Provost's Speech

Convocation Remarks

Provost and Dean of the College Andy Shennan
September 3, 2013

Next spring, shortly before you seniors graduate, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the single most important day in this college’s history—the day that much of Wellesley College burned to the ground. Show of hands: How many of you have heard of the great fire of 1914? (If you had all put your hands up, I’m not sure what I would do with the rest of this speech!) I’d like to spend a few minutes telling you about it, and for several reasons. First, the campus we have today, to a large extent, emerged from the ashes of the fire. Second, the story is dramatic and instructive in its own right: It says a lot not just about who we were and who we aspired to be a century ago, but also (I would argue) still are. And could there be a more timely moment to mark this turning point in Wellesley’s history than now, as the College is preparing to embark on the program of campus renewal that we have called Wellesley 2025? After two years of work by many members of this community, we have formulated an ambitious plan for modernizing and revitalizing critical buildings, including the Science Center and greenhouses, Pendleton West, Green Hall, the Sports Center, Schneider, Munger, and residence halls and dining facilities across the campus. Reimagining existing spaces is certainly a different challenge from literally rebuilding the campus; but in Wellesley 2025 we are trying to emulate, for this century, the kind of broad and visionary planning that was done so wonderfully well in the aftermath of the 1914 fire. 

But first the fire itself. As you look over towards Severance Hill—where Tower Court, Severance, and Claflin now stand—imagine a vast pile of a building, almost 500 feet long, five stories high, constructed from 7 million bricks. That was College Hall. Originally, College Hall was the College. By 1914, we had added other buildings to the campus (including the Library, the Chapel, and the dorms in the Hazard Quad). But still most of Wellesley College was contained in that one building—rooms for more than 200 students and a dozen women faculty, dining and social spaces, 28 classrooms, an assembly hall large enough for the whole campus, most of the science labs, all the administrative offices, most of the academic departments. Think of the equivalent of Founders, Green, Pendleton, the Science Center, the Lulu, Tower Court, Claflin, and Severance—all in one building! 

Shortly before 4:30 a.m. on March 17, 1914, somewhere on an upper floor, College Hall caught fire. Two seniors (Virginia Moffat and Miriam Grover), whose room was on the fourth floor, were awoken (in Miriam’s words) by the “sound of crackling and falling embers, and an eerie orange light through the transom of our door.” They immediately alerted the head of residence and the registrar (who in those days lived with the students). One floor below, two other seniors who had been awakened by the commotion rushed to sound the bronze gong that was normally used to summon students to dinner. Soon electric alarm bells began to ring throughout the corridors, and students and faculty made their way to a vast atrium area on the ground floor known as College Hall Center. There a first roll call was taken; eight people were missing. Within a few minutes, the eight were located, and the students and faculty headed outside into the chilly, pre-dawn darkness. As fire engulfed the whole structure, the head of residence and other staff worked heroically to salvage as much as they could—carrying out armfuls of precious books, pictures, and student records. Then the students formed a line and passed these objects from hand to hand down Severance Hill to the library. The evacuation was, by all accounts, conducted with almost superhuman calm and precision, which makes the instances of all-too-human behavior almost reassuring. Miss Burrell, a mathematics professor, was convinced that it was just a fire drill and refused to come out of her room, until one of her English department colleagues insisted, none too politely. The junior class treasurer and treasurer of the Shakespeare Society was on her way downstairs for the roll call when she realized that she had left the two checkbooks containing all the student dues in her room… while the roll call continued, she ran back upstairs to retrieve them. In other words, it wasn’t all by the rules.   

Miraculously, there was no loss of life or even serious injury. But there were other kinds of loss. The College lost a huge chunk of its wealth and its past (including its archives). Student and faculty residents lost all their personal belongings. Some faculty members also lost years’ worth of research. Marion Hubbard, professor of zoology, had spent the previous six years studying heredity and variation in beetles. She was about to write up her results, and her colleagues believed they would be important; unfortunately, all her specimens, notes, and apparatus were destroyed.  So were the equipment, labs, and special collections of entire departments, such as Geology, Physics, and Psychology. 

At 8:30 a.m., with the fires still burning and College Hall gone, the entire student body gathered in Houghton Memorial Chapel. The President, Ellen Fitz Pendleton (whose portrait you can see in the entrance hall to Pendleton East), Class of 1886, led the community in prayers and assured the students and faculty that the college would find a way to complete the academic year on schedule. She instructed the students to go home as soon as they had gathered up their possessions (if they still had any) and to return after spring break. In what must have been a very moving moment, she told the students that the buildings were not the College; they were the College, and they must always remember that. A few hours later, President Pendleton called the faculty together, and announced that everyone should report for duty on April 7th.

The experience of the fire, of course, has to be viewed in the context of its time and of a college culture different from ours. This was a time when there was only one possible hymn (a Christian hymn) that the choir could sing, as they marched into the Chapel that morning. And contemporary accounts that stress the “splendid discipline,” selflessness, and self-control of all concerned probably say as much about how young women of a certain religious and social background were expected to behave as about the actual experience. (Think of those famous accounts of selfless behavior on the sinking Titanic two years earlier). And yet, even though some of the words and sentiments may seem dated, we can recognize ourselves in the College’s collective response to this crisis. Today, the chapel gathering, the prayers and the music, would reflect our more diverse community. But I expect the message would be the same: You, the students, are the College. And I hope that the College’s response would be as resourceful as it was a century ago. Just as the president promised, classes resumed on schedule three weeks later. While the 1,400 students had been away on break, the College had somehow found a way to erect a large administrative and classroom building alongside the Chapel on Chapel Green. And already, while the ruins of College Hall were still smoldering, fund-raising and planning for the rebuilding had begun.

Rebuilding brings me back to Wellesley 2025. In the College’s experience after 1914, there are important lessons for the work that we will be doing over the next decade. An essential lesson is that we need to ensure that our renovated buildings meet the educational and residential needs of the future, not those of the past. After the destruction of College Hall, the College didn’t try to replicate the model of a single building, integrating residential, scientific, instructional, and administrative functions. Even before 1914, the shortcomings of that model had been apparent. Rather than reconstructing what had been lost, the College took the opportunity of this crisis to develop a different model, separating academic and administrative spaces from student residences. As we remodel the interiors of today’s academic buildings and residence halls, we need to be similarly forward-thinking.

We also need to be bold in our planning and ensure, as far as possible, that our buildings reflect our highest aspirations as an educational institution. Among other things, the fire of 1914 was a financial disaster. Many institutions might have responded by retrenching and planning with an eye to short-term economy. Instead, the College took a more aspirational approach, beginning work almost immediately on Tower Court and then adopting the plan that would eventually lead to the construction of our remarkable Academic Quad. The justification for doing so was well expressed by a group of faculty just a year after the fire: “A great design may be cut down and altered to meet limitations of price and so forth, and may still remain great, but a petty design can never afterwards be enlarged.” A great design always runs the risk of raising expectations beyond what can be achieved in the near term; in just the past few months, since details of the 2025 plan have been released, we have seen the disappointments that can follow from raised expectations. Still, in 2014, as in 1914, the aspirational approach is the right one for Wellesley.

But with aspiration must come patience. It wasn’t until five years after the fire that the College opened its new academic building, Founders Hall. It was 17 years before Green Hall was built, and 22 years before Pendleton was built. And that unloved plywood structure on the Chapel Green, built in just three weeks, remained standing until 1931, when, on the 17th anniversary of the great fire, the College community gleefully demolished it. The reality is that we in our generation will need to have similar patience. Even our most basic plans to renew our older residence halls and key academic buildings will take the better part of a decade to accomplish, and will require many of us¾students, faculty, and staff¾to adapt to temporary accommodations. The more we can achieve of our aspirational plans, the longer it will take. But, as the experience after 1914 shows, it is a trade-off worth making.

The challenges we face today, envisioning a campus that will meet the educational and residential needs of a 21st century liberal arts college and women’s college, are different from those of a century ago. We are operating in a world of infinitely greater technical complexity, and our facilities require ever more specialized expertise. But for me there is still a simple lesson in the fire of 1914 and its aftermath that remains relevant: In our stewardship of this extraordinary place, we all have a role to play. Think of the students passing salvaged treasures down Severance Hill. Think of the administration promising that the College would finish the year and putting up a building in three weeks to make that possible. Think of the remarkable generation of faculty women and alumnae who then pushed the College to preserve the low-lying spaces of this campus and build an inspiring academic quad on the hill at its center. This time around, no doubt, the roles will be different. But the lesson of 1914 is that we all have a role to play. In the year ahead, I look forward to participating in this community’s effort to renew our campus.

Note: Descriptions of the fire and the rebuilding of the college are based on three books (Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater; Wellesley College 1875-1975: A Century of Women; and Peter Fergusson et al., The Landscape and Architecture of Wellesley College) and on contemporary materials kindly provided by the College Archives.