College remembers Old Kenyon fire

F ifty years ago, at about 4:00 a.m. on February 27, 1949, a night watchman and several students almost simultaneously discovered a fire raging in the halls of Old Kenyon. By the time the fire was brought under control later that day, the College had suffered the worst disaster in its history and nine students had lost their lives.

Officials later determined that sparks from a relatively new fireplace, cut into one of the building's ancient chimneys, had fallen into an old flue and from there passed through a crack in the masonry into the space between the first and second floors. The sparks smoldered there, building up gasses and smoke before bursting into the second and third floors of Middle Kenyon around 4:00 a.m. While fire walls helped to spare the lives of students living in the building's east and west wings, residents of the second and third floors of Middle Kenyon had no such protection from the conflagration's ferocity.

The nine students who died in the fire were Ernest Ahwajee of Akron, Ohio; Edward Brout of Mount Vernon, New York; Albert Lewis of Hazleton, Pennsylvania; Martin Mangel of New York City; Jack McDonald of Hamilton, Ohio; Marc Peck of Fenton, Michigan; George Pincus of Brooklyn, New York; Stephen Shepard of New York City; and Colin Woodworth of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Seven of them lived on the third floor of Middle Kenyon and died in the fire; two lived on the second floor and died as a result of skull fractures suffered as they jumped from the building. The nine are memorialized in a bronze plaque located in Old Kenyon.

In a letter to his family dated March 2, 1949, Richard E. Warren '50, then a junior living in Hanna Hall, wrote, "As is often the case when disaster strikes a community, one is struck by the immediate unity and closeness that seems to descend upon the people. This was true to a remarkable degree here at Kenyon." He noted the "extreme bravery" of the president and the dean, saying, "I can only speak very highly of the commendable action of the College administration during the crisis." There were many heroes of the fire, from students and employees to firefighters and other members of the Gambier and Mount Vernon communities. Prominent among them were Dean of the College Frank Bailey (1904-72), whose efforts in fighting the fire and rescuing students complicated back injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life, and Edwin Collins '51, who was awarded a bronze medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for saving the lives of two fellow students.

Although estimates for reconstructing the building came to $800,000 (about $5.2 million in 1999 dollars), there was never any question that Old Kenyon would be rebuilt. "From the moment of the tragedy," wrote Alumni Secretary Robert Bowen Brown '11, "there [was] only one thought, one determination in the minds of everyone connected with Kenyon and many who have no connection whatever--Old Kenyon must rise again. Among those of us who know and love Kenyon, the reason for this [was] obvious. Old Kenyon was the symbol of the College itself."

Even without solicitation, more than $50,000 in gifts was received in the days following the fire. In early March, the trustees affirmed the decision to rebuild and postponed fundraising for other purposes. Insurance payments to Kenyon brought the uncovered costs of the reconstruction down to $600,000, most of which came from the Restoration Fund into which all available resources were funneled for the next several years.

Detailed photographs were taken of the walls and then keyed to the undamaged stones, which were numbered for eventual replacement in their prefire positions in order to match the original building as closely as possible. The walls were then torn down, a new basement was excavated, and a steel-and-concrete superstructure was installed. After that, the old stones were meticulously reset to mimic the veneer on the outer walls of the original building. (Where new stones were needed to replace those damaged in the fire, old ones were split down the middle.) Amazingly, the "new" Old Kenyon was ready for occupancy when students arrived for the 1950-51 academic year on September 11, 1950.

The Old Kenyon of today--most recently renovated in 1988--features an interior that is much different from that of its predecessor. However, it is an almost exact replica of the original building on its north, east, and west faces. The sole significant departure from the original exterior is on the south face, where a row of dormer windows was installed during the reconstruction.

In recognition of the fiftieth anniversary, Special Collections Librarian Jami Peelle prepared an exhibit--including news reports, photographs, a slide show, and the clapper from the original Old Kenyon bell--that was on view in the Greenslade Special Collections area of Olin Library from February 15 through March 5. It will be on display again during Reunion Weekend.

In May, the Class of 1949 will celebrate its fiftieth reunion at the College. Among the memories they will share is one of a terrible fire on a frigid night in February 1949. Because Old Kenyon housed almost a quarter of the student body, the disaster touched nearly all of them, whether they were injured themselves or they were friends of those injured or killed. Along with other classmates and friends who have died over the years, the nine claimed by the fire will be honored in a service planned for Sunday, May 30.

Editor's note: Much of the material in this account is taken from the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin of 1949 and Kenyon College: Its Third Half Century by Thomas Greenslade '31.

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