at midday on February 12, 1879, a fire destroyed most of the
Edifice except for its outer walls. Greencastle had experienced
two major town fires in 1874 and 1875, which had virtually wiped
out the south and east sides of the public square and much of downtown,
including many fraternity halls. Hence the city fathers had been
wrestling with the problem of an adequate water supply and a fire
company, which had not been yet resolved. The Edifice fire climaxed
this series of disasters.
The fire began at noon, and the fire company arrived about a half
hour after its discovery because of a delay in getting the horses
that pulled the equipment from the livery stable. Almost immediately
water from the nearest cistern was used up; the fire lasted about
four hours. The students tried to rescue what they could, and thanks
to Captain Wheeler and his cadets there was some system to it all,
though later generations might fault the Captain for spending more
effort rescuing his cannons than saving books from the library.
All the explosives were removed and some of the books were salvaged,
many remaining to this day in the library's Whitcomb Collection.
Also saved were some specimens from the scientific cabinet and a
few odd articles. A student cut the head from the large full-length
painting of Bishop Roberts, which hangs reframed today in the hallway
outside Meharry Hall. But most of the furniture was gone, the clock
destroyed, the charming college bell known for its beautiful tone
melted down. To the chagrin of later historians all the records
of the preparatory department disappeared.
In two weeks the trustees met, hired an architect, and began rebuilding.
The cost was $17,000 and the renamed West College was open for use
by the following October. Additions were made on both east and west.
The main entrance now faced east rather than north, as originally
constructed. The first floor contained a gymnasium and armory with
quarters for the military department; the second, an assembly hall
and classrooms for the preparatory department; the third, rooms
for the university library, the museum, and an alumni hall.
The rear of the Edifice
at the time of its
destruction by fire in February 1879.