An integral part of the oldest building on campus, Rutledge Chapel has been in continuous use since 1805 and has a rich history of its own. But that history is still being written as, every year, alumni say their wedding vows inside the venerable chapel's walls.
It’s the University of South Carolina’s oldest building and was, in fact, the only building on campus when the institution opened its doors in 1805. It’s called Rutledge College and more than 200 years ago, it was everything — classroom, dormitory, laboratory, library … and chapel.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re presenting a brief history of Rutledge Chapel and telling its story as a modern wedding venue through the experiences of alumni who have tied the knot within the chapel’s hallowed walls.
First, a little background. South Carolina College was modeled after northern colleges such as Harvard and Yale, which required their students to attend chapel. Mandatory chapel services in Rutledge were also part of campus life at Carolina, a practice that continued into the early 1900s.
The chapel was also used by two prominent student groups — the Clariosophic and Euphradian literary societies — for their weekly debating sessions. The problem was there were two societies and just one chapel. Students in the Clariosophics would get mad if the Euphradians went over their allotted time in the chapel and vice versa. Eventually the college found a separate space on campus for each society to hold their weekly debates.
In an earlier episode entitled ‘The lecture hall that never was,’ we talked about the construction of what’s now called Longstreet Theater, which, when it was built in 1855, was supposed to have become Carolina’s new chapel and lecture auditorium. The structure was so plagued by poor acoustics, it never fulfilled that purpose. And so Rutledge Chapel soldiered on as the only such space on campus.
Fast forward to the 1950s when USC President Donald Russell and his wife, Virginia, purchased with their own money a large, ornate chandelier and had it installed in the chapel. They also bought green velvet floor-to-ceiling curtains that no doubt helped to conceal some of the chapel’s well-worn appearance after nearly 150 years of continual service.
In the 1970s when all of the Horseshoe buildings were undergoing renovations, Rutledge Chapel got a facelift, as well. The walls were given a fresh coat of bright white paint, the threadbare floor covering was replaced with a rich red carpet and the wooden pews were refinished. Even though the elegant chandelier isn’t really in keeping with the early 19th century architecture of the building, it continues to hang in the chapel, providing a gracious ambience to weddings and memorial services. The green curtains, however, were removed.
So, that’s some of the general history of Rutledge Chapel — a history that continues to be written, especially by alumni who choose to get married there. I have no idea when the first wedding took place in Rutledge, but I’ve talked to several Carolina graduates who have gotten married there in the past 30 years or so. Here’s what they had to say about their special day at the old chapel.
Karen Blackmon: “We ended up choosing Easter, which ended up being an absolutely beautiful time of the year with all the azaleas and dogwoods blooming on the Horseshoe. It was really a picture-perfect day, a little warmer than one might have thought for the early part of April … plenty of pollen!”
That’s Karen Blackmon, an avid Gamecock fan, especially of baseball and women’s basketball. She’s also a fan of Scott Blackmon, her husband of 25 years who graduated from Carolina in 1973. Scott spent his entire career in banking and is usually never at a loss for words. But he was temporarily speechless at a critical moment in the wedding.
Karen Blackmon: “We were doing the vows and when it came time for Scott, Hal looks over at him and says, Repeat, blah, blah, blah, and Scott just stands there. So we're just looking at him, and they all start laughing. And Hal's going, Scott? Scott? Everybody, all our guests, everybody was laughing. Finally, finally, he woke up.
Scott Blackmon: “I came out of it and said, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
The ‘Hal’ that Karen refers to was Hal French, a beloved religious studies professor at Carolina who officiated their wedding.
Louise and Charles Monteith were both undergraduates at Carolina in the late 1980s, but they didn’t meet each other until several years later. When they got married in 1999, they picked Rutledge Chapel because of their Carolina connection. Louise got creative in finding some nearby space for her bridesmaids to get ready.
Louise Monteith: “This was before social media and before all that kind of stuff. And, frankly, I can't really remember how it happened, but there was somebody that I worked with that had a friend of a friend whose kid was in the Honors College. And that's who — I don't know if that's still how it is — but that's who lived on those dorms, lived in Rutledge dorm. And so, you know, I worked out with this kid that he and his roommates would vacate their apartment for the day. And then my wedding party just descended on it and, you know, took it over and left them a case of beer. Absolutely certain they were all 21 at least.”
Louise remembers looking out of the Rutledge dorm window as wedding guests made their way to the chapel in the center of the building. Meanwhile, her soon-to-be husband was in a small room behind the chapel with all of the groomsmen.
Charles Monteith: “I think I paced a lot while I was in the room because I typically pace a lot just when I'm thinking. And so I think that just got me even more worked up because I paced like the whole time while we were waiting for the ceremony to start. And so when we finally got out for the ceremony, like, I was hot. There were so many people in the room and I had been pacing for like 30, 45 minutes. And then I was just sweating, and it must have looked terrible. It must have looked like I was really nervous, but I was just really hot.”
Mary Huffstetler McDonald can relate to Charles’ hot flash. She and her husband lived in opposite dormitory wings of Rutledge when they were undergraduates and caught many a glimpse of Rutledge Chapel weddings. When it was their turn to get married there in July 1998, the temperature hit triple digits — 102 degrees. In most of their wedding photos, she says, they were sweating profusely.
For one alumni couple, Rutledge Chapel just felt like the right place to be.
Marguerite Richardson and Scott Watkins both earned master’s degrees in music performance at Carolina, she in violin and he in piano. Marguerite’s mother was a reference librarian at South Caroliniana Library at the time. Tom Johnson was the acquisitions librarian for South Caroliniana back then and was also an ordained Presbyterian minister. He officiated their wedding in Rutledge.
Marguerite Richardson: “Henry Fulmer, who was the manuscripts librarian then, who went on to be the director of South Caroliniana, was also a very fine organist. And he and I had gone to music camp at Furman University when we were kids. So I have known Henry probably since I was 9 or 10 or 11 years old. And Henry played for our wedding. We had only the music of J.S. Bach played before our wedding, and it sounded just amazing on that organ in the Rutledge Chapel.
“Since we had both gone to the university and we just, I don't know, we both sort of felt an affinity for the Horseshoe and the older buildings and Rutledge. It just seemed like having the wedding at Rutledge, I don't know, it felt, felt more…
Scott Watkins: “It felt right. It felt like the right thing to do.”
Marguerite Richardson: “Yeah.”
For one couple, getting married once in Rutledge Chapel wasn’t enough. They got married there twice — in the space of one year.
Kate and Cory Swank were both students at Carolina but didn’t really connect until both were working in student life positions at Penn State University.
Kate Swank: “We connected really over our love of USC and our experiences there. And then when we were dating, just that, that was always just like a place for us that we really enjoyed. So we got engaged there in the Carolinian Garden behind the Caroliniana library. Every time we're home, we like to spend a little bit of time on the Horseshoe. So when we decided we're going to get married, we're like, ‘Well, duh, the Horseshoe.’ Like it's our favorite place, independent and together.”
Their wedding date in 2021 fell smack dab in the middle of a deadly surge in the COVID pandemic. So they invited immediate family members only with plans to have another much bigger ceremony exactly one year later.
Corey Swank: “It was kind of like a blessing in disguise, kind of when COVID happened that we were able to have that intimate moment with just our immediate family and those that are closest to us. But then at the same time the following year, still have that large wedding experience where we got to celebrate with all of our friends and family.”
We heard from other alumni who also had memorable weddings at Rutledge Chapel. Katherine and Jay Pou had Cocky as a special guest at their reception. And Melissa Sechrest’s Rutledge Chapel wedding in 1996 was nearly interrupted by another special guest with a Carolina connection — Hootie & the Blowfish, who were scheduled to do their MTV ‘Unplugged’ concert on the Horseshoe the same evening as Melissa’s wedding. “By some stroke of luck,” she recalls, “the date of the concert was changed.”
That might have been kind of cool, though, Hootie & the Blowfish playing "Hold My Hand" as the couple made their way out of the chapel.
Well, that’s all for this episode, but if marriage is in your future, the Rutledge Chapel is still available as a wedding venue. This is the last episode of the spring season. Remembering the Days will return for its eighth season this coming fall with episodes touching on the history of aviation at USC, a student riot in 1856 and a radical plan in the 1940s that would have completely changed the Carolina campus. All that and more in the fall 2023 season.
Until then, I’m Chris Horn. Forever to thee.