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Throwback Thursday: Commons Fire Edition

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 23,200 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

A dramatic event occurred at KU just after 7:00pm on this date in 1943: the Commons – a one-story frame building located at the southwest corner of Jayhawk Boulevard and Sunflower Road, neighboring Watson Library – burned to the ground.

An article on the front page of March 4th University Daily Kansan reported that “firemen, aided by sailors, fought to prevent the fire from spreading to the rest of the campus by the high southeast wind.” According to the UDK, “a bus driver reported last night that the blaze from the burning building could be seen as far as Tonganoxie. Citizens and farmers from miles around got into their cars and headed for the campus.”

Photograph of the Commons fire, 1943

The Commons on fire, March 3, 1943. University Archives Photos.
Call Number: RG 0/22/12 1943 Negatives: Campus: Buildings: Commons (Photos).
Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Aerial photograph of the Commons, 1940s

The Commons in the 1940s; Watson Library is located just off the left side of the photo.
University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/22/12 1940s Negatives: Campus: Buildings:
Commons (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

According to an article about “lost” campus buildings in the March 1982 issue of Kansas Alumni, the Commons housed a cafeteria from 1921 until 1927, when the Kansas Union’s first cafeteria opened. The building then was then home to offices for the Jayhawker yearbook and the Stenographic Bureau, and the University Orchestra had a practice room. The Anatomy department established offices and began holding classes in the building in 1932.

The University Daily Kansan reported on the Commons fire for at least two days. Here are excerpts from the paper’s coverage.

March 4th: “The officer of the day at the Naval Training school turned in the fire alarm. The fire was reported to him by Tom Lydon, yeoman third class, who was in charge of the gangway desk. The alarm was turned in at 7:05 and according to Lydon the first fire truck arrived at 7:15 and the second at 7:20…By the time the fire trucks had arrived the fire was out of control.”

March 4th: “The greatest loss of an individual probably was suffered by Dr. H. C. Tracy, professor of anatomy, who lost much of his life work, and nearly all of his personal library, one of the finest medical libraries in the world. This loss of books is irreplaceable.”

March 4th: “Because much of the valuable equipment had been placed in the fire-proof vault the damage was not nearly as high as it could have been. Nearly all of the department’s microscopes had been placed in the vault, along with priceless slides, drawings, instruments, and models.”

March 4th: “Medical students stood guard last night over the still-steaming vault where equipment valued at thousands of dollars was stored. Upon examination this morning the equipment was found to be intact.”

March 4th:”The cadavers on the main floor of the building have been moved to the basement of Lindley hall. Workmen are cleaning the wreckage that is covering the tanks in which approximately fifty cadavers are supposedly in excellent condition. These cadavers have not been used by medical students and were being stored in these underground tanks. As soon as the wreckage is removed the bodies will be moved to the basement of Lindley hall.”

March 4th: “Of the 225 University Library books in the medical library in the Anatomy building, only 12 were salvaged this morning, according to Charles M. Baker, director of University libraries. The loss of over 200 anatomy books in the fire was estimated by Mr. Baker to be at least $3000. Many of these books which were lost cannot be replaced now.”

March 5: “Snow and cold weather have stopped workmen from completing the job of removing debris from the ruins of the Anatomy building.”

March 5th: “A further search through the ruins raised the total damage nearer to $50,000 than the $35,000 first reported.”

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Melissa Kleinschmidt, Megan Sims, and Abbey Ulrich
Public Services Student Assistants

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