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The 100th Anniversary of the College Hall Fire, Wellesley

College Hall

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire that burned down the College Hall of Wellesley College which took four years to build and a mere four hours to become burned ruins. College Hall was where many students, faculty, and staff lived, studied, worked, ate and shared their time together. But all that changed on that fateful foggy morning when the Japanese bell, gong, and crackling flames rousted sleepy residents, clad in nightgowns, kimonos and robes and some barefooted to the five-story atrium as embers and cinders rained down on them and roll calls were made. Within ten minutes all 216 of the residents were safe and they began an orderly bucket brigade to save the treasures from the flame. Not a soul perished. Thanks to the tradition of the running of fire-drills in Wellesley since the 1870s and the collected calmness and presence of mind of the Wellesley girls.

Wellesley was founded in 1875 by Pauline and Henry Fowle Durant with a vision of raising women from a position of subordination through higher education to a nobler and graceful status to become “the crowned queen of the world by right of that knowledge which is power and that beauty which is truth.” By the time of the fire Wellesley was internationally known; sixty percent of its students came from outside Massachusetts. It first international student was from Japan, Kin Kato, who spent a year at the college in 1888. The Japanese bell which was rung during the fire was from Horinsan Rengeji or the Temple of the Lotus Flower near Tokyo and it was a comfortable symbol of her Japan home. The news of the fire appeared on the front page of the London Times

On this anniversary, a great number of alumnae, students and faculty gathered in the Houghton Memorial Chapel to remember this occasion. This was where the students, faculty and staff gathered after the fire to listen to President Pendleton’s inspiring speech that the students and the faculty were the college not the building. This coming from a President who in the previous evening greeted the Wellesley debate team in the atrium celebrating their victories and defeat with rival team of Mount Holyoke when she aptly said,” It is a fine thing to be enthusiastic over victory. It is a better [thing] to learn enthusiasm from defeat.”

Despite the loss of their home, worldly possessions, irreplaceable years of academic research findings and scholarly work, Wellesley with an overwhelming outpouring of support from colleges and people all over the country rose up as a unified community with courage and resourcefulness towards a common goal: to reconstruct a new and vibrant Wellesley from the ashes and to continue the Wellesley’s legacy of staunch and heroic spirit in the belief of the strength and purpose of women’s higher education for the next generations of young Wellesley girls so they too could experience the greatness that is Wellesley, our alma mater. We should all take this occasion to remember the loss that allowed us to show forth the true resilience of Wellesley and to celebrate its courage and conviction to continue the great experiment for higher education for women.

It makes me proud to be a Wellesley woman!

…for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:18

King James Bible

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