Changing Fortunes

From almshouse to student residence

The grassy area between Randolph and Mason residence halls was the site of Fredericksburg’s 19th-century almshouse. Photo by Norm Shafer.

They called it Mount Nebo. The lovely hill overlooking Fredericksburg provided a clear view of the town, just as did the biblical peak from which Moses glimpsed the Promised Land.

But the name also evoked a longing for the unattainable − as the residents of the Fredericksburg incarnation of Mount Nebo in the late 1800s and early 1900s must have felt keenly.

The almshouse was moved twice and now is a private residence across College Avenue from Seacobeck Hall.

It was on Fredericksburg’s Mount Nebo that the almshouse stood, providing a haven for the destitute but also setting them apart from the bustling town.

According to research by Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation Michael Spencer, the house on the hill was built in 1877 as the “handsome frame residence” of Frank Beckwith. But a case of smallpox in 1882 so frightened Fredericksburg residents that they bought the Beckwith home, for $1,700, as an infirmary.

As it happened, the town was spared a further smallpox outbreak. Soon the home was enlarged and turned into an almshouse, where the poor could exist on charity, out of sight.

In 1908, town residents began to envision a different purpose for their Mount Nebo, as the site of a new normal school for women. The first campus buildings, Willard, Monroe, and Virginia halls, were constructed just to the north of the almshouse. And by 1911, the campus expanded to take in the Mount Nebo property itself. Fredericksburg sold the home and 6.9 acres to the school for $4,850.

The home was moved slightly downhill and to the north. It was used as the dean’s house until the mid-1930s, when it was moved again to its current site, on College Avenue across from Seacobeck Hall. It stands today as a private home similar to its original appearance.

The site once known as Mount Nebo is now a grassy area between Randolph and Mason residence halls.