St. Lawrence University's chapel steeple falls after fire

Lauren Williams's picture
Thursday, October 10, 2013

Strong winds overnight following a Sunday fire caused the top portion of the Gunnison Memorial Chapel's steeple at St. Lawrence University to fall around 5:25 a.m. Monday morning, ending a dramatic 24 hours on campus that resulted in no injuries.

“We had several engineers and architects here yesterday who predicted that the steeple would most likely fall and predicted where it would fall safely,” said Pat Gagnon, director of Safety and Security. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

The fire was discovered shortly after 5 a.m. Sunday, when campus Safety and Security personnel noticed smoke coming from the chapel’s steeple. They placed the call to the local fire department, and crews were on the scene in less than 5 minutes.

The fire damaged a significant portion of the steeple and the roof of the chapel's bell tower. However, much of the chapel, including 10 large bronze bells, remained relatively unscathed and intact. Officials indicated that the fire was most likely caused by an electrical malfunction, however specific details were not available Monday morning. The chapel was first opened in 1926.

“We’re really lucky we had the response we had from our local fire departments,” Gagnon said. “Their hard work and skill prevented this fire from doing even more damage than it did.”

Sunday’s fire had severely weakened a large wooden beam that held the spire of the steeple in place. Daniel Seaman, St. Lawrence’s chief facilities officer, said the steeple had been smoldering throughout the night. The weakness of the structure coupled with Monday morning’s high winds eventually led to a portion of the steeple’s collapse.

It landed on the lawn on the north side of the building. There were no injuries, and the exterior of the chapel sustained minimal additional damage from the falling debris. Safety and Security officers remained on site throughout the prior night to monitor the structure and perimeter and called emergency workers when the portion of the steeple fell. Firefighters returned to extinguish a few remaining burning embers.

The University was working to get a crane to campus Monday morning to remove the remaining steeple, Seaman said. “

If the wind dies down a little bit today, we’ll get up there and take it down,” he said. “But we might have to wait until tomorrow. With these winds, it would be too risky to put somebody up there.”

Seaman said once the remaining portion of the steeple is removed, the next steps would be to put in place either a temporary or permanent roof on the bell tower and cap the steeple before winter.

A weathervane and a large copper rooster that sat atop the steeple were badly damaged during the fall. Seaman said he was unsure if they would be repairable. However, he was confident that the steeple would eventually be restored.

There was some water damage to the main chapel, Gagnon said. Workers were already cleaning up the interior of the building and assessing the extent of the damage by late Sunday morning.

“This building is a real symbol for the campus,” he said. “We’re going to want to get the chapel cleaned up and functional as soon as possible.”

For additional information and updates on the cleanup and restoration of the Gunnison Memorial Chapel, please to visit www.stlawu.edu/news.

About St. Lawrence University:

Founded in 1856, St. Lawrence University is a private, independent liberal arts institution of about 2,400 students. The educational opportunities at St. Lawrence inspire students and prepare them to be critical and creative thinkers, to find a compass for their lives and careers, and to pursue knowledge and understanding for the benefit of themselves, humanity and the planet. Through its focus on active engagement with ideas in and beyond the classroom, a St. Lawrence education leads students to make connections that transform lives and communities, from the local to the global.