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Wellesley College remembers trial by fire

1914 blaze destroyed landmark College Hall, and very nearly ended the school as well

College Hall, the centerpiece structure and original building on the Wellesley campus, was left an empty shell by a fire on March 17, 1914.
College Hall, the centerpiece structure and original building on the Wellesley campus, was left an empty shell by a fire on March 17, 1914.Wellesley College archives

Just before sunrise on a wet, chilly March morning in 1914, about 200 Wellesley College women — clad in their nightgowns, bathrobes, and bare feet — rushed to the lobby of their beloved dormitory as a fire raged four stories above them.

With embers falling all around, the women worked quickly to save furniture, books, and papers from the first floor, throwing items out of windows and passing them down a human line to the campus library for safekeeping.

Only the masonry walls of Wellesley’s centerpiece College Hall were left standing after the fire in March 1914.
Only the masonry walls of Wellesley’s centerpiece College Hall were left standing after the fire in March 1914.Wellesley College archives

No one was hurt in the fire on March 17, 1914, but the blaze would cause an existential crisis at the then 39-year-old women’s college.

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After the flames destroyed College Hall, the heart and anchor of the campus, college leaders faced a crucial decision: Should they cut their losses and shut down the school, or attempt to raise more than $2 million — the equivalent of about $47 million today, according to one Wellesley economist — in just months to keep the campus going?

This week, Wellesley leaders are celebrating the completion of the second choice. An exhibition of nearly 100 artifacts will be unveiled at the college’s Davis Museum on Monday to mark the 100th anniversary of the fire that tore through the ornate five-story, 475-foot-long College Hall, which had served as the main academic, administrative, and residential building on campus. The free display will be open to the public starting Tuesday, and remain on exhibit through July 20 during regular museum hours.

Students marked May Day 1914 with the hall’s ruins as a backdrop.
Students marked May Day 1914 with the hall’s ruins as a backdrop.Wellesley College archives

“In the moment, there was concern that the financial loss of the building and everything in it would be crippling, and that the college would not recover,” said Andrew Shennan, provost and dean of Wellesley and a co- curator of the exhibition. “But everybody rolled up their sleeves.”

In an open letter printed by the Wellesley campus newspaper two weeks after the fire, president Ellen Fitz Pendleton said the college would only receive $600,000 in insurance money.

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“We are facing a great crisis in the history of the college,” Pendleton wrote. “The future of our alma mater is in our hands.”

The Rockefeller Foundation offered the college a $750,000 grant, but with one caveat: Wellesley must raise the rest of the money by January 1915. The college managed to eke out just enough by the deadline to receive the Rockefeller grant, largely due to a rallying of colleges nationwide, said Jacqueline Musacchio, a Wellesley College art history professor and the display’s other curator.

The donations came in “dribs and drabs,” ranging from $7 to $1,000, especially as the devastating fire drew national and international media attention, Musacchio said. Nearby universities like Harvard and MIT loaned science equipment and textbooks to the college, she said.

“Wellesley alums were few and far between, so money was few and far between,” Musacchio said.

Students raised money at women’s colleges like Barnard and Smith and Mount Holyoke, members of the so-called Seven Sisters association of schools that comprised a female Ivy League before women were allowed into their male-only counterparts.

“Students had collection boxes in their dorms, they put on plays and musicals, and they hosted bake sales,” said Musacchio. “And it wasn’t just the Seven Sisters colleges donating, but colleges across the board.”

The fire did have its benefits: Much of today’s Wellesley campus layout is owed to the fund-raising campaign waged after the blaze, Shennan said. Within three weeks, college officials had built a makeshift academic building, jokingly dubbed the “Hen House,” to finish out the school year; it was used for about 17 years while the current academic quad was constructed. Meanwhile, the College Hall rubble was cleared, and the Tower Court dormitories were built in its stead.

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“It was like a phoenix from the ashes,” Shennan said.

The exhibition, which features furniture, documents, and artifacts related to the College Hall fire, seeks to teach students, alumni, and area residents about the crucial turning point in Wellesley’s history.

Shennan said when he recently asked a room full of current Wellesley College students whether any of them knew about the fire, many raised their hands, but they “didn’t know the extent of it.”

However, there is one former Wellesley student who is quite familiar with the topic. Gina Baskett Solomon, who graduated from the college in 1986, said her grandmother, Janet Davison Baskett, lived in College Hall in 1914 and watched as all her belongings were destroyed in the blaze.

Solomon, who kept a stack of letters that her grandmother wrote home while at Wellesley, said the fire proved to be a trial, judging by her correspondence.

“Her letters talk about wanting more clothes, or what she had found through a donation center,” Solomon said, noting that her grandmother’s garments were scorched in the fire. “She also wrote that the fire was so hot that two weeks later they weren’t even allowed to be near it.”

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Baskett also complained about the temporary academic building, and was nostalgic for the elaborate dormitory she used to live in, Solomon said.

“She would compare the cramped quarters and narrowness of the hallways to the big, elegant building they used to have,” Solomon said.

Solomon donated her grandmother’s letters to Wellesley, and they will be part of the display.

Sarah Caltvedt, who graduated from Wellesley in 1969, said her grandmother, Pauline Elizabeth Durfee Chapin, a 1908 Wellesley grad, was studying wood carving in Munich when she heard the news of the fire. Chapin felt so affected that she began carving a prayer desk that same day to donate to the college; Musacchio found the desk in the campus chapel this year after launching a hunt for it to use in the exhibition, Caltvedt said.

“There were not a lot of women who went to college back then, so my grandmother was very dedicated to the college,” Caltvedt said. “It was a very important part of her life, so much that she went back and wrote in her log diary, ‘College Hall burned.’ It was something really significant for her.”

For more on the fire or the Davis Museum display, visit www.wellesley.edu/greatfire .


Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.