A history of Boxwood House, a place to behold campus life

Posted on December 19, 2019 by Suzanne Ramsey

black and white picture of Boxwood House
“The Story of Sweet Briar College,” by Martha Lou Lemmon Stohlman, describes a “flurry of building” during the presidency of Emilie Watts McVea, a president who was sometimes criticized for her practicality.

One structure built between 1916 and 1925 was the Boxwood Inn. Constructed in 1920 or 1922, depending on the source, it was meant to replace a tea house then located in what Stohlman describes as the “old plantation office.” Not only had the College outgrown its old tea house, there also was a need for somewhere on campus to house overnight guests. Stohlman writes that “in this instance, Miss McVea’s ‘practical ways’ were approved.”

For decades, the Boxwood Inn would be what Lynn Rainville and Lisa N. Johnston, coauthors of a 2015 book about Sweet Briar history, described as a “popular hangout for faculty, students and off-campus visitors, decorated with art, Asian lanterns, and wooden booths.”

The 1931-32 Alumnae News declared it “next in rank” to the grassy dell “of those places where an interested observer may take up a strategic position to behold campus life.” It added that the Great Depression did nothing to dampen its popularity. “The depression has not decreased the number of morning dissipaters, spending a vacant period over coca-colas and cookies. And the Tea House temptation is just as strong as ever to the exhausted bloomer-clad procession that straggles up the hill from the lower hockey field in the afternoons.”

The Fall 1976 Alumnae Magazine, which celebrated the College’s 75th anniversary, included a section penned by Julia Sadler de Coligny ’34 in which she fondly remembers the Boxwood Inn of the early 1930s. She recalls it as “always packed and cozy” and writes, “Those Sunday night suppers of waffles and creamed chicken were something to remember, although our spending money was so scarce it didn’t happen often unless you had a visitor.”

During World War II, with the men at war and labor shortages at home, newspapers across the country reported that President Meta Glass was lending a hand at the Boxwood Inn. Under the headline, “College President Is ‘Soda Jerker,’” a September 1943 issue of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune reported that President Glass had responded to the labor shortage by “donning an apron and ‘jerking soda’ at the fountain in the Boxwood Inn, [the] only oasis on the campus where students could get milk shakes and soft drinks before bedtime.”

Over the years, visiting lecturers and dignitaries also visited the Inn, among them Katherine Anne Porter, journalist, activist and author the 1962 novel “Ship of Fools.” As reported in the March 1967 Alumnae Magazine, Katherine had breakfast with students at the Boxwood Inn on two occasions in the 1950s.

President Meta Glass and Mr. Barker volunteer as soda jerks at the Boxwood Inn, c. 1944. President Meta Glass and Mr. Barker volunteer as soda jerkers at Boxwod Inn.

Alumnae from the 1950s and ’60s also have fond memories of Lois Ballenger, who spent more than 50 years working at Sweet Briar and was manager of the Boxwood Inn for many years. With a laugh, Mary Smith Brugh ’57 recently described Ballenger as “kind of formidable,” while Mina Walker Wood ’62 recalled her as “a nice, in-charge old girl.”

On several occasions in the 1950s and ’60s, the Inn was commandeered for dorm space. According to the 75th anniversary issue of the magazine, while Dew residence hall was under construction, “students were packed into every available nook on campus” and 17 students lived at the Inn.

Students were housed at the Inn in 1961, while Meta Glass residence hall was being built. In 1969, with enrollment described in the winter magazine as “bigger than ever” at 731, some students “[considered] themselves privileged to live at the Boxwood Inn.”

While the Boxwood Inn closed decades ago, it continues to live on as home to the College’s alumnae relations and development office, and to the Sweet Briar Museum. But there is something that’s had just as much staying power: the Boxwood Inn’s cinnamon toast, or at least the memories of it.

Joan DeVore Roth ’41 writes in the 75th anniversary magazine that during World War II, the Boxwood Inn was a “most popular spot” where coffee and cinnamon toast could be had for 15 cents. In a 1986 magazine, a member of the Class of 1969 writes that a recent lunch with her classmates was as “pleasant as coffee and cinnamon toast at the Boxwood Inn.” And just recently, Brugh said that when she mentioned the Boxwood Inn to her sister, Helen Smith Lewis ’54, “the first thing that came out of her mouth was the cinnamon toast.” Brugh added, “It was probably white bread that they had baked there in the kitchen, at the dining hall, slathered with melted butter and they sprinkled it with cinnamon sugar. Real butter and then cinnamon sugar. It was really just wonderful.