• Emily Cusack & Devon Mayse

Parsons Hall gone but not forgotten

On Feb. 28, 1928, disaster struck Olivet College, leaving a charred shell of a dormitory standing in place of Parsons Hall.

At approximately 9:30 a.m., a fire tore its way through Parsons’s upper floors. While the Charlotte Fire Department did its best to control the flames, the building was destroyed, and with it, part of Olivet history was reduced to ashes and bricks.

In the 1860s, Olivet College was quickly expanding, and the school desperately sought a new dormitory. With a quickly growing campus population, along with new majors being added, and literary societies expanding, a new dormitory was necessary to keep Olivet College on the hill Father Shipherd founded it on, according to Olivet College archive records. In order to raise funds, the school held “brick meetings” for the cost of the land, a brick machine and the men and fuel for the job, according to archive records.

It was at one of these brick meetings that Olivet College caught the eye of Philo Parsons. Inspired by the townspeople’s generosity and tenacity, along with his own religious beliefs, Parsons ended up donating $15,000 to the creation of this new building, according to a Feb. 29, 1928 Echo article. In a letter from his brother-in-law, he advised him to donate, stating that “Michigan cannot dispense without Olivet College. It has a grand promise for growth and usefulness.” And thus, Parsons began to etch his name into Olivet College history with the erection of Parsons Hall. He would later serve on the Board of Trustees for nearly 36 years and ultimately donate $50,000 spanning his involvement with the college.

In late June 1866, Parsons himself laid the cornerstone for the new building, which was located where the current men’s dormitory, Blair Hall stands. However the building took nearly five years and $40,000 to complete before finally being opened in 1871.

While referred to as a dormitory, Parsons served numerous roles for the college, according to archive records. While the second, third and fourth floors were used to house male students, the lower floor contained the art department, library, museum, college office, chemistry lab, and four recitation rooms. Literary society rooms were also available on the fourth floor.

For 57 years, Parsons Hall served Olivet College, but that came swiftly to an end on Feb. 28, 1928. The fire, which was blamed on old wiring in the attic of the building, destroyed Parsons Hall, according to the Echo article released the day after the fire. The men who called Parsons’s upper floors home lost almost everything they had, many had only the clothes they wore on their backs. The hall burned well past noon that day, according to the Feb. 29, 1928 Echo article.

The men who lived on the lower floors, however, were fortunate enough to be able to rescue many of their belongings. As the fire consumed the upper floors of Parsons, Olivet students and faculty were able to rescue the art from the art room, many files and lockers, and a great deal of furniture, the article goes on to report.

Olivet College had to quickly deal with the now homeless students, and set up new living arrangements. The Feb. 29, 1928 Echo article was quick to report that the fraternities of Olivet College would take many of the homeless students in, and townspeople even offered up their homes. Shipherd Hall, the ladies dormitory, even offered the spare rooms that were available to the men.

The Echo reports on Feb. 29, 1928, that there was a silver lining to the destruction of Parsons Hall. Olivet College was in need of a new dormitory. Shipherd Hall was outdated, and before the fire, Parsons was also becoming outdated. College president, Axel Vestling held a meeting on campus to discuss what was next. Vestling said that the homeless men would be cared for, and because of Parsons Hall being destroyed, that the college was to receive a new men’s dormitory much sooner than it would have been if Parsons Hall had not burned.

True to Vestling’s word, the cornerstone for what would become Blair Hall was placed Sept. 26, 1928, where Parsons Hall once stood.

Did you know?

On Feb. 14, 1845, Olivet College’s first school building burned before it could even be used, due to embers from a stove igniting the cabin walls. Numerous buildings would also burn over Olivet’s 172-year history.

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