1929 Devon Inn fire, 1st home of Valley Forge Military Academy in 1928 by Major Baker, St. Luke’s School

Within a little more than a year’s time, Devon was the scene of two fires so disastrous that they have gone down in the annals of the community. The second one, that of the fireworks explosion and I subsequent fire in April, 1930, has been described in the last two issues of this column.

The other, which occurred early on the morning of January 18, 1929, was the fire which totally destroyed the Devon Inn, occupied at this time as the first home of the Valley Forge Military Academy, Major Baker—now General Baker—having established it there in September, 1928.

In the very early hours of a cold January morning, Lieutenant Pusey, then instructor in languages at the Academy, was aroused from sleep by the odor of smoke. Immediately springing into action, he rushed to the fourth floor where he found a small fire in the hallway, a blaze so inconsequential at first that it did not seem much of a threat to the well built brick structure, so recently renovated by Major Baker.

Nevertheless, Lt. Pusey immediately awakened Captain Jackson Lahn, academy commandant, who in turn ordered the school bugler to sound the fire alarm. With overcoats over their pajamas and with bare feet thrust into unlaced shoes, a number of students manned the numerous fire extinguishers. Flames soon drove them from the fourth floor down to the third, where they continued their ineffectual fight against disaster. So serious did the situation become almost immediately that Major Baker ordered a complete evacuation of the entire building. Thls was followed by a muster call that showed every student and all the Academy personnel present and uninjured.

By this time telephone alarms had brought not only the Radnor Fire Company, but those from Paoli, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Swedeland and Bridgeport as well. But so handicapped were these volunteers by the inadequacy of the water supply that they realized almost from the moment of their arrival that any attempt to save the school was futile.

The building was a huge tower of flames and smoke already. And only an hour after the fire was discovered the entire central portion of the structure collapsed, dividing the fire into two units. By dawn only the smoldering jagged sections of the brick walls remained. As told in last week’s column, these grim gaunt reminders of the fire remained there pointing skyward for more than a year when in April, 1930, they were shattered to the ground by the force of the Devon fireworks explosion.

The building that had been so quickly consumed by flames had had an interesting history. The original Devon Park Hotel had been I built in 1876 to house the overflow of visitors to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Three years later fire destroyed this building. However, it was not long before another Devon Hotel, this time a very ornate building, was I erected on the same site as the first hotel.

For some years there was great rivalry for the patronage of fashionable PhiIadelphia summer boarders between the Devon Inn and the Bryn Mawr Hotel. The latter, on the site of what is now the Baldwin School, was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. This rivalry ended in a complete victory for the Devon Inn when the Devon Horse Show made its initial bow. The show immediately became a nationally famous event with entries and visitors from all over the United States. The socially elite from New York and the Long Island Colony, from Boston, Chicago and many other cities throughout the country filled the Devon hostelry to capacity each Horse Show season.

And when the Bryn Mawr Hotel burned to the ground the Devon Inn lost its only serious rival. Its popularity continued for some years. Then in 1924 the property was sold and the building converted into the Devon Manor School for Girls. But two years later the Devon Park Hotel Company had to resume possession of the property again. Then, two years later Major Baker acquired it for the Military Academy, which he was just then organizing. After spending about $250,000 on renovations to the building, the school opened there in September, 1928, with an enrollment of about 150, with many more expected for the next year, since the building could easily house several hundred.

Before the ashes of the fire of the school were cold, students were temporarily quartered in the Brookline Square Club in Brookline, Delaware County. Their stay there was but a matter of hours, however, since an agreement was made almost immediately between Major Baker and the officials of St. Davids Golf Club to house them there for the time being. It was a building admirably suited to the purpose, since it had been built for St. Luke’s School, a well known boy’s school of an earlier date. The Golf Club would retain only the space necessary for their office and the locker rooms. All of the main club building, together with the former Crawford House, was requited for school purposes. Had it not been for this quick solution to the Academy’s problem, the situation would nave been a serious one.

The work of preparing the Club house for its 150 new tenants was strenuous, indeed, requiring cooperation on the part of the school management and the Golf Club officials. However, by night everyone was as comfortable as possible under the trying circumstances. Cots and blankets had been requisitioned from the Philadelphia arsenal and placed in the old St. Luke’s School dormitories, and the commissary department had swung into action in the large kitchens. Thus were living requirements for Academy students and personnel met almost immediately.

With the passing of the years since then the Academy has acquired not only the St. Luke School property for its own, but much adjacent ground as well. The main buildings are still located, however, at the northeast corner of Eagle and Radnor roads, where the Academy found refuge the day following the fire.

One of the most disastrous fires that not only Radnor Township, but the entire Main Line has ever experienced will be described in detail in next week’s column. This was the second Villanova College fire which occurred on August 2, 1925, resulting in damage amounting to almost one million dollars.

At that time the monastery of the College was practically destroyed with not only the loss of the building, but of valuable furnishings and many objects both of art and of sacred value. Except for a half dozen pieces the fine Doyle Collection of paintings, valued at between $300,000 and $500,000, was entirely destroyed. James K. Dunne as chief of the Radnor Fire Company directed the efforts of the many companies from not only other sections of the Main Line, but from Philadelphia, West Chester, Upper Darby, Cynwyd and other sections. Although no lives were lost, some 60 persons suffered more or less serious injuries, including Chief Dunne himself. It was a spectacular and devastating fire.

(To be continued)