Posted October 31, 2023 in Digital Access
Today marks the 110th anniversary of the fire that seriously damaged Comenius Hall at Moravian University in Bethlehem, PA, on October 31, 1913. A number of excellent articles have been written on the fire itself, several of which we have included links to in this post, so rather than recounting the events in detail we would like to take this opportunity to share some written materials from our collection that relate to the fire and the response by the community and Moravians Church as well as photographs of the event to explore how the event was visually captured.
The fire, the cause of which was never conclusively determined, started on the evening of Halloween in 1913 while most students were away. While there were no fatalities and the library and chapel were saved, the fire and resulting collapse of the roof devastated the upper floors. With the aid of the community, classes were able to restart within days and in less than a year Comenius Hall was rebuilt with improvements to make it more resistant to fire and was rededicated on October 2, 1914.
One of the most evocative descriptions we have of this event can be found on this page of the community diary maintained by the Moravian congregation in Bethlehem.
The entry for October 31, 1913 reads in part, “About 8:30 pm. The Mor. College & Theol. Seminary was found to be on fire, & in a short time the whole of Comenius Hall was a roaring furnace…..The chapel and library were both saved, but all above the first floor of Comenius Hall was completely burned out.”
The image above, taken from a 1913 volume of the Daily Texts, presents a more personal view of the disaster. It was owned by Augustes Schultze (1840-1918), then president of the college. He often used blank pages in the Daily texts as a diary and here opposite the readings for the 30th and 31st of October he wrote “In evening (Halloween) great fire at Moravian College, wh destroyed the upper stories of Comenius Hall. They did not tell me until it was nearly over, at 11:30 PM.”
A more hopeful note is reflected in this newspaper page (below), recorded on microfilm, from the Bethlehem Globe of November 3, 1913.
Here one can see how quickly the school began resuming normal operations, with the article describing how the largely intact ground floor of Comenius Hall was being repurposed, “Beds will be placed in the galleries of the gymnasium and the library while the floor of the library will be used for classes, the chapel will also be pressed into service for classroom use.”
Finally, this page (above) from a story in “The Moravian”, published October 7, 1914, describes the commencement of the new school year and the rededication of Comenius Hall. It includes portions of the addresses given in which speakers expressed their thanks for the support of the community and the Moravian Church as a whole and the work of the various people involved in the reconstruction before stating “At the close of the services, the alumni and friends present were invited to inspect the building. The students welcomed the visitors to their handsome and well furnished apartments, and an hour was spent in admiring the splendid equipment now at the disposal of faculty and students.”
In addition to written materials, our collection contains a variety of images that illustrate the aftermath of the fire – both inside and outside of Comenius Hall. Some of these images were printed and utilized within a variety of media.
Above, for example, “The Moravian” from November 12, 1913 (twelve days after the fire) features an image (top) by Gustav A. Conradi depicting the exterior of Comenius Hall with the damage to the upper floors of the building clearly evident. While this image gives the viewer an overall look at the aftermath of the event, the publication also takes us inside the building to the scene of the fire itself in an image depicting the “second floor, looking North” made by Reverend A.D. Thaeler (bottom right). The use of both of these images in “The Moravian” speaks to the idea of using photography to create an encompassing and comprehensive narrative within a single publication, one which looks at fine detail as well as the whole picture.
Conradi and Thaeler’s images were utilized within other media as well, extending their reach and ability to be shared with a wider public. As seen below, Reverend Thaeler’s image was utilized on a real photo postcard. Meanwhile, Conradi’s image was used on a lantern slide as well as serving as the main image in the December 1913 edition of “The Comenian.”
Conradi and Thaeler’s images certainly extended and preserved the 1913 fire in publications and media, but if we dig a little deeper into our collection, we can find images that provide additional viewpoints of the event that may not have been as widely utilized.
Samuel D. Luckenbach photographed the aftermath of the fire from inside and outside of the building including an extraordinary multiple-exposure image (above) which features several viewpoints of the damage sustained inside Comenius Hall. The image also appears to feature several people standing atop a structural point within the interior of the building near the damaged area. Meanwhile, another image of Luckenbach’s (below) features what appears to be mattresses strewn across the lawn in front of the damaged building, speaking to the subtle details that an event such as a fire can leave in its wake.
Finally, the image below, by an unidentified photographer, shows firefighters and fire engines lined up along Main Street. Directly behind the group, the viewer can see the damaged Comenius Hall suggesting that these individuals had a part in fighting the fire.
While these images may not have found their way into print (that we are aware of), they speak to a photographic trope in which the narrative of an event can be visually realized through professional and amateur photographs, providing the viewer with a more nuanced view of a specific event.
As our collection holds records of the 1913 fire at Comenius Hall in written and visual forms, this event is effectively preserved, providing researchers with a variety of ways in which to access and further understand this event.
Offenback, Lola. “History of Comenius Hall” The Commenian, March 24, 2023. Accessed 10/11/2023 https://comenian.org/8912/news/history-of-comenius-hall/
Rutman, Nancy. “Moravian Moment: The Halloween Fire of 1913” Moravian University. Accessed 10/11/2023 https://www.moravian.edu/news/magazine/fall-2021/moravian-moment
Whelan, Frank. “Histories Headlines: Fire at Comenius Hall” WFMZ, April 25, 2019. Accessed 10/11/2023 https://tinyurl.com/34cx6pnw