Tuesday, July 29, 2014

OU history fell to fire

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 5/14/2014

Ottawa University’s yearbook wasn’t creating a storm in a teacup when it called a campus building fire in fall 1902 “one of the worst calamities that Ottawa University has experienced.”

At about 3:45 a.m. Sept. 10, 1902, the university’s new four-story “main building” burned to the ground just hours before a dedication ceremony was to take place that morning on the campus, 1101 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.

Ottawa University’s yearbook wasn’t creating a storm in a teacup when it called a campus building fire in fall 1902 “one of the worst calamities that Ottawa University has experienced.”

At about 3:45 a.m. Sept. 10, 1902, the university’s new four-story “main building” burned to the ground just hours before a dedication ceremony was to take place that morning on the campus, 1101 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.

While only a few photographs survive of renowned Ottawa architect George P. Washburn’s original 1902 building, a commemorative china teacup with the building’s likeness — including a five-story tower — can be found in local architect Doug Loyd’s china and spoon collection of Washburn’s buildings.

“It’s mind-boggling to think that this little, delicate cup has outlived a limestone and concrete and steel-type of building,” Loyd said as he admired the porcelain cup.

Loyd’s architect office at 413 1/2 S. Main St., Ottawa, is housed in the same rooms where Washburn drew many of the more than 300 structures he designed in his lifetime — including several noteworthy courthouses, libraries, city halls and other public buildings and houses in the region.

A fan of Washburn’s work, Loyd started collecting china that depicted various Washburn buildings about 10 years ago, he said. He also has a postcard collection of Washburn buildings. Washburn, who died in 1922, came to Kansas in 1870 and worked as a carpenter and architect. In 1882, he opened an architecture firm in Ottawa. Loyd’s collection includes 10 spoons with variations of Ottawa University’s administration building — all more than 100 years old.

“It must have been a very popular thing to collect these commemorative pieces at the time,” Loyd said. “I know several merchants sold china in Ottawa, and the community was very supportive of the university. Some of the pieces depict the administrative building without the tower — so you know those were [made] after the fire.”

REBUILDING

A DREAM

The university’s current administrative building was erected a couple of years after the fire on the same location as the building that burned in 1902, Loyd explained.

“It was built almost on the same footprint, but without the tower,” he said.

The first building was constructed in stages, Deb Barker, Franklin County Historical Society director, said. Washburn’s original design included another wing to be built at a future date, but it never came to fruition because of the fire. One of Loyd’s cups includes the architectural rendering for the entire building, which was never completed.

Washburn also designed the administration building constructed after the fire, Barker said.

Construction at the turn of the century was still labor-intensive, without much of the machinery that exists today, Loyd said.

“Its amazing how quickly they could build some of those structures, given the lack of machinery,” he said.

The original building’s loss was estimated at more than $50,000, according to a Kansas City Star article that published the day of the fire.

“Hundreds of new students were here ready to enter [the building],” the article read. “The burned building was isolated from other buildings. It stood about 200 yards from the old building. There are no residences near, and the roof had fallen before the fire was discovered.”

The fire was discovered by a janitor, according to the article.

“The janitor, Mr. Mulkey, lives about two blocks away and at 4 o’clock this morning he was awakened by the crash of the falling roof,” the article read. “The fire department was notified, but the building was in ruins when it arrived. Only one stream of water could be used as the building is so far out. Everything in the building was lost except one typewriter, which Professor G.H. Crane saved.”

The fire destroyed the college library, many school records and four pianos, the article said.

“Both society rooms were in the new building and all the property of the organizations was lost,” the article said. “The burned library contained more than 4,000 books, many of them valuable.”

ORIGIN A MYSTERY

The Star article and accounts in the 1903 Mahsinegun, the university’s yearbook for the 1902-1903 school year, state the cause of the fire was inconclusive. Some of the first witnesses to arrive on the scene thought it started in the attic, but the origin remains a mystery.

One theory was that workers were polishing handrails using linseed oil and threw the rags in a corner where they later spontaneously combusted, sparking the fire, Loyd said.

The yearbook article gave a precise accounting of the building’s use.

“The burned structure was the largest of Ottawa University’s four buildings,” the Mahsinegun said. “The south half of the building had just been completed and was to have been dedicated at 10 o’clock the morning of the fire. It contained the new chapel, which had a seating capacity of 800, five recitation rooms, a classical library and a study room. The north wing of the building had been in use since 1893. It contained the college library, a reading room, a study room, five recitation rooms, the president’s office, the registrar’s office and two society halls. The building alone cost $41,000, and the destruction of material equipment made the loss exceed $60,000. Only $26,000 of this sum was covered by insurance.”

Despite the calamity, the dedication took place that morning in the First Baptist Church, Fourth and Hickory streets in Ottawa. The church, also a Washburn design, recently marked its 150th anniversary. Ottawa University celebrates its sesquicentennial next year.

The speeches at the dedication ceremony were “full of hope and cheer,” the yearbook reported.

The rebuilding of the administration center was a community-wide effort, according to historical archives, with funds raised for a second time.

“The building [project] took a couple of years,” Loyd said. “It was rebuilt fairly quickly, in retrospect.”

Like the craftsmanship that went into the campus’s turn-of-the century building, Loyd admires the detail that went into crafting the china created to commemorate the occasion, he said.

“People didn’t buy this to be put at the dinner table,” Loyd said as he examined one of the teacups depicting the OU administrative building. “So most of them are still in pristine condition.”

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