Timeline          Histories          
People Publications Events The Campus Athletics Daily Life







Sinclair Memorial Chapel

Sinclair Memorial Chapel Fire - 1947

The night of September 4, 1947, perhaps the most famous date in Coe's history, was the night Walter P. Hanson, Jr., a night watchman at Coe, set fire to Sinclair Memorial Chapel. In order to get revenge against a student who apparently had slapped him two days before, Hanson started the blaze by throwing a match into a box of oily rags in the basement directly under the organ.

According to Harris Lamb, former coach and alumni director who was at a meeting on campus the night of the fire,  "the night watchman went around the block, across from the Chapel. He went on the porch and started visiting with some people there. He had already set the fire. That fire was really heating up down there in the basement. So, by the time the flames broke out and the fire department was called, our Sinclair Chapel was on its way down in ashes." Hanson's original alibi reported in the September 5 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette was soon proved false by the Shaw family, with whom he had "visited" the night of the fire. He first claimed that the floor of the chapel felt warm on his 9 o'clock rounds, but he had actually set the fire and left the building earlier in the evening. Once his alibi cracked, Hanson admitted to starting the fire, and on September 17, he was sentenced to ten years at the Iowa State Penitentiary.

The financial loss to the college was great, especially since the chapel had just been refurbished. Stained glass windows, sound proof transepts, and a new lighting system had all been installed within a year of the fire. The building was not the only thing to suffer in the blaze; a piano, musical equipment, stage equipment, and valuable paintings, including the portrait of the building’s namesake, T.M. Sinclair, were lost as well. However, the October 1, 1947, Cosmos reports of some salvaged items. Between 1 and 4 a.m., seven drama students risked their lives to rescue several thousands of dollars worth of costumes and theater pieces. They saved several historical and valuable pieces, including Victorian velvets and brocades, suits of armor, and even a grass skirt. These students also managed to salvage some flats and backdrops from the orchestra pit behind the basement stage. One student later explained the students' courage: after seeing the blaze and hearing some bystanders laugh about the "great fire," they went "down the street to Kozy Jones to commiserate with each other and drown their sorrows in Carling's Ale. After a little fortification (about three rounds), they decided they really should try to save some of the theatre equipment."

The Board of Trustees quickly organized and developed a plan for the rebuilding of Sinclair Memorial Chapel. By early October, the Board, under the chairmanship of Arthur Poe, had decided to build a larger building that could meet several of the college's needs. Donations from the community and area were already pouring in. The Young Men's Bureau of Cedar Rapids raised $20,000, and even our infamous arch-rival Cornell donated $110 to help in Coe's time of need. Of course, Coe students and alumni also assisted the college. As Harris Lamb recalled, "the Cedar Rapids people and alumni had a big sign out in front of that campus in a few weeks and it read, 'Up From the Ashes.' And, that's how the new Chapel was built - from the alumni who were interested in it."

The original chapel, however, was not soon forgotten. In the June 5, 1948, Cosmos editorial review of the 1947-48 school year, James Tisdale wrote, "This one event has undoubtedly had more influence on happenings at Coe this year than any other single occurrence. But thinking back to the night of the fire, I still remember how quiet and thoughtful the onlookers were. Maybe they, too, saw a lot of memories and traditions going up in the flames and the smoke."

  Home Coe College Contact Us  

Copyright 2006
Coe College
1220 1st Avenue NE
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402