About 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 18, 1923, fire destroyed Elon’s Main Building, also called the Administration Building. This event, which became the defining moment in Elon’s history, is chronicled in many sources preserved in the university’s archives. Here is a sampling of accounts of the fire and its aftermath:

Excerpts from The Maroon and Gold (student newspaper)
January 19, 1923

Administration Building Is Burned

  • Oldest and stateliest building on campus razed by demon fire
  • Greatest catastrophe in history of institution occurs yesterday in the early morning hours
  • Loss is around $123,000
  • Building housed library, society halls, class rooms and administrative offices

The greatest catastrophe in the history of Elon College occurred last Thursday morning, when flames razed the Administration Building of the college to the ground. The origin of the fire is unknown. It began in the early morning and had gained a headway sufficient to make any attempt to save the building futile. The Alumni Building was also slightly damaged.

The front page of the Maroon and Gold newspaper on Jan. 19, 1923, the day after the fire.

The Administration Building was the first structure of the college to be erected on the campus. It was constructed in 1890. About it has centered for 33 years the life of Elon. Within its walls the 440 alumni have received their instruction, and in the chapel, which was in this building, they were graduated.

The burned building housed the library of the college, the three literary society halls, the classrooms, and the administrative offices. The loss is estimated at $150,000, of which $27,000 is covered by insurance. The loss is by far the heaviest that the college has ever sustained.

As soon as the fire was discovered the alarm was given and student began to work heroically to save the other buildings which were endangered by the flames. It was early seen that any attempt to save the burning building would be futile, and efforts to savfe the furnishings were in the most part vain. The flames had the right of way throughout the interior of the building, and the equipment was doomed before the students could have begun the fight.

The Burlington fire department was called early in the fight, but it was found when they arrived that the fire was too far advanced and they could do nothing. The firemen returned, but were almost immediately recalled to the scene of the fire when it was discovered that the Alumni Building was burning. On this trip they were able to render great aid to the college students in their brave fight to save the building.

…It is not known where the fire originated. It has been suggested that it was probably caused by a short circuit of the electric wiring of the building. There are no signs of incendiary origin and no cause is known to have existed for such an origin.

The authorities have announced no plans for reconstruction, but a meeting of the executive board has been called for Monday. At this meeting it is expected that plans will be laid fore the work of rebuilding. Telegrams have been pouring in to Dr. Harper expressing sympathy and pledging support to the college in this calamity.

The faculty met at noon Thursday and formulated plans to continue the class work. All of the work of the college has been arranged for and the work was continued today with only the loss of one day’s work.

Excerpts from “From a Grove of Oaks: The Story of Elon University”
By George W. Troxler, professor emeritus of history and university historian

Fire and The Greater Elon

Between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 18, 1923, William B. “Bill” Terrell, a 25-year-old army veteran who worked in the power plant in exchange for his tuition and meals, finished his morning duties in the power plant and looked out the window toward the Administration Building. Terrell first assumed that the light he saw in a second-floor classroom was one someone had left on overnight; however, when he observed the light flickering he realized it was a fire. He ran quickly to the tower of the Administration Building to ring the college bell but was unable to do so. By that time the tower was filled with smoke, and Terrell could not reach the bell rope on the second floor. On the way back to the power plant to phone the Burlington and Gibsonville fire departments, Terrell alerted the campus by yelling “Fire! Fire!” outside the women’s and men’s dormitories. Although students quickly formed a bucket brigade and both fire departments arrived within ten minutes of the call, the heart pine of which the interior was built burned quickly. There was a strong north wind, and efforts were focused on preventing it from spreading the fire to other buildings and to nearby residences. Fearing their dormitories would burn, women and men moved their trunks and personal items out of their rooms and onto the lawn.

President Harper called the faculty to meet at his home at 10:00 a.m. to begin planning “to continue the work of the session.” He informed the trustees by telegraph and asked them to attend an emergency meeting the following Wednesday. Most of the students returned their clothing and luggage to their rooms before they assembled at 11:00 a.m. in the Alumni Building gymnasium for a mass meeting with faculty and townspeople. The mood was positive. The meeting began with the singing of “Here’s to Dear Old Elon” and closed with “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow.” Several students and faculty spoke, and President Harper read encouraging telegrams that he had received. The meeting adjourned to reconvene at four o’clock that afternoon for faculty announcements of a schedule and locations for classes, which resumed the following morning.

Excerpts from The Maroon and Gold (student newspaper)
January 19, 1923

Enthusiasm Abounds at a Mass Meeting Following Calamity

  • Many pledges of loyalty given – Elon spirit made real in the present crisis
  • Time of stern testing
  • Members of faculty and student body give evidence of renewed devotion

The much-talked-about “Elon Spirit” was never more clearly manifested than it was Thursday morning at a mass meeting held in the boy’s gymnasium after the terrible catastrophe of the early morning. Students, faculty and friends from far and near were there.

In the beginning there was an atmosphere of deep sorrow and depression, but before the crowd dispersed, hope and courage reigned high in every heart. After a devotional service was conducted by college pastor, Dr. N.G. Newman, stirring and touching speeches were made by Doctors Harper, Lawrence, Atkinson, and Wicker of the faculty; Messrs. Scott, White, Bray and Stoner and Misses Bailey and Goff, representatives of the student body. Mrs. Crawford and other alumni and visitors present assured the faculty of their loyal support in this crucial hour. Telegrams were read from friends throughout the country assuring the college of their support and cooperation in building a bigger and better Elon.

It was made clear in these addresses that the real Elon is not in the material equipment of the college, but within the heart of every student and friend of the institution… Necessity is conducive to resourcefulness, and sometimes it takes a crisis to show the latent material in students. Everyone pledged his loyalty and support and the students love of their alma mater too much not to make any sacrifice for her that is possible. They will prove true-blue, support the college to the last degree, and prove that they are worthy of the trust reposed in them.

The Broken Heart of Elon — editorial

As the great orb of day slowly nestled down into the horizon its glow seemed to soften as it covered the broken heart of Elon. The broken, crumbling walls of the Administration building were to the solemn onlookers symbolic of the rended heart of Elon; but the tall, stately walls of the tower, standing defiantly against the strong wind that was sweeping down upon the scene of devastation, were symbolic of the staunch undying spirit of loyalty and service that permeated the hearts of every friend who knew of Elon’s loss. …

Already the students, faculty and friends have lifted their tear-dimmed eyes from the ruins of what was once the Administration Building and have turned them toward a bigger and better Elon: one that will be another symbol of the love and sacrifice of those who have and those who have not already tasted the sweetness of sacrifice for a worthy cause.

The Administration Building, the landmark of the institution is gone. Elon’s heart is broken. But the glow from the smouldering embers of the ruins stands out as the light that will lead to the construction of the greater temple to the high ideals of mankind.

The Administration Building, the landmark of the institution is gone. Elon’s heart is broken. But the glow from the smouldering embers of the ruins stands out as the light that will lead to the construction of the greater temple to the high ideals of mankind.

The Maroon and Gold newspaper

Excerpts from The Christian Sun newspaper
January 25, 1923

Elon’s Calamity

The news of the great loss of Elon College through a fire, which occurred on Thursday morning, between six and seven o’clock, Jan.18, 1923, spread rapidly throughout the church in the South. The loss is beyond calculation. The building itself is a great loss, but its contents, if possible, were a greater loss, for the building may be restored, but much of the equipment cannot be restored. The recitation rooms, the Society halls, the college chapel, the library, the President’s office and the music halls with pianos were all destroyed. …There is but one thing to do, as we see it, and that is to get busy at once to rebuild and have it ready, if possible, by the opening of the college next September. That will be a big undertaking indeed, but big undertakings call for great effort, and great effort can do much more than we sometimes think. Now is the time for every friend of the college to stand by the work of rebuilding and supplying, as far as possible the things that were destroyed.

Elon Letter

By President William A. Harper 1

… It was a terrific fire. The building was constructed of heart of pine and with a stiff breeze blowing, nothing could be done to save it. Only a few typewriters were rescued from the Commercial Department. There were four safes in the building, but the intensity of the heat to which they were subjected charred their contents to a dismal black, where it did not actually reduce them to ashes. The steel letter files containing the correspondence were as wax before the lashing onslaught of the flames.

The sacred shrine of many a heart is gone, but the spirit of devotion that clusters around Elon is more alive than ever. So far as I know, not a student has left the hill except for sickness at home. The whole community has flamed forth in a rare outburst of loyal enthusiasm. Burlington citizens have had a meeting to consider how Alamance County can assist us in our hour of need and disaster. Telegrams, phone calls, letters have come from every section of the country extending sympathy and prophesying that out of the glowing embers of our most sacred shrine shall arise a nobler Elon. …

February 1, 1923

A Visit to Elon College by J. Pressley Barrett, Editor

As a proof of the place Elon holds in the hearts of our people, the expressions of sympathy have been general and the large attendance of the Trustees on this occasion is evidence that Elon’s calamity has mightily strained its friends. In going from the railroad station to the president’s office, we passed by the wreck of the Administration Building — the scene touched us all deeply. The destruction of the Building was complete. Of course, there was a pile of bricks — not much else, for every thing that would burn was in ashes. We have rarely seen a building more completely destroyed by fire. …

We first gave ourselves to what the situation calls for, and after some discussion, it was decided that the mere replacing of the building which had been destroyed would not answer the present needs at all. It was therefore decided that we must now undertake to provide a building plan for the institution for the next hundred years. To do this the Board decided to plan for the erection of at least four new buildings …

Every one about the college seems so full of hope and so determined to do his or her part to make it all mean a bigger and greater Elon. We did not hear one discouraging thought expressed.

J. Pressley Barrett, editor

Of course to do all this will require a great effort, but the Trustees were in the right mood for undertaking great things for the college. The first effort will be to build again the Administration Building, and then as fast as funds are available the other buildings will follow. The Trustees decided that we must not only undertake this building program, but at the same time we must greatly increase the endowment fund of the institution, for Elon’s usefulness had already outgrown the capacity of its present plant. It was therefore determined to undertake at once to raise $600,000 for the present and early future needs of the college — $300,000 of this amount should be used in the erection and equipment of new buildings, and $300,000 should be for enlarging the endownment. It is a great undertaking, but the Trustees seem confident that it can be done.

One thing which has greatly encouraged such an undertaking was the spontaneous inflow of offered help. The citizens of Burlington and Alamance County will undertake to raise one hundred thousand dollars of this sum. … It is for present purposes quite sufficient to say that there is now arising a tidal wave of liberality in Elon’s behalf, so that it may be that the calamity, of the burning of the Administration Building will at length appear as a blessing in disguise, for the carrying out of this larger building and endowment program, which the destruction of the Administration Building made a necessity, the college will be greatly enlarged and its capacity for usefulness will, if we judge correctly, be more than doubled.

One thing was especially encouraging, viz. : Every one about the college seems so full of hope and so determined to do his or her part to make it all mean a bigger and greater Elon. We did not hear one discouraging thought expressed. Out of the ashes of the building and the depression naturally arising from such a loss, we heard not one despairing thought expressed — everyone seemed to be straining his vision to see what he could discover in the way of the best things for Elon College and her future usefulness.

Excerpts from the 1923 Phi Psi Cli Yearbook

The Administration Building

After standing for 34 years on the Elon campus, the Administration Building was attacked by flames; its walls were laid waste and its tower reduced to a hollow shell. It was the first building on the campus, and around it for years have revolved the various interests of college life.

It was the nucleus out of which has evolved the splendid institution we know today as Elon. Her life history is essentially one of human interest. Having been conceived in the minds of men devoid of other resources than the determination to place within their children’s reach the means of preparation for the complexities of life; having been born of prayer and sacrifice, with tears of joy and songs of praise to gladden the hearts of those whose labors gave her birth; having in infancy been nurtured with constant care, and guided through the perilous days of youth with tender solicitude, Elon has long since laid away her swaddling clothes and stands forth in her full strength and stature.

While it is fitting that we pause to mourn the loss of this fine old building, it is more fitting that we turn our eyes toward the future, with the realization of what, through our efforts, our college may become. The Administration Building had lived out its days of usefulness. Through its being, it has made possible the greater Elon, which, with progress for its watchword, has broken the bonds of limitation and reaches out to larger and better things.

Senior Class History

This year we have been called upon to bear our part of the deepest sorrow that has ever befallen our beloved institution. On the morning of January the 18th, we stood silent and grief-stricken, watching the sacred walls of our old administration building crumble amid the flames. A few hours later we met, our heads bowed with sorrow, and pledged ourselves to bear our part of the hardships which we knew would follow, and our undying allegiance to our college in the time of its greatest need.

… No other class of all the historic classes that have gone before us has had quite so varied an experience as has been ours. We will have been the only class ever to graduate here without the administration building. We have been anticipating the time when we could get our diplomas within the sacred walls of this old building. We have cherished the idea until the fatal day of January 18th, when the building was destroyed by flames. Although this honor will have to be conferred in some place without so many hallowed traditions, yet the memory of those treasured halls where we have spent so many pleasant and valuable hours, will go with us always.

President Harper’s opening address to students
September 9, 1923

(An excerpt, as reported by The Maroon and Gold)

Many of you have only recently come into this community. There is a spirit regnant here. …

I have seen the Administration building around which this spirit had its central seminary and dwelling place go up in smoke and I have seen the same spirit undaunted set about the reconstruction of a more ample and befitting home for itself. You could destroy every building on this campus, and the Elon spirit will, Phoenix-like, arise from the smouldering ruins to incarnate itself more befittingly in other buildings better adapted to its needs. It is an excellent spirit and it cannot perish. …


1 Elon President William A. Harper’s complicated career invites readers to grapple with the meaning of white progressivism in the early 20th Century, as he was among those who championed education as well as racist ideologies. Visit this Teachable Moment page for more information.