When the Chapel Burned

IT WAS A BRIGHT September day in 1923. A slight haze rested on the horizon. There were splotches of gold and crimson on some of the maple trees, harbinger of the glory of the October days that would soon like a luminous halo encompass the Hill. The campus was strangely empty, for the students were at their noon meal in their respective dining rooms. Two of the faculty members, Dr. George Weida Spohn and Dr. E. R. Cook, came down the steps of Old Main, saw a wisp of smoke curling about the cross that surmounted the Chapel and discovered the building was afire. Suddenly the students’ busy chatter was interrupted by the eerie wail of the fire alarm and the clang of the fire truck. Food was forgotten. There was a rush to the out-of-doors. A huge cloud of coiling black smoke was pouring from the roof of the Chapel. There was not much that was movable in that building (the seats, for example, were stationary opera seats), but many student volunteers rushed in to remove whatever they could.

A room adjoining the rostrum served as a classroom for the courses in Theory of Music. Much of the band and choir music was kept there. Out it went through the window! The physics department was located in the basement of the Chapel and some of the laboratory equipment was saved. But the sight that none of us will forget is that of the Mathushek grand piano, which stood on the rostrum, borne out the front door and down the Chapel steps on the shoulders of five or six freshman boys, and triumphantly planted on the lawn outside. How those boys ever negotiated that piano down the long narrow aisle and over the opera seats will never be known. The piano and the speaker’s walnut lectern were the only two items from the Chapel proper that were saved. They still are used for meetings held in the Gymnasium.

Meanwhile others among the men students were stationed with wet gunny sacks on the roofs of the nearby buildings, Old Main, Steensland Library, the Chemistry shack (long since taken down), to douse any flying sparks that might alight on them. The rest of us, students, faculty, townspeople, could only stand by helplessly watching the building burn. The fire department could do nothing, for there was no water pressure on the Hill, and when the men first turned on the hose only a pathetic little trickle emerged. A pipe organ had recently been installed in the Chapel, the gift of the Young People’s Luther League of the Church. A veritable groan went up from the watchers when one protesting clanging pipe after another fell with a thud into the basement. The same was true when the two large stained-glass windows, gifts of the St. Olaf alumni, crashed into the smoke and flames below.

These windows were most meaningful to the students. The north window facing the campus and the Steensland Library had as its central figure a Viking ship plowing the stormy waves, the blown sail carrying the insignia I.H.S., and on the prow a cross instead of the usual crossbow and skull on a Viking vessel. Three white doves of peace accompanied the vessel. On either side was a lancet window, on one of which was pictured the tower of the Trondheim Cathedral and on the other the tower of Old Main, indicating that two of the Norwegian immigrants’ most significant contributions to America were in the fields of religion and education. The other window on the south facing Norway Valley was given in memory of Professor H. T. Ytterboe. It pictured a serene starlit Bethlehem scene under which was inscribed his favorite scripture passage, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.”

By nightfall the building was practically razed. Only small portions of some of the walls rose above the basement level. In the basement it smoldered and burned fitfully during the night, but the Chapel was no more.

How much we owe to the Gymnasium and its staff, custodians, and the college campus crew! Not only did the Gymnasium continue to serve the men’s and women’s physical education programs and inter-collegiate athletics, but it made room for all the extracurricular activities that formerly had taken place in the Chapel. The Gymnasium was daily cleared for chapel services, chairs were put up to be taken down again immediately following the chapel period. Years later when the Student Congregation was organized, the room had to be converted into a church for Sunday morning worship after the late Saturday night’s activities which might range from basketball game or a class party to an all-college benefit carnival.

Similar quick adjustments had to be made for the series of Lenten services and other special religious observances. Student recitals, orchestra, band and choir concerts, lecture course numbers, dramatic productions, student body meetings, the spring music and Christmas festivals were all now transferred to the Gymnasium.

With the exception of home economics, the science classrooms and laboratories were originally located in Old Main. The need for additional space became acute. Both the chemistry and physics departments had to find facilities elsewhere, chemistry in a temporary unpainted wooden Chemistry Shack and physics in the Chapel basement. In the emergency caused by the fire, permission was given by the Church to conduct a drive for funds for a new building. Our church people rallied magnificently to our support and the result was Holland Hall, the striking Norman Gothic structure at the St. Olaf Avenue entrance to the campus.

Originally the plan had been to provide temporary chapel quarters on the second floor of the new building. However, with the pressure for classrooms, laboratories, and offices so great it was decided to complete the building and provide as nearly adequate science and administrative facilities as possible. Daily chapel services were to be continued in the Gymnasium until such time as a new chapel could be built. The Gymnasium served as our chapel for exactly thirty years. Then in 1953 Boe Memorial Chapel at last became a reality.

Manitou Analecta

Chapters:

Introduction and Foreword
Early Contacts
St. Olaf Builders
Loyal and Faithful
Student Life
Ytterboe Hall Boarding Club
War Comes to St. Olaf
When the Chapel Burned
Dearest of “Homes on the Circling Heights”
A Dream Come True
Second World War Years
Getting Back to “Normalcy”
Some Distinguished Campus Visitors
“The Play’s the Thing”
‘Once Upon a Time’ Traditions and Other Miscellany
Our College Songs