Most people forget that there once was a building on campus called Old Main. The only time it is really ever mentioned is when a student takes a campus tour, or there’s an event in the Old Main Ballroom in the UC. I’ve heard many different stories and questions rumored around campus about the building and the fire that destroyed it. Was it one building? Did the whole thing burn to the ground? Was it really arson? Was it protest related? Anti-War? Anti-ROTC? Race related? Did people die in the fire? Was it really that big of a deal? Well I’m here to set the record straight on a few things. As part of my position on campus as the UC Arts Manager, I have become one of the “guardians of campus history.” As part of my research for the Old Main Lane Permanent Display and Sesquicentennial Celebration, I have spent much time devoted to researching Old Main and the 1970 fire that forever changed the campus.
But What Was Old Main?
Old Main once stood at the heart of the UW-Whitewater campus, and as a symbol of excellence in education at Whitewater. Beginning as a single building in 1868, when Whitewater Normal School first opened its doors to train teachers, it survived a fire in 1891 and grew to consist of the Central, West, North, and East Wings. Originally a teachers college comprised of a grade school, high school and college, Old Main was remodeled and transformed until it ultimately contained various academic and administration departments, as well as the computer center, radio station, theater, and art gallery. This building held significant importance on campus. Vital and important records were stored in offices, along with millions of dollars’ worth of instruments, equipment, artwork, and technology. Campus had begun to grow larger by 1970, but Old Main was still considered the main academic building on campus.
1.6 Million Gallons of Water Later…..
Facing protests relating to various student unrest, the late 1960s-1970s was an era of turbulence for Whitewater as it was on campuses across the country. On February 7, 1970, a fire began to overtake Old Main, while a Saturday night dance was taking place in the University Center. Three unidentified students remarked to the University Center receptionist working at the time, “that there might be a fire in Old Main.” Campus police officers quickly arrived on the scene to find the west wing door broken into, and a wall of flames coming from the third floor. Within minutes, the Whitewater Fire Department arrived, followed by departments from Fort Atkinson, Jefferson, La Grange and Palmyra. Thousands of people gathered from the campus and community to look on as their campus landmark burned. Faculty, staff, and even students raced into the burning building in an attempt to rescue records and file cabinets.
Within 15 minutes, the entire west wing was engulfed in flames and the fire leaped to the roof of the central wing, as the bell tower lit up the night. The roof of the west wing then collapsed as the fire spread to the north wing, while fire fighters struggled to contain it from destroying the east wing as well. After six hours and 1.6 million gallons of water, fire fighters brought the fire under control. The official ruling from the Director of the State Fire Marshall’s Office, William Rossiter, was arson. Rossiter said, “Our investigation shows that two and possibly three unconnected fires were burning at the same time. It was an incendiary fire. We’ve examined the physical remains and we’ve eliminated all the chances of the fire starting from natural causes.” Overall damage was estimated to be over $3 million, and to this day, the perpetrators have never been found. Today, Hyer Hall, originally the east wing of Old Main, is the only surviving section of the building.
The fire destroyed 28 classrooms throughout the central, north and west wings, and 19 rooms in the east wing due to water damage. Amazingly, classes were still held the following Monday. This was largely due to Dr. I.W. “Ike” Schaffer’s efforts to relocate classes to other buildings on campus. Dr. Schaffer, who first came to campus in 1947, was serving as the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for the university when the fire took place. The Special Issue of the Royal Purple from Monday, February 9, 1970, listed the class relocation schedule and demonstrated how every inch of campus was utilized. Classes were moved to somewhat unexpected locations including various Residence and Dining Hall Snack Rooms, TV Rooms and Recreation Rooms. Some students even found their professors conducting class from within coat rooms. Although firefighters sustained injuries while battling the blaze, no lives were lost. If there had not been a dance in the University Center that night, things may have ended differently. As the campus mourned the loss of its historic symbol and important building, it tried to reunite and move forward together.
Blog written by Chloe Rettinger
If you would like to share your story about the Old Main Fire,
please contact Kim Adams at 262-472-1477 or firstname.lastname@example.org,
or Chloe Rettinger at 262-472-3193 or email@example.com
Pictures used with special permission from UW-Whitewater Special Collections