Faculty and staff members, past and present, remember the day UW-Whitewater’s most historic landmark went up in flames
By Kayla Edgar
The building that represents UW-Whitewater on numerous pennants, notebooks and campus memorabilia is not just a building, but a historical piece of the university that burned down over 40 years ago.
At around 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 7, 1970, the 102-year-old Old Main building went up in flames.
“You could see this glow for miles away,” said Charlene Klemp, current Andersen Library service assistant. “I live in Fort Atkinson and you could see from Fort the glow of the fire. Of course we didn’t know until morning that it had been on campus.”
Old Main was the oldest building on campus, the only one that was part of the original campus built in 1868. It stood where the alumni building currently resides and extended to where Hyer Hall currently stands.
Hyer Hall, the east wing of Old Main, is the only piece of the original building that survived the fire.
According to archived Royal Purple articles, the fire chief at the time, Joe McCormick, said the fire started in three places, the third floor of the west wing, the southeast corner of the second floor in the north wing, and the north part of the central wing.
The Whitewater Fire Department ruled the fire arson. Students were quoted in the Royal Purple stating they saw four men come out of the building after it started burning, but no one was ever convicted. There was a slew of rumors at the time that the fire was set as part of anti-war protests against the Vietnam War or stemmed from racial issues that were going on around campus.
“I am just amazed that they never could trace who these people were,” Klemp said.
Peg Murray, an Andersen librarian at the time, was at Hawk Bowl when someone said Old Main was on fire. Murray said she and her friends immediately took off for campus.
“A bunch of students and faculty started running inside and bringing out drawers of papers, and then all of a sudden the fire went up the tower of Old Main,” Murray said. “They told people to get out, nobody else goes in any part of it.”
Even with the efforts of the students and faculty, not all the items inside the building could be saved. Old Main housed the administration, mathematics, art, music and business departments. According to archived Royal Purple issues, many musical instruments were destroyed, including 30 pianos and all the band and orchestra instruments. The art department lost 40,000 art history slides and administration lost most of its records. The building also included a 900-seat auditorium.
“I think I came down on Sunday late afternoon and they were still fighting the fire,” Klemp said. “It was so terrible to see. Old Main was Whitewater.”
The only wing that survived the fire was the east wing of Old Main, now Hyer Hall, although 20 classrooms in the wing suffered water damage.
One fireman was critically injured after falling from a ladder, and three others suffered from minor injuries.
The north and west wing were eventually demolished. Klemp said everyone wanted to rebuild Old Main, but the cost was too much.
“It was pretty emotional watching it be demolished,” Klemp said. “That had been Whitewater’s original building.
In September 1997, the remaining Hyer Hall underwent a $6.5 million renovation. According to a flier that was distributed for Hyer Hall’s reopening, larger classrooms were put in, as well as upgraded utilities, permanent facilities for departments and administration offices, and the auditorium was removed. Hyer Hall reopened in February 1999.
“It amazed me for years afterwards on a damp day, you could still smell the smoke that had gotten into the trees,” Klemp said.