Elon's Philologian Literary Society Hall Chandelier shines once again
How a 120-year-old kerosene-burning chandelier reunited Raymond Beck ’75 and his Elon mentor, Professor Emeritus of History and University Historian George Troxler, once again.
It was the summer of 2008 and Raymond L. Beck ’75 had just retired after a 32-year career as North Carolina State Capitol historian and site manager. Sitting in the Elon Belk Library Archives Room, he was poring over documents, searching for information about Elon’s band, an organization he had been a part of during his undergraduate years.
On that particular day, he was browsing a catalog of newspapers and other sources referencing Elon compiled on 3-by-5 index cards kept in a wooden filing cabinet. As he perused the “C” section looking for information about the founding year of Elon’s cheerleading squad, his fingers suddenly paused at a card titled “Elon Chandelier in Why Not.” The weathered, typewritten entry, which cited as its source a 1958 book titled “History of Fairgrove Methodist Church,” read:
“When Charles B. Auman was a student at Elon College, he had the chance to buy an oil-burning brass chandelier from the college. This was installed near the center of the ceiling of the church [Fairgrove Methodist at Why Not]—and is intact to this day. … Later Euclid Auman wired the church and electric lights were added.”
Beck’s eyes widened. Most of Elon’s early furnishings were destroyed in a fire in 1923. Could this be one that survived? So many questions flooded his mind. He knew he needed to dig deeper, and he knew just who to call upon to help him on this journey: former Elon professor and adviser, and fellow historian, George Troxler.
More than eight years later, the two stood side by side as the chandelier returned home to Elon to adorn the very room where Beck first read of its existence. It was one of many projects the two men have collaborated on since they first met at Elon in the early 1970s and a fitting ending to the story of an artifact from the institution’s early years.
Following the clues
While Beck and Troxler first learned about the chandelier in 2008, it wasn’t until 2014 the two could really look closely at the clues found on the index card. Troxler got his hands on the book mentioned on the card and managed to find a photograph of the chandelier in the church at Whynot, a small rural community in Randolph County an hour away from campus. While the church is no longer an active congregation, the building and cemetery are cared for by the Whynot Memorial Association. He also was able to match it to a photo in the Elon archives from 1901 of the Philologian Literary Society Hall, one of three literary society halls that once were in the Main Administrative building, or “Old Main” as it’s often called, which was destroyed in the 1923 fire. Elon built a central power plant in 1906, bringing electricity to the campus. Auman attended Elon in 1900-01, but his sister was a student when electricity came, which is how he likely found out the college’s oil burning lighting fixtures would no longer be needed, Troxler says.
Beck sent both photographs to two experts on 19th century interiors. They both agreed the chandeliers in the two photographs were the same model—an eight-lamp Bradley & Hubbard Model #613. With all the evidence in their favor, and with the support of Beck and his wife, Deborah Hatton Beck, Elon purchased the chandelier and replaced it in the Fair Grove Church with an identical six-lamp model #613. Both chandeliers went through a rigorous restoration process by Jefferson Art Lighting in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“When I received it, it was broken—it had a crack down the crown,” says Teri Jefferson, the company’s owner and craftsman, of the Philologian Literary Society Hall Chandelier, as it has now been named. It also had five different layers of paint that needed to be carefully removed. It took dozens of hours of meticulous work, but Jefferson managed to refinish the chandelier according to its original paint scheme and upgraded it with reproductions of the original hand-blown opalescent shades, glass chimneys, shade holders, perforated central draft burners and hand-spun brass oil fonts. New vintage Edison LED bulbs were also used to cast a light similar to what the chandelier would have originally produced.
In October, after nearly 110 years of being absent from campus, the chandelier returned to illuminate the Archives Room in the second floor of Belk Library. During a dedication ceremony, Beck, who saw the project as an opportunity to reconnect his class with Elon’s early history, asked that the chandelier be dedicated in honor and memory of all members of the Elon College Class of 1975. “The miracle to me is that Elon converted to electricity in 1906, which led to the chandelier’s removal and ensured its long-term survival,” Beck says. “The history of Elon can really be told through its artifacts and thank goodness we have this single pristine artifact from Old Main that we did not think, nor anyone thought, would ever be found and returned to campus.”
A special bond
This was not the first time Beck and Troxler worked together to secure an artifact for Elon. When Beck was a student, Troxler served as his academic adviser. He was also a member of the Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity, which Troxler advised. “We met in a room on the third floor of Carlton where lumber and other building supplies were stored,” Troxler recalls. “In one corner of the room there was a badly damaged bell, splattered with paint, sitting on a wooden pallet.”
That bell, which turned out to be the one that fell down through Old Main’s tower during the 1923 fire, stayed in Beck’s mind. In 2009 he led the efforts to preserve and display it; the bell now sits in the rotunda of Alamance Building. Later that same year, Beck began a search for the Graham College bell, which had been used at Elon’s predecessor institution but had been lost for 40 years. An article in this publication recounting Beck’s role in preserving the Old Main bell prompted a local alumnus to return the Graham bell to Elon, which had been stored in his barn. Even more remarkable, Beck’s research confirmed the bell is the only surviving antebellum North Carolina Railroad locomotive bell. It arrived in the state in 1854 on one of the first locomotives purchased by the railway.
History, Beck says, has always been an important part of his life, but it was his Elon history professors—Jim Elder, George Troxler and Carole Troxler—who gave him the foundation that led to a career as a historian. “They just gave me a great grounding in history,” he says. “I thoroughly covered most of the world’s history with my professors at Elon.” Working in North Carolina allowed him to remain in touch with his Elon mentors, which led to his collaborations with Troxler. “Our skills go very well together,” Troxler says. As part of his master’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Beck was granted an internship with the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem. His first assignment at the N.C. Capitol was to research the contents and furnishings of the State Geologist’s Office prior to the room’s restoration. He spent much of his career recreating the interiors of the building, gaining national recognition for his work. When he retired in 2008, Beck was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. “He knows artifacts,” Troxler says. “He can say, ‘This chair was circa 1840s,’ while I look at the chair and say, ‘It’s a nice piece of furniture.’”
Troxler is proud of what all his former history students have accomplished, but he enjoys the special opportunity to collaborate with Beck as a peer in studying Elon’s history. “Ray really keeps in contact because he loves this place so much,” says his wife, Deborah. “He comes back to Elon from Nashville—he has lived there since 2011—he comes back three or four times a year and that’s amazing.”
Beck’s desire to uncover the unknown parts of Elon’s history keeps bringing him back. “I like to push the limits, to see how far back you can take a research project and rediscover what no one has either seen or known about for decades,” he says. “The remarkable thing is there is so little left of the early campus and the history of the institution prior to the fire of 1923. ... What we are doing is saving the past to share with future generations.”
Troxler agrees. “If members of the 1901 Philologian Society were here today, they would not recognize the campus, but they would know their chandelier,” he says. “It is our link with them and a wonderful reminder of the values and heritage that we share at Elon.”
Did you know? When Elon College opened in 1890, the faculty organized three literary societies for students: the Philologian and Clio societies for men and the Psiphelian Society for women. The three organizations are memorialized to this day in Elon’s yearbook title, Phi Psi Cli.