In the past forty years, Villanova College has expeienced three costly and disastrous fires, the first of which, occurring on January 10, 1912, was described in this column in the issue of February 21. This was in St. Rita’s Hall, oldest building in the college group, occupied at the time by students preparing for the priesthood.
The second occurred 16 years later to the very month, on January 29, 1928, when College Hall burned to the ground with an estimated loss of about two million dollars.
Like the day of the first fire, this was one of bitter cold, added to on this occasion by a 20-mile-an hour wind which quickly fanned the first flames into an all-consuming blaze. Five minutes after the alarm was sounded the Radnor Fire Company had arrived from one direction and the Bryn Mawr Company from the other. Within short order 12 other companies were on the scene, including Philadelphia Company No. 65, from 64th and Haverford avenue.
But even by the time of arrival of the first two companies, College Hall was a roaring furnace. Five minutes later the fifth fioor crashed down through the well of the building into the first fioor even as the Radnor firemen were going up the steps of College Hall, to lay a hose line. Fortunately there were no lives lost, though several of the men were injured.
By this time James K. Dunne, who as chief of the Radnor Fire Company was directing the work of all the companies, saw that it was impossible to save College Hall or its contents. He then directed the efforts of all the men to the adjoining monastery, which the high wind was now placing in grave danger of destruction.
Although there was no serious lack of water on the occasion the cold was so bitter that many of the firemen had frost bitten fingers from handling the heavy, highpressured hose. After some hours of hard work during which 12 streams pumped thousands of gallons of water on the blaze in College Hall, this inferno of fire was under control. None of the adjoining buildings on the campus suffered at all, due to the heroic work of the 14 fire companies.
Temporary housing for the students who had been living in College Hall was immediately provided while plans were being made for another College Hall, with new equipment to replace the old.
The third fire occurred some four and a half years later in August, 1932. (In the last issue your columnist stated by mistake that this was the second fire, and gave the date as August 1925.) Although it was vacation time for the regular students, summer school was in session with a good number in attendance.
The fire which started in the room of one of the students in the Monastery at about 11 o’clock in the morning gained headway with alarming rapidity. The laboratory assistant who first discovered the blaze immediately rushed into the office of Father Joseph M. Dougherty shouting “Fire” at the top of his lungs. The cry was taken up on all sides, echoing from end to end of the high building. Father Dougherty not only turned in the alarm, but immediately started to supervise the work of salvage.
Four nearby fire engines responded at once, Radnor, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr and Lower Merion. They were quickly followed by all the other fire companies from Bala Cynwyd to Paoli, as well as those from West Chester, Darby and Haverford Township, and even by two from Philadelphia.
As in the fire of 1928, Chief Dunne was in charge of co-ordlnating the work of all the companies since the fire was in the Radnor township district. In spite of the great number of firemen and of fite equipment, it was difficult to combat the blaze because of the shortage in the water supply. There were only three fire hydrants in the immediate vicinity in addition to two private ones on the campus. Although hose lines were stretched half a mile to Township Line road where there were a number of fire plugs, the main part of the Monastery was doomed by the time these additional streams were in operation. Chief Dunne’s first orders had been to fight the flames on the fourth floor of the west wing. In order to do this hose lines were taken up the broad stairway and despite the intense heat and the danger from falllng timbers and partitions the Radnor men stuck it out, confining the fire in this wing to the fourth floor. Several of the Radnor flremen were injured, among them Clarence Barber, who was buried under a falling partition. Chief Dunne was badly cut on the nose and face, while among others injured were assistant chief Eddie Clark, Thoroas F. Dunne, Hugh Dietrich, John Snyder, John J. McGovern, John J. McDermott and John Wood. Many flremen from other companies were also injured to a greater or lesser degree; the total numbering about 60. Several men were removed to Bryn Mawr Hospital, while the greater number were treated on the grounds by ambulance crews from St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Agnes Hospital, and Conshohocken Hospital, as well as from Bryn Mawr.
The blaze had been raging for only about half an hour when it became apparent that the towers and cupolas of the monastery were about to collapse. Captain Lafferty, of the Radnor Township. Police immediately ordered a space of 200 feet cleared in front of the building. And it was only shortly thereafter that the roof caved in. By noon the top floors had all been destroyed. And when by 3 o’clock the blaze had been virtually extinguished, “the monastery presented the picture of a charred and blackened shell, with only the walls of the three lower fioors left standing.” Among the few precious objects in the building to be saved were the charter of Pope Pius VI, signed in 1796 authorizing the founding of the College by the Augustinian Order; the Blessed Sacrament from the Chapel and a very few paintings from the famous Doyle collection. All these had been carried out by the summer students until they were halted by the firemen because of danger of this work of rescue.
Adding to the terrific confusion of the fire itself, motorists from miles around, who had been attracted by the dense columns of smoke, clogged the roads in all directions on the day of the fire. And even as late as the Sunday following the fire, the service of four Radnor police officers were required to keep traffic lanes open to travel in the vicinity of the college.
In spite of the staggering loss of its faculty building, Villanova went ahead with its registration plans for September 15. Student dormitories and class room facilities were in no way touched by the conflagration. And the clerical faculty could be housed in temporary quarters around the campus until such a time as sufficient funds could be raised for a new monastery. And thus in spite of two fires in less than five years with losses totalling several millions of dollars Villanova College planned to carry on as before.