Sunday, February 14, 2010

fire's destruction of alfred archetecture

As many Alfred residents probably remember, the main street block used to look much differently. On October 30, 2009 a fire swept through the wood framed portion of main street, destroying four student apartments, the liquor store, the printing shop, and the remnants of the ski shop which had moved not too long before the incident. The rest of the block, made of brick, was closed a for a few days after due to smoke and water damage. The Collegiate restaurant has yet to open due to excessive smoke and water damage. Luckily, the businesses had insurance on their companies and have plans to rebuild in the future. The Collegiate is already in the process of relocating down the street. Many of the students on the other hand were not so lucky. Being that most of the building was completely destroyed, all the student's possessions were lost. Though two students were trapped, and forced to jump out their window to safety, no one was harmed.
This event is not the first devastating fire in Alfred that has shaken students by destroying their homes. Over the course of eighty years, three dormitories were destroyed by fire. In 1858 South hall, a women's dorm, chapel and classroom was completely destroyed. The university then purchased a building, formerly Alfred High School, and renamed it south hall. it was no longer used as a dormitory though, but instead it served as a classroom and women's gymnasium. In 1912 Middle hall, also known as White House and Allen house, had just completed renovation when a fire destroyed the building completely. No students were housed in it at the time because it was going through numerous ownerships at the time. This building was never re-erected. Burdick Hall, while being lent to Alfred University to house male students, partially burned down in 1959. It also held a student union which was partially intact. This building was also never re-erected. No deaths were recorded, but the damages fire can cause reach much further that material possessions. These dorms were all built in the Greek Revival Style. The most obviously reminiscent of this style is the Burdick Hall, featuring large porches for each floor, with long columns connecting each each porch and extending the entire hight of the building. This style was very popular residential style because of America's fascination with the Greeks as a highly democratic and nationalistic institution as well as associations with religion. The time period in which these were created was a highly nationalistic and still contained strong religious foundations. The post Civil War society had a lot of national pride, especially in the north because of their newly united society.
The Early twentieth century academic buildings of Alfred University also saw some destruction. Kanakadea Hall, which served much of the same purposes as it does now, held the humanities division, burned partially in 1907. The exterior was restored to its original design and new classrooms and offices were put in. Babcock hall, formerly the physics division, was completely destroyed by fire in 1929. This was not rebuilt.
Larger fires also destroyed businesses such as the Celadon Terra Cotta Company. At the time of the fire the company was thriving, not only was it responsible for many of the exterior construction of local buildings like the main Street brick buildings, but it was also commissioned for the reconstruction of many existing businesses and residences. Celadon did not only do business with alfred but they had business all over the United States. The terra cotta tiles produced for their customers were fire proof, something that many businesses were taking account of at the time. Clearly, fire was a devastating and more frequent occurrence than any other disaster. Unfortunately, Celadon did not use their own tiles for the construction of their factory and it burned down in 1909. Alfred's founding establishment, the First Seventh Day Baptist Church, was destroyed in 1929. It was rebuilt quickly, and contains the original pulpit and one original stained glass window.
Fires were not only present in Alfred. Great Fires were destroying large parts of established cities such as Chicago in 1871 and Boston in 1872. Though fire regulations were in place, many companies and building owners got around them, because they were not strictly enforced. In 1911, the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killed more than 140 employees (Decision). The company had been routinely ignoring fire codes to save money, cramming as many workers, machines and materials as they could fit. The employees had been trapped inside, compelling many people to jump out windows. After the building inspector deemed the building unsafe, revealing the hazards that existed, unions stabilized and demanded routine checks and better conditions to prevent future disasters in other companies.
Fire codes also exist in Alfred. Alumni Hall was closed in 1972 because it was deemed a fire hazard. However, being that alfred is a small town, sometimes these codes do not get followed as well as they should. Following the fire of on Main Street, some of the students parents began to investigate the cause of the fire, and why it had expanded so greatly. The only housing inspecter, told one parent that he was glad the building burnt down, and that the building had so many fire hazards that it was bound to be destroyed at some point. He also stated that, since he was the only investigator, he would have had no way of knowing if the landlord and owner of the buildings had tuned in their fire hazard check form for about a year because there were so many, and they had a long time to turn them in.
Parallells exist between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the fire on main street. Both fires had been determined an accident and should not have gotten as out of control as they were. The building codes were out of date, and the structure depreciating. Safety was also an issue. No fire escapes existed in either structure which is why two students and countless employees were forced to jump out windows to escape flames. The apartments did not have working fire alarms, and the small fire extinguishers were no match for the large fire. If landlords and business owners put safety before money, both disasters could have been prevented.
So why is it that such devastation can happen in such a small town. Is it because we are a small town that we forgo building codes in order to satisfy the need for housing for the large amount of students in the area? Maybe we have forgotten the devastation that fires can cause because we have not seen as many in current history. Though this event caused much disturbance in many student's lives, perhaps it will fix the procrastinatory attitude held by landlords, and that future students will not have to deal with this problem.

Herrick Memorial Library. "University History" Alfred University Archives. 10 feb. 2010. .
"The Decision to Lock the Doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company" SJC.EDU. 15 Feb 2010. .


  1. This blog would be a great addition for team Tortuga’s map on transformation especially for information on South Hall, Middle Hall, Burdick Hall, Babcock Hall and Kanakadea Hall. The buildings themselves went under both physical transformations throughout the years as well as transformations on its uses socially. What caused the fires to these buildings (if available)? Were these buildings only used for educational reasons or student housing? Are there any important figures or symbols associated with these buildings? I know that Kanakadea means "Valley of the Insane". Was there a reason for naming the Hall this or was there another reason for the name of Kanakadea Hall?

  2. Kanakadea also means "where the earth meets the sky" from the Seneca people who were in our region. The building was named after the creek...