Friday, December 9, 2016

Academic Hall: Before and After the 1892 Fire


Academic Hall Exhibit is located on the second floor of the Missouri Student Center in the Traditions Lounge.

Academic Hall, whose cornerstone was laid in 1840, was the academic heart of Missouri State University, as the University of Missouri-Columbia was known in the nineteenth century. Students had both classes and extracurricular activities in this building.

The original Academic Hall on the quadrangle on a snowy day. Courtesy of the State Historical Society Manuscript Collection (Joseph L. Douglass Studio Photographs P0434).

A close-up of Academic Hall. Missouri Alumnus 1922.

Also part of the original Academic Hall was a museum of natural history that contained mounted animals such as gorillas, a giraffe, a hippo, a rhino, a manatee, a whale, caribou, and many birds.  One of the most notable animals in the museum was Emperor the Elephant.  Emperor was the impetus for the museum and was purchased by Samuel Spahr Laws, the University President from 1876-1879.  Emperor had recently died of unknown causes while he was with the Forepaugh Circus in Independence, MO.  Laws purchased the elephant with his own money and sent him to Professor Henry Ward of Rochester, NY to cure and mount. The Board of Curators paid Laws back $1,100.67, leaving him $585 short.

The museum of natural history in Academic Hall.  Emperor the elephant is featured in the foreground.  He was rumored to have had a Bengal tiger mounted on his tusks, however, this is not pictured in this image of the elephant. Courtesy of the University Archives (C:0/47/2).

The General Assembly did not approve of the purchase both because of its enormous cost and that they did not think it brought any prestige to the university.  Laws did not agree, citing that "the value of the present collection consists in the circumstance that it has been gathered for teaching purposes and is eminently representative of the entire animal world....Our youth can be taught more natural history with its aid in a few months than a lifetime could acquire without such aid" (Jefferson City Daily Tribune March 12, 1887). However, the legislature ultimately decided to withhold funding from the university unless Laws resigned as president, and he ultimately did step down. 


Disaster struck Academic Hall on January 9. 1892 when a fire started, likely due to faulty wires.  Students were gathered in the auditorium for a meeting of the Athenaeum Society when the chandelier fell from the ceiling and smoke began to fill the building.

Academic Hall on fire the night of January 9, 1892 (Savitar 1939).

"Soon the great dome burst with heated air and as the glittering showers of sparks were thrown against the sky, it seemed to us as if the great heart of the University had burst, and a feeling of gloom that will never be forgotten came upon those who beheld the spectacle." Charles M Howell (Missouri Alumnus 1922).

"You ought to have seen the old M.S.U. burn; it made an awful nice warm fire. I was out skating on a pond right near and I was nearly frozen when the thing caught so I just walked up and got warm..." Letter to India Walsh. January 17, 1892. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscript Collection C3982 f. 635).



 Professors and students dashed back into the building in an attempt to save books from the Law Library, maps from the Latin Department, and specimens from the Entomology Department and Natural History Museum.  Students went into the museum to rescue Emperor the elephant.  They broke the window with an axe and put two timbers out the window angled down to the snowy ground of the quadrangle.  They then pushed Emperor down the ramp and onto the quad.  The tiger mounted on Emperor's tusks was too wide to go through the window so they ripped him in two.  A first hand account described the scene of the saved mounted animals as follows: "[Emperor] was hustled out of the blazing museum in a jiffy, the zebra turned out to graze, and the lion and lamb were made to lie down together...It was a queer site to see the big elephant lying on his side in the snow; near by was the tiger, which had been mounted on the elephant's tusks, with a little grinning monkey perched on his back; here a gorilla and an arctic fox were keeping each other company; and here a huge crocodile seemed scarcely at home lying half buried in the snow drift" (Savitar 1895).

Following the fire, Emperor was displayed in Swallow Hall.  Sadly, Emperor eventually began to disintegrate and he was destroyed, but his bones were saved.  His remains were found in the attic of LeFevre Hall by Carla Williamson, an archives employee.  Today all that remains of Emperor are his two hind legs and they are stored by the Division of Biological Sciences.

Carla Williamson with the skeletal remains of Emperor in the attic of LeFevre. Photo by Nick Kelsh. Courtesy of University Archives (C:1/7/11) and The Columbia Daily Tribune (Sunday August 3, 1980).
One of the remaining hind legs of Emperor the elephant. Courtesy of the Division of Biological Sciences.

The blazing hot fire destroyed Academic Hall and was so hot as to cause other nearby buildings to also catch fire. All that remained of the building were a few brick walls and its iconic columns.


The morning after the fire all that remains of Academic Hall are its six columns and a few walls. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscript Collection (Louise Stephens Otto Photograph Collection. P0901). 


The remaining walls were dynamited and clean-up began of the building.  The university kept classes going in other buildings around Columbia. 

The ruins of Academic Hall after the remaining walls had been dynamited.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscript Collection (S. Pommer Photograph Collection. P0056).

 The fire was of such a high temperature that for the months of following clean-up, people were reportedly still finding iron rods that were hot in the debris. In the late 1980/.early 1990s Dr. Michael O'Brien of the Department of Anthropology led excavations on the quadrangle that uncovered rubble from the destruction of Academic Hall.  Some of the bricks they uncovered from the debris demonstrate how the fire was so hot that they had vitrified.

A selection of bricks from the destruction of Academic Hall as uncovered by Dr. O'Brien and his team during excavations on the quadrangle.  Note how the brick has melted, as can be seen by the grayish vitrification. Bricks courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology.

 Although for a brief period of time the university contemplated moving to a different city in Missouri, it was ultimately decided that it should remain in Columbia. While the six Ionic columns were deemed to unstable to incorporate into a new building, officials determined that they should remain where they stood as a memorial.


Postcard showing the columns of old Academic Hall standing alone. (2011.088).

 Instead, architect Morris Frederick designed a new Academic Hall that was placed further back behind the columns.
The newly rebuilt Academic Hall, as designed by architect Morris Frederick in 1895 (Savitar 1898) .

Academic Hall continued to be the center of the university playing much the same function as its predecessor.  It still housed campus museums, such as the Museum of Classical Archaeology. This museum was started by John Pickard of the Department of Classical Archaeology who was concerned that the department had no equipment with which to teach.  He petitioned the Board of Curators for money to purchase plaster casts of Greek and Roman statues for the beginning of a museum.  The Board approved and Pickard went to Europe in 1895 and 1902 to retrieve casts from noted museums such as the Louvre or British Museum. He then used these casts routinely in his courses, and there was even a class called "Explanation of the Masterpieces in the Museum of Casts" listed in the 1896 university handbook.

The casts of ancient Greek and Roman statues were displayed on the third floor of the west wing of the newly rebuilt Academic Hall. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri Manuscript Collection (University of Missouri Photographs 3756 f. 238).

The museum remained in this location in Academic Hall for many years until they moved, with the Department of Art History and Archaeology, to Pickard Hall in 1975.  Most of the casts are now on a long term loan to the Museum of Art and Archaeology where they are currently on display at Mizzou North.  Others can still be found decorating the halls and offices of Swallow Hall where the Department of Art History and Archaeology is currently housed.

Plaster casts of the Portland Vase (left) and Lenormant Athena (right).  The Portland vase is a cast of a glass cameo vase with historical and mythological figures.  The vase became extremely well-known during the eighteenth century.  The Lenormant Athena is a small Greek statue that was a copy of the over lifesize statue of Athena by the Greek sculptor Phidias that was located in the Parthenon.  Both plaster casts are courtesy of the Department of Art History and Archaeology.

The newly built 1895 Academic Hall still stands today, though of a different name.  In 1922 Academic Hall was renamed Jesse Hall after the popular University of Missouri President, Richard Henry Jesse.

Come by and visit the Academic Hall Exhibit in person on the second floor of the Missouri Student Center through January 2017!

Blog post authored by Lauren DiSalvo, Curator of Public Arts, Missouri Student Unions.