The home that was to become the Athenaeum was completed in 1837. Nathan Vaught, a man considered to be the “Master Builder of Maury County,” was contracted to build the home for Samuel Polk Walker, a nephew of President James K. Polk. Walker would never live in the home, however. The first family to live in the home was to be Rev. Franklin Gillette Smith, his wife Sarah, and their children.
Smith arrived in Columbia, Tennessee in the Spring of 1837. Rev. Smith loaded his family and furnishings into wagons and made the journey to Columbia from Virginia. Smith had accepted the position of headmaster of the Columbia Female Institute. Samuel Polk Walker offered his new home to Rev. Smith and his family since it was situated right next to the Institute. The Class of 1851-52 would be Reverend Smith’s last at the Institute.
By the fall 1852 Rev. Smith had built and opened his own school, the Athenaeum. Athena was the goddess of knowledge, so Athenaeum roughly means the “Seat of Knowledge” and that it was. The Athenaeum was one of, if not the, first private school for girls not to be affiliated with a religion. Girls that attended the school learned everything that a well brought-up man would have learned, such as advanced math’s, sciences, foreign languages, how to play musical instruments, and etiquette.
The Athenaeum would operate until 1904, then the property was sold to the City of Columbia for use as a public school. The neighboring Columbia Institute would continue to operate until the Great Depression forced its doors to close.
The Athenaeum School was razed in 1915 to build the first Columbia Central High School. The Institute burned in 1959 and was a total loss. The Smith’s home, the historic Athenaeum Rectory, is all that remains of both schools.
Members of the Smith family continued to call the Athenaeum home until the last person to live there, Miss Carrie Smith, died. After her death, the family donated the home to the Maury County Chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA). The local chapter has operated the home as a museum dedicated to the history of the Rev. Smith Family and education in Maury County.