Out of the Ashes
Fifty years ago, a fire destroyed the original HCC campus building in downtown Holyoke
The alarm sounded at 1:25 p.m. on a frigid Thursday. Black clouds erupted from the rooftop, rising into the steel gray sky.
Holyoke Community College was burning.
Within minutes, flames had engulfed the upper floors of the main college building. Six hours later, despite the efforts of nearly 200 firefighters, the blaze had essentially destroyed the 68-year-old downtown landmark on Sargeant Street, formerly Holyoke High School, on the hill where the Holyoke Senior Center now stands.
"The Holyoke Fire Department found it extremely difficult to fight the fire in the bitterly cold weather," retired HCC history professor George Ashley wrote in his 2005 book, History of Holyoke Community College: 1946-1975, "but many of the students and faculty stood around in the cold all afternoon and watched the building burn to the ground. By nightfall, the site was a grotto formed by the exterior walls of the former building, which were now filled only with rubble and enormous mounds of ice."
That was 50 years ago, on January 4, 1968. Some might remember the date if not the day; many have probably never heard the story before, about how the great fire forever altered the history of HCC and how the Holyoke community saved the college from an uncertain future.
The college, founded in 1946 as Holyoke Junior College, had moved into the former high school building just four months before, after completing $1.5 million in renovations to that facility and the annex across the street. At the time, the college had 1,561 students and more than 60 full-time teachers. According to news reports from the day, there were about 500 students and faculty in the building when the fire started in the attic, the cause later attributed to a faulty ventilation fan.
Everyone got out safely, though one firefighter was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.
According to Ashley, a few staff and students were able to save most of academic records from offices on the lower floors "as fire raged above them," but many professors lost their personal libraries, collections, and doctoral dissertations.
"Almost everyone who witnessed the event was overcome by a combination of horror and despair," wrote Ashley.
The charred remains of many college records, including papers belonging to George Frost, HCC's first president, are maintained today in the HCC Library archives in the Donahue Building.
That January, with a week to go in the college semester and finals yet to come, the Holyoke community rallied to find space and equipment so classes could continue to operate. "While the fire was still burning," Ashley wrote, the city arranged for the former Elmwood School building to be reopened and "offers of both space and equipment poured in from local churches and colleges."
The following Monday, Jan. 8, the college held an assembly in the auditorium at Mountain Park to let students know where their classes and exams would be held. About 1,500 students showed up.
At the meeting, according to Ashley, President Frost said the school would be rebuilt: "We will have to start from scratch ... and we will start now."
However, there was great fear in the community that, rather than rebuild the college in Holyoke, state education officials would prefer to merge HCC with the newly created Springfield Technical Community College.
To preempt that effort, President Frost and Holyoke mayor William Taupier launched a campaign to keep the college in Holyoke, and they joined with business, education, and civic leaders to do just that under the name "Friends of Holyoke Community College."
The day after the fire, in fact, Taupier, on behalf of the city, optioned a parcel of land, a former dairy farm in a hollow off Homestead Avenue, where a campus could be built.
An advertisement in the Jan. 9, 1968, edition of the Holyoke Daily Transcript Telegram (from Taupier and the Holyoke Board of Alderman) urged residents to write to the governor and the chairman of the state Board of Regional Colleges, urging them to rebuild in Holyoke.
"It would be a serious loss for our community, and our young people," the ad said. "Speak up. Let it be known that we cherish and are very proud of this home-grown Community College."
Speak up they did, and, with support from some important state officials whose names should be familiar — Maurice A. Donahue, then president of the state Senate; and David Bartley '54, then majority leader in the state House of Representatives (and future HCC president), a $1.1 million bill for site development of a new Holyoke Community College was approved in May 1968 and later signed by Gov. John Volpe.
"The money will be used to develop a site for the college on the Sheehan property off Homestead Ave. as a campus-type facility to replace the old Holyoke High School, destroyed by fire earlier this year," a news report said.
For the next six years, HCC would operate out of a hodgepodge of buildings and disparate classrooms all around the city. "It was a nightmare," said Ashley, who had started teaching for HCC nine months after the fire. After those tumultuous years, he said during a 2011 interview, the new campus, when it opened in 1974, seemed like "Disneyland."
Jan. 4, 1968, proved to be a pivotal day, not only in the history of HCC but for the city as well, HCC president Christina Royal noted in her recent inaugural address.
"The passion and pride the community felt for Holyoke Community College is why we are in this room, and on this land today, the site of what was once the Sheehan dairy farm," she said. "Other two-year colleges had been established in the Commonwealth, but ours was the first, and its roots, its history, its mission, engendered a fierce loyalty in the community we serve."
The lessons learned have served the college well.
"The fire demonstrated our collective spirit of steadfastness, resiliency and transformation," she said, "and our rise from the ashes to reinvent ourselves, stronger (and with fireproof buildings), all the while demonstrating perseverance for the sake of our students and communities."
STORY by CHRIS YURKO. PHOTOS from the HCC Archives: (Thumbnail) Fire destroys the original downtown HCC campus building on January 4, 1968. (Above) An empty shell is all that remained after fire gutted the original downtown HCC campus building 50 years ago.