Chambers Building Burns on November 28, 1921
On November 28, 1921, the Hickory Daily Record reported that “The historic Chambers building at Davidson college, used as a dormitory in which 130 students of the college slept, was burned down this morning, the fire being discovered in the cupola at 5 o’clock.” Although the building was insured for $100,000, the Rockingham Post-Dispatch reported on December 1 that replacing it would probably cost $250,000.
The ruined building, designed by noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis, was described by college librarian and historian Cornelia Shaw as “the most imposing and perhaps the largest college structure in the State.” On February 5, 1858 the North Carolina Presbyterian reported that the Davidson College building “which attracts the visitor’s notice now more than anything else is the edifice (Chambers Building) which is now in the process of construction… The center of the building is 80 by 170 feet…The two wings are 107.6 in length, 40 feet in width. Three stories high, 35 feet. The center building is 55 feet high.” Students were able to move into their rooms in January 1860. According to Shaw’s book Davidson College: Intimate Facts, published in 1923: “For the protection of the new building there was a regulation that there should be no spitting on the floor, and no lights or lighted cigars could be carried into the cupola.”
Following the fire, on December 2, 1921, The Davidsonian noted that Chambers had “been for generations the center of college life and activity. Here have been formed Davidson customs and here her traditions have grown.” Fortunately, by 1921 the main library had been moved to the Carnegie Library Building (now the college guest house). According to Shaw, this was a great improvement. For previous fifty years “the books had been housed in a beautiful room for which there was no method of heating or lighting. Back of the classic pillars of the Chambers portico, with a thirty-five-foot ceiling, and tall, ivy draped windows, the room…planned with no conception of modern library work, was a delight for three fourths of the year. During the winter months the librarian wore a muffler and rubber shoes and kept the windows open because it was warmer outside than within.”
In her history, Shaw noted that the 133 residents of the building had escaped with their personal effects, but that “the Physical Laboratory, Applied Mathematical and Astronomical equipment, 10,206 books and the Geological Museum were all consumed.” In 2014 an assistant visiting professor at the college, Anelise Shrout, reported that a student who was present at the fire told his mother in a letter that the flames could be seen as far as Winston-Salem, and that he had never seen “such a magnificent-awe-inspiring, heart-rending sight.” According to the Davidsonian, when it was clear that the building would burn to the ground, the faculty and students assembled and “President Martin challenged each man to hear the call of the catastrophe. The response was immediate and true to Davidson form. All present pledged themselves to carry on, in spite of the obstacles presented by the loss, and with bared heads the student body sang ‘O Davidson.’ The use of the remaining class-rooms was doubled, and others improvised. The roomless students were crowded into other dormitories and in additional quarters secured in village homes. Recitations were resumed and the regular schedule began.”
The ruins of the building were razed, and in 1929 it was replaced by the Chambers Building as we know it today. Sometimes during dry weather, impressions of columns that supported the old building appear in the grass in front of the new one.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.