In the years following the Civil War, Holland Nimmons McTyeire, a Nashville-based bishop within the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, led a movement to establish “an institution of learning of the highest order.” In 1872 a charter for a “Central University” was issued to McTyeire and fellow petitioners within the church, but their efforts failed for lack of financial resources.
In the spring of 1873, Bishop McTyeire traveled to New York City for medical treatment with his wife, Amelia Townsend McTyeire, a cousin to Frank Armstrong Crawford Vanderbilt, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s young second wife. Cornelius Vanderbilt was an American business magnate who built his enormous wealth in railroads and shipping. While he spent time recovering at the Vanderbilt mansion, McTyeire won the Vanderbilts’ admiration and support for the project of building a university in the South that would “contribute to strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.”
Cornelius Vanderbilt gave McTyeire two $500,000 gifts, which the bishop used to found Vanderbilt University. The Commodore’s donation was given with the understanding that McTyeire would serve as chairman of the university’s Board of Trust for life, and McTyeire was appointed the institution’s president in 1873. The $1 million that Vanderbilt gave to endow and build the university was his only major philanthropy before his death in 1877.
McTyeire chose the site for the campus, supervised the construction of buildings and personally planted many of the trees. At the outset, the university consisted of Main Building (now Kirkland Hall), an astronomical observatory and houses for professors. In the 1940s, the first women’s dormitory on the Vanderbilt campus was named McTyeire Hall; it was later renamed McTyeire International House.
McTyeire died on Feb. 15, 1889, in Nashville and was laid to rest in a small cemetery behind Vanderbilt Divinity School in a part of campus known as “Bishops Common.” His remains are interred alongside those of his wife, Amelia; bishops William McKendree, Joshua Soule and Thomas Osmond Summers, pioneers of early Methodism in Tennessee; and Landon C. Garland, Vanderbilt’s first chancellor.