Payne Hall: A Standing Symbol

by Olivia Powell

Few colleges have a history as rich as Augusta State University’s. Dating back to 1816, Augusta State once functioned as an arsenal for Augusta, Georgia, and some of the original arsenal buildings still stand on campus. Payne Hall is one of the original buildings that make up the historic arsenal quadrangle. Payne Hall stands out from Fanning Hall and Rains Hall, the other arsenal buildings, as the Headquarters building. The history of Payne Hall is closely entwined with the arsenal’s history.

Payne Hall is one of the oldest buildings on campus. Constructed in 1827, Payne Hall was originally used as a storehouse for the Augusta Arsenal in Georgia. The Augusta Arsenal was initially built in 1816, on the banks of the Savannah River. It was originally suggested by George Washington in a letter dated 1793; in which he expressed his concern for “the tiny town of Augusta and the state of Georgia” (Pfadenhauer 5). However, an arsenal was not seriously considered for Augusta, Georgia, until after the War of 1812. The arsenal remained near the Savannah River for ten years, before it was moved in 1826 to Bellevue, the land owned by the Freeman Walker family. The Augusta Arsenal was moved to a more appropriate location due to an epidemic that broke out among the men. Nicknamed “yellow fever” the disease killed all but two men (Richmond County Historical Society 12:27). The two survivors were Commander Matthew M. Payne and Lieutenant Augustus L. Regaile (12:27). Commander Payne happened to be visiting Freeman Walker at Bellevue when he was struck ill (Pfadenhauer 6). Payne remained at Bellevue until he fully recovered from his illness. He attributed his recovery to the high location of Bellevue, the good food and water, and the great care he received. Commander Payne then wrote to Washington suggesting the transfer of Augusta Arsenal to Bellevue. Apparently the government agreed with his suggestion, because Bellevue was bought from the Walker family in 1826. Construction on the new arsenal began in 1827. The first buildings constructed for the arsenal were: two officers’ quarters, a barracks building for the enlisted men, and a storehouse (currently Payne Hall). All the original buildings were connected by a loop-holed wall for protection (7). These four buildings form the historic quadrangle, the oldest buildings on campus. It is believed that some of the buildings from the Savannah River site may have been dismantled and reconstructed on the new Bellevue site. Some of the buildings believed to have been transported include the officers’ quarters and the administration building (currently Payne Hall) (9); however, no official confirmation of this claim exists (7). It is much more likely based off Commander Payne’s advertisements, that supplies from the dismantled buildings on the Savannah River site were used in construction of the new buildings (7).

Payne Hall. Photo by Rhonda Armstrong.
Payne Hall. Photo by Rhonda Armstrong.

Over the years, the Augusta Arsenal has undergone many changes, from near abandonment to major additions. The arsenal has always been of great importance to Augusta and to Georgia. The Augusta Arsenal aided the Confederacy during the Civil War by creating much needed supplies. Nevertheless, the Augusta Arsenal was virtually abandoned and nearly closed twice over the years. In 1874 the Board of Ordinance almost closed the Augusta Arsenal; however, after a long inspection, the Board recommended retaining the arsenal because it was “the only arsenal left in the entire South, east of the Mississippi River” (Pfadenhauer 21). This left Payne Hall as the only military Headquarters in the Southeast. The arsenal was then used for fire arm repairs through World War I and later expanded with fifty additional buildings during World War II. The arsenal was closed in 1955 and given to the Board of Education. The Academy of Richmond County, in desperate need of space, moved into the arsenal in 1957. When the college became a member of the University System of Georgia, the name was changed from Academy of Richmond County to Augusta College in 1958. In 1996 the name was changed again, this time to Augusta State University (Augusta College is Born 1958).

Before 1973, Payne Hall was typically referred to as either the Headquarters building or the administration building. However, in 1973, officials at Augusta College changed the name to Payne Hall in honor of Commander Matthew M. Payne, who was Commander of the Augusta Arsenal during the transfer from the Savannah site.(Cashin and Callahan 175). Payne was born in Goochland, Virginia in 1784. He actively served in the war of 1812 and commanded the Augusta Arsenal from 1819 through 1827. Payne was a career Artillery officer and also served active field duty in the Seminole and Mexican Wars. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1856 and shortly after, in 1861, resigned from active commission. Payne died in Virginia in 1862, a proud Confederate, even though he refused to take up arms against the Union. Because Payne was Commander during the transition from Savannah to Bellevue and oversaw the construction of the new arsenal, officials at Augusta College seemed to think it appropriate to name the Headquarters building in honor of the man who oversaw the birth of the new arsenal (Richmond County Historical Society 32:32).

As previously stated, Payne Hall originally functioned as the main storehouse and repair shop. Later Payne Hall was upgraded to the Headquarters building; however, the exact date of the conversion was never memorialized. When the Academy of Richmond County first moved in to the arsenal, due to space issues Payne Hall was used as the Administration building and a library (Cashin and Callahan 58). The basement operated as blacksmith and wheelwright shops during the arsenal’s active years (The Augusta Arsenal). During the arsenal’s active years Payne Hall housed the deciding force over the entire arsenal; today, Payne Hall houses the offices of Financial Aid, Academic Affairs, Academic and Architectural Planning, Veteran Affairs, and the Registrar.

There are many rumors surrounding Payne Hall. Payne Hall is believed to have been one of the buildings possibly transferred from the original arsenal site on the Savannah River. There are also tales of two dark prison rooms commonly referred to as the “dungeons” under the basement floor. In 1844, Captian George D. Ramsey imprisoned a young lieutenant who “imbibed too freely of spirituous liquors” and behaved in a disorderly manner (Pfadenhauer 11). The Lieutenant was imprisoned in the “dungeon” under the Headquarters building. The Captain sent a letter to Washington D.C. and officials sent Lieutenant William T. Sherman down to handle the situation for “the good of the army” (11). Later Sherman brought the young Lieutenant back to D.C. with him (11). In an Email interview with Fred Ricketson, Augusta State campus architect in the physical plant, stated, “I am confident that there are no dungeons based on the architecture and construction of the building. I am also confident that the person that passed on that rumor was mistaken, because Rains Hall the building right next door does have dungeons. It would be an easy mix up.”

Mr. Ricketson also said that there have been very few renovations to Payne Hall. The few renovations to Payne Hall over the years were minor and mostly cosmetic in nature, such as the addition of interior walls during its transition from storehouse to Headquarters. Structurally Payne Hall is sound, though this being said Payne Hall is in need of a major upgrade. Payne Hall is somewhere between 183 and 185 years old; it needs to be brought up to date on many codes and has no handicap access. A major factor in a renovation would be to respect the historic character of Payne Hall because of its major historical significance. Mr. Ricketson greatly stressed the significance of Payne Hall’s historical character during his interview; he emphasized the fact that, any renovation would have to respect its character and attempt to restore it. He also pointed out that Payne Hall was “a beautiful representation of early 1800s military architecture.” But the building needs to meet many modern building codes such as the Life Safety Code, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and current electrical and mechanical codes. Mr. Ricketson stated “in order to do a FULL restoration, to include additional fire exits, an elevator, new restrooms, and HVAC, and an exterior restoration including stone restoration, we anticipate that it would cost up to $7 million.”

The rich history of Augusta State University is what defines its character. Dating back to pre-Civil War era, Augusta State contains some of the oldest buildings in Georgia. Payne Hall, the arsenal’s Headquarters building, has functioned as everything from a storehouse to Headquarters to the Registrar, playing an important role for the arsenal and Augusta State University. It is a symbol of Augusta State University, the representation of Augusta’s historic past. Augusta State represents all that Augusta has been through over the years and all that has remained the same. All the past defines Augusta State University, all the history; and Payne Hall is a standing symbol of its historic past, the Augusta Arsenal, and the future, the path for more students.

Works Cited

“Augusta College is Born (1958).” The History of Augusta State University. Augusta State University Office of Public Relations and Publications, n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

Augusta State University, University System of Georgia, Board of Regents, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, Inc., and Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, Inc. Augusta State University Campus Master Plan. Atlanta: Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, Inc., 1998. Print.

Cashin, Edward J. and Helen Callahan. A History of Augusta College. Augusta: Augusta College Press, 1976. Print.

Cashin, Edward J. The Story of Augusta. Augusta: Richmond County Board of Education, 1980. Print.

Pfadenhauer, Ruby Mabry McCrary. History of Augusta Arsenal in Augusta, Georgia. Augusta: Richmond County Historical Society, 1970. Print.

Richmond County Historical Society. Richmond County History. Augusta, Ga.: Richmond County Historical Society 12.1 1978-1982. Print.

Richmond County Historical Society. Richmond County History. Augusta, Ga.: Richmond County Historical Society 32.1 2000-2003. Print.

Ricketson, Fred. Question? Message to the author. 27 Sep. 2012. E-mail.

The Augusta Arsenal, 1816-1954. Augusta: Ordinance Corps, 1954. Print.

“The War Years (1911).” The History of Augusta State University. Augusta State University Office of Public Relations and Publications, n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

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