Dartmouth Hall burned down on Feb. 18, 1904. Alumni quickly raised funds for a new building, and its cornerstone was laid by that October. It was crucial to rebuild the hall as fast as possible, as it was central to student life; it included a dormitory, a library, and classrooms. The hall was completed in 1906. Further renovations were made to fireproof the building after it caught fire again in 1935.
A reprint of a lecture given by Francis Lane Childs ’06 in the fall of 1957 appeared in the December 1957 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Childs, an English professor at Dartmouth, was known for his annual lectures; this particular lecture was made to students in “The Individual and the College,” a required class. During his remarks he highlighted the ways in which the burning and rebuilding of Dartmouth Hall marked a major milestone in the school’s history. His remarks are excerpted here.
To choose one event which I think symbolizes better than any other the spirit of this period in the history of the College, I would select the burning and rebuilding of Dartmouth Hall. That happened when I was an undergraduate. I was a witness of both the burning and the rebuilding, but even making allowance for that personal bias, I don't think I overestimate its importance as a symbol.
Dartmouth Hall had stood there for 120 years. Built of wood, it look externally just as the present Dartmouth Hall looks today, although this building is a few feet longer, and a few feet higher, and the windows in it are larger. To all those generations of students who had come and gone it had been the center of the institution. It had contained all the recitation halls for most of its period. It had had the chapel in it from 1828 to 1885; the library in it from 1791 until 1840; and even to the time of its burning the top floor contained rooms still used as student dormitories. Through three quarters of the time, the second floor had also been thus used. So, to those men of earlier days, it was “The College” as they frequently called it rather than just “Dartmouth Hall.” Even today, the name Dartmouth calls up first to graduates in distant places an image of that beautiful white colonial building with its lovely bell tower as the central spot in their remembered picture of the College.
Having survived fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, candles, oil lamps, and gas, the old building after it was heated and lighted from a central plant fell a victim to defective wiring. Fire broke out at 8 o’clock on the morning of February 18, 1904. We undergraduates were all in Chapel at the time. We heard the alarm and rushed out to see smoke coming from under the eaves all the way from the center of the building to the ends. The thermometer stood at 20 degrees below zero that morning. The volunteer fire company of the town was handicapped in their supply of water, but even if they hadn’t been they couldn’t possibly have saved the building. The huge oak and pine timbers of which it was constructed had been drying for 120 years, and they were like tinder. Before two hours were over there was nothing left except a heap of smoldering ashes and a little of the lower end of the south wall from which two window frames were saved and are now in the present building. You can see them on either side of the front entrance with plaques beneath them telling what they are.
With the burning of this hall there disappeared the last visible link with the early College. It seemed an irreparable loss. The Trustees met immediately, however, and voted to rebuild it in permanent form in brick as a replica of the original. And while the fire was still going on, a notice was sent out to the Boston alumni by Melvin O. Adams of the Class of 1871 asking all Dartmouth graduates in the vicinity to meet at Tremont Temple in Boston two days later to consider means of reconstruction, and that notice ended with a sentence that has become famous in Dartmouth annals:
“This is not an invitation; it is a summons.”
On the 25th of October of that same year the cornerstone of the new Dartmouth Hall was laid in the midst of a two-day celebration. The celebration was occasioned by the fact that there had come from England the man who was to lay the cornerstone. He was the sixth Earl of Dartmouth, great-great-grandson of the man for whom the College was named. This was the first visit, and to this day the only visit, of a member of that family to the College in this country that bears the family name.
I have called the burning and reconstruction of Dartmouth Hall a symbol, because in the replacing of the old and at that time inadequate building by a thoroughly modern one we see the change to the new, the forward look to the future. And by the reconstruction of it in the same form and appearance which it had before and by the presence of the Earl of Dartmouth for the laying of the cornerstone we are made conscious of the unbroken continuity of the College from its beginning to the present day.
Read the full text of Childs’s lecture
Image of Tremont Temple from from "Up-to-date Guide Book of Greater Boston," by John Murphy.
See the reprint of the article in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine Archives