Fire of 1922: every student’s worst nightmare come true

April 11, 2013 7:54 pm0 commentsViews: 74


People today talk about the original three dorms built on campus: Brigham (named after Mary Brigham, the appointed Mount Holyoke president who died in a train accident on her way to assume her presidency), Safford (named after Deacon Daniel Safford, an early trustee and friend of Mary Lyon), and Porter (named after Deacon Andrew Porter, another close friend of Mary Lyon and her chief advisor in creating the College). This big trio were the first three buildings to be completed after a catastrophic fire on September 27, 1896, destroyed all of Mount Holyoke as it existed at the time. Then came Pearsons Hall, and finally, the fifth new building constructed was the original Rockefeller Hall.

Wait — original Rockefeller Hall? The building we know today as the beloved Rockies is actually the second Rockefeller Hall at Mount Holyoke.

The first Rockefeller Hall was built on the same spot that the second Rockefeller Hall occupies today. Oil tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller donated $200,000, or what would equal nearly $5.5 million dollars today, to fund the construction. This building lasted for 24 years.

On December 21, 1922, which was the day that students were preparing to leave, two people – Mary Hopkins ‘23 and matron of Rockefeller Bessie Symonds – noticed trash barrels on fire and heard a loud explosion, and alerted everyone to a potential brewing disaster. Most of the other residents were busy at services in the chapel, although when news of the fire spread, they ran back to try and save their belongings. The cause of the fire was never determined, although evidence appears to point to a gas explosion.

In the dead of winter, residents of the Rockies stood outside in deep, drifting snow while the building burned. Firefighters arrived from South Hadley, South Hadley Falls and Holyoke in an attempt to put out the flames, but the snow made it especially difficult to travel. Low water pressure also restricted attempts to salvage the building.

While many students were able to save some of their most important belongings (since suitcases had been packed in preparation to return home for break) most heavy trunks could not be moved and were destroyed along with the building. Twenty students lost everything; Holyoke-based trustee Edwin N. White offered loans to these students so they could replace their belongings, and Joseph Skinner, for whom Skinner Hall is named, arrived at the scene and offered to pay for the train tickets of anyone who’d lost their money. The loss of the building was estimated at $125,000, while the insurance only covered $90,000 worth of damage.

What to do when a dormitory is destroyed? The solution, when students returned in January, was moving into Blanchard Gymnasium. Students slept on the gym floor, while gym classes were either canceled or held in other areas around campus. Meanwhile, to replace the dining hall destroyed in the fire, a new facility temporarily opened in the basement of what is Mary Woolley Hall today.

Students rallied around the destruction, throwing themselves into intense fundraising efforts to reconstruct a new building. John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the Rockies’ initial benefactor, pitched in $175,000 for the cause, and alumnae did the rest. Two alums, Emily Driscoll ‘20 and Evelyn Gibson ‘20, enthusastic former Rocky residents, created a committee. Their goal was to achieve $10 donations from every student who had ever lived in Rockefeller, about 2,000 residents. With their help, the funds were raised.

In 1923, less than a year after the fire destroyed the old Rockefeller, the new building—”Rocky Junior”­ — was completed in the same location. This is the building that we know today, literally rising from the ashes to become one of the most coveted dorms on campus.


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