Light on the Hill, Volume II

Miller, Russell


A PLAGUE OF FIRES. To add to the president's woes and to those of the university in the 1960s and 1970S the campus was plagued by no less than a dozen fires between 1969 and 1975. Only one building on the campus had been destroyed by fire during the Wessell administration, and it was considered only a minor loss. A small red frame building behind West Hall had been acquired from the Office of Naval Research in 1953 and was used by the Department of Psychology until the early 1960s. In the spring of 1965 it was vacant and scheduled for demolition, but some students decided to expedite matters as a prank which got out of hand.

Some fires were minor in nature and of nuisance value only, but others were of serious proportions. Three, of major dimensions, were of suspicious character, and were apparently set by individuals or groups of individuals from outside the campus. Two others, also resulting in either complete destruction of buildings or major damage, were accidental. The remaining fires, occurring in dormitories or fraternity houses, were minor in nature and ostensibly had no connection with student upheavals, town-gown relations, or the ideological turmoil of the period, but they could have had serious consequences for both lives and property. Two fires in West Hall - one


in 1969 and another two years later - resulted in approximately $10,000 in damage. Part of the cost of the fire in 1971 was recovered from a student who was found to have been negligent.

By good fortune none of the fires resulted in loss of life or serious personal injury, but aside from the disruptions that resulted, they all added to the financial burdens of the university. Security forces had to be augmented, and aside from non-reimbursable expenses to refurbish or replace burned or damaged areas, Tufts was forced to accept sharply increased deductible clauses in insurance policies.

In May 1969 Crane Chapel in Paige Hall was fire-bombed. It badly damaged some of the fine carved woodwork imported many years earlier from England through the efforts of Lee S. McCollester, Dean of the Crane Theological School. The motive was unclear, although there was conjecture that the fire, which came at the height of the controversy over ROTC, was started by individuals from outside the campus who were not familiar with its layout and who mistook Paige Hall for Sweet Hall, in which the two ROTC units were then housed. After the damage had been repaired, the former chapel and the former library space on the ground floor of Paige Hall were converted into classrooms in 1970. The space formerly occupied by the Crane library was once considered for use as a student recreation area, in the absence of a campus center.

The Tufts campus was the locale for several acts of vandalism during one weekend in February 1970. An unsuccessful attempt was made to set a fire in recently renovated Eaton Hall. An attempt was more successful in nearby Braker Hall, where fire was discovered early one morning on the top floor of the building which housed the offices of the Economics and History Departments. The fire had progressed sufficiently by the time it was discovered to have burned through three areas of the roof at one end of the building. The fire was apparently started in an office in the west end of the structure housing the office of Franklyn D. Holzman, where the destruction was complete. Lost were irreplaceable files of material on the Soviet economy, in which he was an expert.

The conflagration was brought under control through the combined efforts of the Somerville and Medford fire departments after about four hours. Damage to the other third-floor offices and to the remainder of the building was confined to the effects of smoke and water. Altogether, between $300,000 and $350,000 in damage was done, most of which was covered by insurance. Insurance coverage provided a sum of only $500 for loss of personal belongings for each


individual, and the Holzman loss was estimated to be in excess of $10,000. In a burst of spontaneous generosity the entire Tufts community pledged several thousand dollars to cover what was replaceable.

The day following the fire was a holiday, so arrangements could be and were made to provide temporary housing for the two departments directly affected. The staff of the Economics Department was housed in the Grounds and Buildings facility on Boston Avenue and the History Department office and those of most of its faculty were assigned to the Systems building near Cousens Gymnasium.

Thanks to the prompt and efficient emergency arrangements, the classes housed in the nine classrooms in Braker were immediately reassigned to new locations, so academic operations were provided without interruption. By a coincidence, the History Department secretarial office and files had been moved from the third to the first floor of Braker just a few weeks before the fire, so more extensive damage than might have otherwise occurred was avoided. The necessary renovations were completed shortly after the opening of the fall semester in 1970 and included conversion of the third floor to provide 1,700 square feet of additional office space.

In March 1971, one or more fire bombs were thrown into second-floor windows of Mugar Hall, which housed the Fletcher School. The offices of the dean and an associate dean were gutted. Only a few papers were salvaged, and there was considerable personal loss of books, photographs, and other irreplaceable memorabilia. Much of the remainder of the building suffered from water damage. The total estimated cost was in excess of $75,000. The episode occurred at a time when feeling against the federal Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was at its height. Many of its personnel had attended Fletcher. There was also the belief that the school was somehow involved in the unpopular war in Indochina.

One of the most disastrous fires to strike the Tufts campus resulted in the complete destruction of North Hall and most of its contents in Feburary 1972. The conflagration was apparently a case of arson, reportedly set by a disgruntled student. Occupied originally by the Doble Engineering Company and known as the "Electro-Technical Building," it had been officially named "North Hall" in 1947 after the engineering firm had left the campus. The building had, in 1948, become the home of the Departments of Education and most of the Psychology Department and the office of the Dean of the Graduate School. At the time of the fire the building housed the office of the Dean of the College of Special Studies and the office of the advisor to foreign students as well as the Psychology


Department. (The Department of Education had been moved in the 1960s to the ground floor of the building housing the Lincoln Filene Center and the Graduate School office was relocated in Ballou Hall.) But little was salvaged from the ruins. Completely lost was a computer used by the Psychology Department, and the Ezra V. Saul Memorial Reading Room named in honor of a prominent member of the Psychology Department after his death in 1970 and housing his library.

The Psychology Department was relocated in Paige Hall. In order to make room for it, the Counseling Center was in turn moved to a small building some distance from North Hall, known as the "Psychology Annex," which had escaped the flames. It had been purchased from the Office of Naval Research for $1,000 in 1953 and was used until it was razed in 1978 to make way for a complex of new dormitories on Medford Hillside.

The night of 14 April 1975 was a disastrous one for the hilltop campus. Fire, apparently caused by electrical malfunctioning in a refrigeration unit, gutted the central (original) section of the old Barnum Museum built in 1884, which housed much of the Department of Biology, and destroyed portions of the two wings added in later years. Only the Dana Wing, first occupied in 1965, escaped with only smoke and water damage.

Aside from losses of books, equipment, and laboratory animals, the greatest sufferers from the fire were two faculty members, Benjamin Dane and Norton Nickerson, who had years of irreplaceable research records wiped out. Among the losses were hundreds of feet of film used by Dane and the complete destruction of Nickerson's herbarium. Nickerson was out of the country at the time of the fire, completing botanical field work in the Bahamas, and was apprised of the loss two days after the fire when he landed at the airport in Boston. Also completely destroyed was a room dedicated on Alumni Day in 1969 to Herbert V. Neal, Professor of Biology from 1913 to 1939.

Major loss of another kind also resulted from the Barnum fire. Jumbo, the stuffed hide of the elephant donated by P.T. Barnum in 1889 and the beloved Tufts mascot for generations of students, went up in fire and smoke. Thanks to the foresight of Russell L. Carpenter, curator of the Barnum building and an expert on Jumbo and his history, almost all of the famous circus showman's extensive correspondence and other memorabilia had been deposited in the University Archives over the course of many years and escaped destruction. However, lost in the fire were Barnum's desk and a bust of him, both of which had resided in the same room as Jumbo.




More than 2,000 students, alumni, and faculty contributed to a fire fund to start the financing of reconstruction. A loan from the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to rebuild was negotiated in 1975, and by February 1976 all contractual work for reconstruction had been completed and the rebuilt structure furnished with state-of-the-art equipment. In a way, the Barnum fire might have been considered a blessing in disguise.

  • Light on the Hill, the second volume of the history of Tufts University, was published in 1986, covering the years from 1952 to 1986. This doucument was created from the 1986 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume II.
This object is in collection Subject Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 Title Page
1. Setting the Stage for the Second Century
2. Long-Range Planning
3. Bricks and Mortar 1952-1967
4. The End of Theological Education at Tufts
5. Ever-Widening Curricula for Liberal Arts and Engineering
6. Jackson College: A Search for Identity
7. Defining the Role of the College of Special Studies
8. The Arts and Sciences Faculty I
9. The Arts and Sciences Faculty II
10. The Central Library
11. The Changing Character of the Student Body
12. Fraternities and Sororities at Tufts: A Cyclical History
13. A Beehive of Activity: From Trustees to Students
14. From Wessell to Hallowell
15. The Hallowell Administration: Years of Trial and Tribulation
16. The Hallowell Administration: Continued Trial and Tribulation
17. Educational Ventures, Successful and Otherwise
18. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
19. Medical and Dental Education I
20. Medical and Dental Education II
21. Taking Stock of the University in the 1960s and 1970s
22. The Mayer Administration: A Preliminary View
23. The Mayer Administration: Consolidation and Expansion