The Story Behind the Name: Breckinridge Hall
Cowan Dining Commons, Young, Crounse, Sutcliffe, Breckinridge … Today, these names are simply places where we go to learn chemistry or philosophy, to work out, to meet a professor or hang with a friend. But before they were attached to particular buildings, these names belonged to real people whose close ties to Centre reveal fascinating stories.
As the College wends its way toward its bicentennial in 2019, it seems timely to recall the people who lent their names to campus landmarks, including Breckinridge Hall.
The Danville Theological Seminary built Breckinridge Hall on Centre’s campus in 1892 to house students, classrooms and the seminary library. Its name memorializes Robert J. Breckinridge, a prominent Presbyterian minister and one of the seminary’s original professors. Had its trustees only known that less than a decade later the seminary would move to Louisville, perhaps they would not have authorized the $25,000 to build such a “commodious” structure.
The Breckinridges were Kentucky’s foremost political family in the 19th century. Originally planning a career in law and politics like his father, Robert J. Breckinridge instead became a Presbyterian minister after a near-fatal illness and the untimely deaths of two daughters. He was ardently pro-Union and used both his pulpit and his position as editor of the Danville Quarterly Review to argue against secession.
During a six-year tenure as Kentucky superintendent of public instruction, he increased enrollment more than tenfold and earned a reputation as the father of Kentucky’s public school system. Later he was instrumental in persuading the Presbyterians to locate their seminary in Danville. (Indiana was a strong contender.)
He taught at Danville Theological Seminary from its founding in 1853 until 1869 and died in Danville on Dec. 27, 1871, at the age of 71. His nephew John C. Breckinridge-1838 was U.S. vice president under James Buchanan.
As the premier Presbyterian seminary in the West, Danville Theological Seminary had close ties to Centre College. Its first classes were held in Old Centre, and in later years Centre faculty would also teach in the seminary. Nevertheless, the two remained separate institutions.
After Kentucky Presbyterians split over slavery, the southern branch of the church went on to found its own institution in 1873, Central University, in Richmond, Ky. Eventually Centre and Central merged, the two seminaries became the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Central’s buildings became part of the campus at Eastern Kentucky University.
The history of 19th-century higher education in Kentucky is indeed intertwined.
This article originally appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Centrepiece, Centre College’s alumni magazine.
by Diane F. Johnson
December 5, 2016