The Columbia Female Institute

When the Columbia Female Institute burned in 1959, it immediately became unforgettable. As a matter of fact, the time of the Institute’s demise is “one of those moments” in Maury County’s history. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination. Just the same, people in Maury County remember the night the Columbia Institute burned. Many travelled to West Seventh Street to watch the blaze, while many others recall the amber glow in the sky that night—a glow that could be seen as far away as Santa Fe.

Built as an Episcopal all-girl school, the Columbia Female Institute, had a run of nearly 100 years before the Great Depression put the nail in its coffin in 1932. Left without a function, the building would serve several purposes over its remaining years, including housing WPA workers, providing classrooms and offices for a local business college, and as a nursery school. The old Institute was even the location of the Maury County Library for a short period.

In 1944, the City of Columbia purchased the property from the Episcopal Diocese for $35,000. At the time of the fire, the main building of the old campus was being used as storage by the county school system. During the March night of Friday the 13th, 1959 about 7pm, the fire was reported. According to reports, the blaze quickly consumed the main building and the attached chapel.

Construction of the Columbia Female Institute began in 1835 and the first class was admitted under the administration of Rev. Franklin Gillette Smith in 1837. An advertising pamphlet released in 1837 reads:

The building was designed and constructed by Messrs. Drummond & Lutterloh, Architects. [Maury County’s “Master Builder” Nathan Vaught actually had to be called in to finish construction of the building.]

The general effect of the exterior is imposing, from its magnitude and its just proportions.

The selection and execution of the decorative parts of the façade exhibit the classical taste of the architects and their judicious adherence to the established principles of Gothic architecture. The front of the building—the exposure of which is towards the north—is one hundred and twenty feet long, including the Octagonal Towers at the corners, eleven feet in diameter, which rise one story above the building and terminate in turrets. The corners on the back side are finished with Martello towers, five feet in diameter, which rise above the parapet walls and are also turreted. The whole effect of the building is improved by its fine basement story (not shown at all in our engraving) which is separated from the first story by an elegant band of hewn stone, the material employed also in the flights of steps leading up into the porticos. The width of the porticos is twenty-one feet, and their projection from the front wall, fifteen feet—the front and side openings being pointed arches, and the massive piers with buttresses in front and on one side, terminating in elegant lanterns. The walls of the porticos and the whole of the façade are turreted…

The interior was also described in the pamphlet. In the basement were the dining hall and offices for the domestics (more than likely, slaves). On the first floor were the accommodations for the teachers and tutoresses and the “Boarder’s Parlour.” Also on this floor were the rooms of the Music and Pestalozzian Departments.

On the second floor, with its fourteen-foot ceilings, was the large “Hall of Study.” The library and the Rector’s desk were also on the second story. Again, from the advertising pamphlet, “One of the chambers on the second floor, separated by a passage and entirely secluded from those resorted to by the school, is set apart as the sick-room. This apartment is airy, with a delightful prospect of the country, and is of easy access to the Matron and other ladies of the Institute.”

The third floor was set aside exclusively for dormitories. Boarders were guaranteed a bed to themselves, unless their sister attended the school. In that case, the siblings had to double-up. A tutoress shared each chamber with the students to provide supervision and to “attend to any case of indisposition.”

The campus of the Institute comprised of just over four acres. After the 1959 fire, this land was sold by the City of Columbia for $100,000 despite the efforts of local groups wishing to convert the old Institute grounds to a city park.

Today, Columbia Plaza shopping center and the U.S. Post Office stand on the grounds of the Columbia Female Institute.



  1. Donna · December 18, 2017

    Fantastic article! What an imposing & impressive building this must have been! I had no prior knowledge of its existence so I really enjoyed learning about it.


  2. Linda Cothron Upton · December 20, 2017

    I was 11 years old when it burned down. I always thought it looked like a big castle. My family was there watching as it burned. It was cold that night, but you could feel the heat from the fire. It was so sad to see all that beautiful history and architecture go up in flames..


  3. Pingback: A Look at Lost Landmarks, Part One | Historic Maury County

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