Wellesley commemorates 100th anniversary of the Great Fire

By Eva Freedman, '17 Staff Photographer

By Eva Freedman, ’17 Staff Photographer


Online Editor

In the early morning on March 17, 1914, students in College Hall were awoken by the fire alarm. Back then, College Hall was Wellesley’s main building and housed most of the College’s administrative, residential and classroom space. Students, faculty and staff gathered to exit the building and congregated outside as fire swept through College Hall. By approximately 8:15 that morning, about four hours after College Hall was evacuated, a building that had taken four years to build and that was the heart of the College had been reduced to ruins and ashes.

“Wellesley was a very young institution then. It was only 39 years old, and to suffer such a devastating blow,” Director of Library Collections Ian Graham said. “This was the original building the College opened into. Nothing was happening anywhere else until around 1880, 1881. It had been everything—chapel, dining hall, residence, classrooms, libraries, laboratories; everything was in that building.”

Graham echoed the words of Wilma Slate, Wellesley’s archivist from 1972 to 2009, who said that along with the College’s 1870 founding by Henry Durant and its decision in the 1970s not to become co-educational, the fire at College Hall has been one of the most important moments in Wellesley’s history.

“Only 34 classes had graduated by the time of the fire, and women’s education was still considered a social experiment in this country,” Chair of the Art History Department Professor Jacqueline Musacchio said. “No one would have faulted Wellesley for simply closing after the fire. But instead of closing, it prospered, rebuilding rapidly and becoming the institution we know today.”

Indeed, contemporary Wellesley emerged from the efforts of the community and outside supporters to rebuild in the wake of the fire. In the three weeks following College Hall’s demise, the administration quickly put up a new building, nicknamed the “Hen Coop” by students. What had been intended as a temporary structure housed classrooms, labs and office space for the next 17 years. During that time, the rest of the campus as we know it came to be: The College built Sage Hall, Alumnae Hall and the buildings in the Academic Quad, added dormitories like Tower, Claflin and Severance and expanded Clapp Library.

By 1931, most of the new buildings had been erected. On March 17 of that year, people gathered during the night to burn down the old Hen Coop, marking the start of a new era in the College’s history.

As 2014, the year of the Great Fire’s centennial, approached, a group of Wellesley faculty and staff gathered to discuss ways to mark the occasion. The anniversary of the fire coincidentally falls on the same day as Founder’s Day, the day that the College was incorporated in 1870, and is therefore a longtime date of celebration. However, this year, an ad hoc committee was formed to brainstorm ways to address the fire specifically.

The committee included Graham, Mussacchio, Executive Director of the Alumnae Association Susan Challenger ’76 and Provost Andrew Shennan, along with staff from Public Affairs, the Archives and Clapp Library. A number of other people interested in the College’s history also aided the committee. The group discussed ways in which it would be fitting to celebrate this pivotal moment in Wellesley’s past.

“At one point somebody said, ‘We could wake the students up at 4:30 in the morning with a fire drill,’” Graham said. “That quickly got vetoed.”

After much deliberation, the committee finally settled on two main events on the day of the anniversary: an early breakfast at the Houghton Memorial Chapel and the opening of an exhibit at the Davis Museum later in the afternoon.

The Wellesley Magazine printed a special edition with articles dedicated to remembering the fire, which was the first public reference to the fire’s anniversary.

Additionally, with the support of the Friends of the Library, the committee was also able to reprint the April 2, 1914 issue of the Wellesley News. The issue features a detailed account of the events of March 17 as well as initial plans for recovery. It also contains a small clipping in which students, alumnae and supporters can pledge to donate money to rebuilding efforts. Graham plans to exhibit a copy of the original issue in Clapp Library.

Breakfast at the Chapel

After the fire in 1914, the Wellesley community gathered in the chapel to take stock of the events that had just ensued. President Ellen F. Pendleton reassured students and staff, thankful that all members of the community had escaped the fire unscathed. She dismissed the students on spring break early, promising to have the College up and running by the time that they returned, in three weeks’ time.

In honor of that morning 100 years ago, the committee organized a breakfast at the Chapel on Monday, hoping to gather the Wellesley community to remember this event together. Breakfast was served and students, faculty and staff shuffled in and out of the building between 8 and 10 a.m.

“We thought it would be a very resonant thing to do to bring the community back together into the same place,” Graham said.

The Guild of Carillonneurs opened the event by playing songs on the bells. Later, students, faculty and staff read aloud from a variety of letters from the Archives written by members of the community in the 1910s.

The letters contain many somber accounts of the day’s events; students and faculty expressed their great shock and regret at the fire’s vast destruction. In the later weeks, the letters expressed a newfound energy for renewal; these letters include student plans for fundraising ventures as well as offers from the outside community to help the College rebuild.

“There’s something about giving voice back to the community 100 years later through these letters, which tell the story better than we can tell it from the documents,” Graham said.

Lily Elsner ’14 read a letter from Eleanor Blair from the class of 1917 to her family in New Haven. Blair describes students’ initial responses to the news that College Hall was on fire and their hurried attempts to gather their most treasured possessions as they headed outside to safety. Her letter criticizes the response from the Wellesley Fire Department, stating “there would have been no hope even with a good fire department.”

“After roll call, all the girls went to society houses and downtown and, dressed in their friends’ clothes, returned to watch their rooms burn up,” the letter reads.

“I loved how vivid and sassy this letter was,” Elsner said. “It showed the spirit of the students.”

Shennan too was especially struck by how, though the letters describe an entirely different place, they are still recognizably Wellesley. Indeed, though Wellesley was, in the 1910s, a smaller, more homogenous community, the spirit of the institution has endured.

“In so many respects it feels just like the same place,” Shennan said. “You could think that the students we have now could have easily said the same things—they probably would have texted rather than written letters—but the spirit of commitment to our mission here and the community we have here, that felt to me totally familiar when reading about 1914.”

Many of the letters come from outside supporters of the College who rallied to help Wellesley, which was not properly insured at the time, gather enough money to rebuild.

“I can imagine that [President Pendleton] was in a very lonely spot on March 17 and 18. She was in charge of this college, which had just lost such a lot of itself,” said Shennan. “I was very touched by the support that we got from other colleges and universities; the spontaneous and really heartfelt messages that the president got must have been an incredible comfort.”

The reading of these letters was followed by a multi-faith chapel service and afterwards, a performance by the Tupelos.

President H. Kim Bottomly, dressed in period costume, then addressed the Wellesley community, echoing Pendleton’s message of 100 years earlier.

“Back then, the president spoke and, among other things, said to the gathered students and the faculty, ‘Just remember that the buildings are not Wellesley College; the people are Wellesley College,’” Graham said. “I think that was a really important message to impart at the time, and it’s still true.”

After the president’s remarks, members of the Wellesley community continued to read out loud from the letters.

Many students attended the event throughout the morning and enjoyed learning more about Wellesley’s history.

“Seeing President Bottomly all dressed up for the event was really touching, as well as Dean Shennan and Ben Hammond. It was wonderful to see senior administrators so ardently embracing history,” Elsner said. “I will treasure that Monday morning breakfast as one of the best memories I have of my time at the College.”

Tea at the Davis exhibit opening

As part of the Great Fire commemoration, Musacchio and Shennan led the opening of an exhibit at the Davis Museum. Curated by Musacchio and Shennan, the exhibit displays many of the letters written at the time as well as a variety of different objects that were salvaged from the fire, chronicling the history of the fire at College Hall and consequent rebuilding of Wellesley.

The exhibit is titled “‘Like a Great Roman Ruin’: The College Hall Fire and Anne Whitney at 100,” in reference to a remark in one of the letters written by a faculty member, which likened the image of the dilapidated building post-fire to an ancient ruin.

“We were looking around for a quotation from one of the many letters we read and we thought that was an apt one,” Shennan said. “When you look at the pictures of the building after the fire, it does look like a very ancient ruin in the way parts of it were still there and parts of it had disappeared.”

The exhibit also features a bust for the statue of English reformer Harriet Matineau crafted by Whitney, Mustacchio explained.

“The actual statue was lost in the fire, but we have the preliminary bust,” Mustacchio said. “Students loved this statue, and called it Aunt Harriet; the advice column in the student newspaper was ‘Ask Aunt Harriet’ and a ritual for first-year students involved crawling through the rungs of her chair, a metaphor for the first steps of their education or the first steps to womanhood.”

Shennan gave the opening remarks at the exhibit, in which he spoke about the impact of the fire on the College and pronounced his deep gratitude for all of the supporters of the College who made rebuilding possible. He ended his speech with a toast to President Pendleton and everyone who supported the institution in the wake of this great tragedy.

On the day of the fire, students formed a line from College Hall to the building that now houses Clapp Library, passing items to each other. This is how many objects were rescued from ruin; these artifacts are an important part of the current exhibition. Many of these objects ended up in Special Collections but stray objects found their places in different corners of the campus.

“Most of the records and the smaller things like the Tree Day Spade were kept here in Archives,” Graham said. “Then there was stuff that was already in the [Davis] Museum. And there were a few pieces of furniture that were scattered throughout the campus. They’ve been brought together as examples of the furniture that was in College Hall.”

Artifacts include everyday objects like napkin rings, which Wellesley students were then required to have, keys to the College and the Tree Day Spade, used to plant class trees, which dates back to the early 1880s.

The exhibit also features numerous letters, telegrams, accounts of the fire and offers of outside support.

“Graham, Musacchio and I spent a fair amount of time in the archives in the library going through all the materials,” Shennan said. “We had a lot more material than we were able to accommodate in the space.”

In honor of the fire’s centennial, the pedestal of Henry Dexter’s Backswoodsman statue was installed on the Davis Plaza. This “very large, ax-wielding, Paul Bunyan type,” statue, according to Graham, used to sit on the south porch of College Hall and, Graham explained, was the source of deep dislike among the students.

“Students referred to [the statue] as the only man on campus and, on May Day, they ceremonially scrubbed it and brushed its teeth before dressing it up with flowers,” said Mustacchio. “But the statue mysteriously disappeared in the night in 1912, a year before the fire, and was apparently chopped into pieces and buried in the pathway in front of College Hall.”

The base of the statue, carved in granite, ended up on the Wellesley golf course and has remained there since it was discovered in the 1930s. It now stands in the Davis Plaza in front of a large photo of the original statue. Mustacchio explains that its placement is intended to encourage students to stand on the pedestal and pose like the Backwoodsman.

The exhibit will remain open until July 20 so that alumnae who visit the College for reunion can also have the opportunity to view the documents, photographs and artifacts that are currently on display.

Shennan has been much gratified with the Wellesley community’s response to the commemorative events. Though he believes that it is important to pause and take stock of the College’s rich history, Shennan considers the commemoration of the fire an essential part of looking forward, particularly as Wellesley plans for the coming decades.

“Part of my job has been to plan for the renewal of our campus in the years ahead,” Shennan said. “I think that the way we, as a college, responded to the fire is important to bear in mind as we think about renewing the campus for the next century.”

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