Throwback Thursday: Augie Ablaze! The 1955 Fire in Wallberg Hall

The date is February 18th, 1955, 4:45 p.m. The air is cold and the wind blows as faculty and students wrap up their research for the day in Wallberg Hall. As everyone inside the building prepares to end the workweek, the lights begin to flicker. Climbing up the stairs, the smell of smoke permeates the air. Upon pulling the fire alarm, a moment of panic sets in when it does not go off. A student is immediately sent to call for the fire department. Within 20 minutes, the first of four fire companies arrives from Rock Island, and one company each is also sent in from Moline and Davenport. With weak water pressure and ongoing chemical explosions punctuating the blaze in the attic, firefighters brave the flames as onlookers stand in awe at the sight.

This actual scene confronted the Augustana campus community in 1955. As you stroll the lower quad, pause a moment to gaze where Hanson Hall of Science now stands to conjure up this sight in your imagination. Before Hanson replaced it in 1998, Wallberg Hall stood for over fifty years, the first structure of its kind at Augustana dedicated solely to the academic pursuit of science. Prior to Wallberg’s completion during the 1935 Diamond Jubilee of Augustana, the various science departments of Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Geology made do in buildings repurposed for classroom and lab education. Following WWI, however, and in the face of WWII, growth in scientific knowledge and need for advanced technology necessitated the design and construction of Wallberg Hall.

C-F4390, Wallberg Hall of Science, circa 1935. Augustana College Photograph Collection

C-F4390, Wallberg Hall of Science, circa 1935. Augustana College Photograph Collection

On May 6th, 1935, Wallberg Hall opened its doors to classroom activity for the first time. The building stood at four stories high, with each story dedicated to a specific department. In its May 9th, 1935 issue, the Augustana Observer writes of how enthralled students were by the emergency shower, state of the art chemical hoods and tables, and the optimistic expanse of research opportunities. Faculty and students partnered in research with the George Evans Company of Moline (known for its air conditioning units) and the Rock Island Arsenal. Not twenty years later, however, a short circuit in one of the hood systems ignited the wooden frame of Wallberg. According to the front page of the February 21st, 1955, copy of the Augustana Observer, senior chemistry student Paul Klimstra discovered the fire and described the scene: “The smoke was terrible. There were all kinds of poisonous organic vapors in the smoke.” Firefighters braved this toxic smoke and contained the blaze within the hour. The cleanup process took place over the following four days.

 

Wallberg fully reopened on May 11th, 1955, after fire insurance kicked in to help foot the bill of an estimated $165,000 restoration. The fire destroyed most, if not all, of the lab equipment in addition to burning any research held within the building (including all of the observational and experimental data needed for that year’s Senior Inquiries!). The same company working on the new Fine Arts Building at the time assisted in rebuilding Wallberg, this time using a this time using a steel-frame structure and replacing the fourth floor with stone. Wallberg stood until its demolition in August of 1998, in light of the opening of the Hanson Hall of Science.

C-S93, Demolition of Wallberg Hall of Science, August 1998. Augustana College Photograph Collection.

C-S93, Demolition of Wallberg Hall of Science, August 1998. Augustana College Photograph Collection.

To learn more about Wallberg Hall and the changing landscape of Augustana’s campus, visit the Special Collections digital exhibit, “An Augustana Campus History.”

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