Burning Buildings

27 06 2012

The first dorm, Saint’s Rest, before it burned.

In the early decades of Michigan State University’s existence, fire used to be a very real and constant threat.  This isn’t hard to imagine during a time when the dormitories were heated by extremely flammable materials and the students were using candles.  In fact, the first building on our list to have burned to the ground was also the first student quarters, Saint’s Rest.  MSU’s archaeology department has done a number of excavations on the site where the dorm used to stand, the most recent in the summer of 2009.  The building burned during the winter break of 1876, which left very little for the excavators to find at the site, except that, “the building’s cellar was full of brick from the collapsed building; charred wood beams were strewn about; stoves were stacked on top of each other.”

The ruins of Wells Hall.

The next unfortunate structure on our list is Wells Hall, named for Hezekiah G Wells, a previous member of the State Board of Agriculture.  Although few students know about it today, the current Wells building at MSU is the third of its kind.  Ironically, this hall was built in 1877 to replace the much-needed living space that the college lost when Saint’s Rest burned, but Wells itself lasted just about as long as its predecessor.  The structure caught fire and was destroyed in 1905, only to be rebuilt, razed to the ground, then rebuilt once again and turned into a haven for frustrated math students.

MSU’s Engineering department owes its existence in part to the fact that their facility, the aptly named original Engineering Building, was destroyed by fire in 1916 (which also took out part of the new Wells Hall roof).  The building and curriculum were running by 1885, but from the start MSU’s department caused controversy throughout the state.  A large portion of Michiganians felt that MSU did not need extensive engineering facilities due to the fact that the University of Michigan had a history of teaching engineering, and MSU was a primarily agricultural school.  It is due to this belief that, when the structure burned, many

The Engineering Building in flames.

people around Michigan thought it spelled the end of MSU’s engineering dreams.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, however; the very next day President Kedzie and the Dean of Engineering, Bissell, arranged for classes to be continued and held elsewhere.  Kedzie also approached R.E. Olds and received an incredibly generous donation of 100,000 dollars to rebuild the facility—and this is the 1910s we’re talking about here, multiply that number by 10 to get today’s equivalent.  Fire, the new Engineering Building, and the professors’ proactive measures solidified the curriculum’s continuing existence at MSU.

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