Traditions of the Capstone
The Foster-Murfee-Caples House was built in 1838, when Tuscaloosa was a young city. Even then, local life was dominated by the nearby University of Alabama, known as “The Capstone”.
The story of the University of Alabama began in 1818 when the Congress of the United States authorized the newly formed Alabama Territory to set aside land for “establishment of a seminary of learning.”
Alabama was admitted to the Union on March 20, 1819. On December 18, 1820, The University of the State of Alabama was established by the legislature. A Board of Trustees was appointed and selected Tuscaloosa, then the state’s capital, as the site of the new University.
The original land grant included the entire area within the Tuscaloosa city limits stretching south of what is now University Boulevard to the AGS Railroad and west to Queen City Avenue. The land had been owned by William Marr, for whom Marr’s Spring is named.
A prominent architect, Captain William Nichols, was hired to design the original campus. His design used material from the local area. Slaves quarried sandstone near the Black Warrior River, made bricks, and cut lumber from the University’s own land. The land also provided food for the workforce. Vegetables and fruits were grown on site. For example, an extensive vineyard was once located near what is now Bryant-Denny Stadium.
After five years of construction, the new University opened it’s doors to young men on April 18, 1831.
The Board of Trustees selected the Reverend Alva A. Woods to be the first president of the University of Alabama. Educated at Harvard College, Woods hoped to turn the frontier school into a Harvard-style seminary. He set admission standards high. Simply to enter the University, one had to demonstrate the ability to read classical Greek and Latin. For the duration of the antebellum period, these high standards meant the University would graduate only a fraction of the students who entered. Of the 105 young mean who enrolled in 1835, for example, only eight graduated four years later. These are the students who would have witnessed the construction of the Foster-Murfee-Caples House and been friends of the young couple who first inhabited this gracious home.
In the 1850’s the President of the University, Landon Garland, began lobbying the legislature to transform the University into a military school. In 1860, the legislature authorized the change. As result of this timely transformation, The University of Alabama trained many of the officers of the Confederate States Army. James T. Murfee, who resided at the Foster-Murfee-Caples House, commanded the University Corps of Cadets during the Civil War. He faced the enemy on the doorstep of his own home and led the last of the young cadets in retreat as the campus blazed behind them.
In April, 1865 Federal troops burned the campus. Frances Louisa Garland, the wife of President Landon Garland, saved the President’s Mansion from destruction. Only six other buildings on campus survived. Fortunately, the Foster-Murfee-Caples House was also spared.
The campus reopened in 1871 and shortly after the military structure was dropped. James T. Murfee, who had survived the war and still resided in the Foster-Murfee-Caples House, was the architect of the post-war University. In 1880, the United States Congress granted the University 40,000 acres of coal land as compensation for war damages.
The University of Alabama was opened to women in 1892; “young women of good character” were welcome to enroll. They were expected to reside in private homes, and it was shortly afterward that the Foster-Murfee-Caples House was converted into six apartments to provide housing for the growing student body.
The history of the Foster-Murfee-Caples House and that of the University of Alabama remained entwined as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth and then the twenty-first. With a complete restoration currently underway, this gracious home and the nearby University will continue to build new traditions together. Their past is strong and their future is bright.