by the neighborhood of Ansley Park which spits me out perfectly across the street from Rhodes Hall. This would be fine, but getting through these circulinear paths and streets puts me in straights almost every morning as, going against logic I turn away from my compass to get to my destination, lose my compass entirely, and throw my hands up to come out on the other side (hopefully) where ever that may be. No big deal, but when you’re commuting you usually aren’t out for a leisurely ride.

ansley park map 1911 tracks

Grading the wide streets of Ansley park, this is Peachtree Circle with Rhodes Hall in the background

Ironically, the neighborhood’s book, Ansley Park: 100 Years of Gracious Living calls Ansley park “a textbook example of ‘New Urbanism,’ …places where people can live, work and pla without getting in a car.” But Ansley Park’s parklike streets were actually designed FOR cars (or maybe cotton pickers?), and unless you’re jogging, it’s highly unlikely you’ll make it beyond your neighbor’s house without a car. The streets are large and unweildy, giant football fields of pavement rolling onward, this way and that until you don’t know up from down. It’s great for cars, you just sail through the streets, yielding here and there to an adjoining road, biking here is frustrating with the unnecessary number of hills, and pedestrians wishing to get anywhere have to sprint across the wide roads hoping a vehicle doesn’t suddenly appear. So ultimately, maybe my biggest complaint with Ansley Park is width of the streets even more so than the circular patterns they make.

I mean, biking here would certainly be enjoyable but it is not efficient.

Automobiles came to Atlanta in 1901 when bicycle dealer William B. Alexander introduced the first three motorized buggies and as a 1905 Atlanta Constitution article touted, Ansley Park was the first Atlanta suburb built with the automobile in mind: “In the very near future those who own homes in Ansley Park are going to sit on their verandas and see among their neighbors the best people in Atlanta and on the boulevards before their doors everybody who rides, drives, or ‘motors’ an automobile, for all roads must lead to these, the only driveways in Atlanta.” The prediction would come true, in 1910 there were 106 households, in 1920 there were 458, and in between there, in 1915, half of all Ansley Park households owned cars.

But this curvilinear, parklike idea urban planning really began before cars were even a dream. The Garden Suburb idea was part of the late 19th century urban reform aimed at providing remediation of the ills of the industrial city. Houses were set back against sweeping lawns, trees towered above curving streets (well, maybe not at first) and parks were set as gathering places for neighborly interactions. Ansley park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s chief surveyor, and is based on Olmsted’s plan 1869 plan for Riverside, Ill., one of the first planned suburban communities with this aesthetic. Even though the suburb is set within a larger urban context (and notably a part of it, not cut off like cul-de-sac subdivisions of later periods) the neighborhood still manages to secure its own little oasis.

Piedmont Park, the other bane of my commute, was designed by the Olmsted brothers (post-Frederick Law) based around an existing racetrack and the remains of the 1895 Cotton State Expo (which, following close behind the Chicago Columbian Exposition was also born of the City Beautiful Movement).

This morning I opted for a different route. I cut through just a corner of Piedmont (gosh I hope I can remember which path!), struggled up 12 St. road along the ridge of Peachtree St., the backbone of this city, for the next mile to work.

Traffic vs. Olmstedian curves? I’m leaning toward traffic right now.