20 years on: Remembering Franklin House

Nicholas Tillinghast/The Miscellany News.

It may seem hard to believe, but this week marks 20 years since the tragic destruction of Franklin House, the dormitory building which stood on Vassar’s campus across from Noyes for nearly half a century. The building—a mirror image of Noyes, and similarly designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen—burned down in the evening of Sunday, March 21, 2004. Thankfully, no lives were lost, but the estimated property damage costs ran into the tens of millions, and dozens of students were rehoused in the basement of Josselyn House for the remainder of the school year.

Speaking on the anniversary of the event, President of the College Elizabeth Bradley reflected on the long-term ramifications of the fire.

“Although the fire occurred before my time here, I know the loss of Franklin House was felt all through the Vassar community,” she said. “I am immensely grateful that nobody was seriously harmed in the fire, and that it has led to long-overdue changes in policy, including our bans on candles, flamethrowers, industrial-grade welding equipment and tapestries.”

Several alumnae/i who lived in Franklin during their time at Vassar spoke to The Miscellany News about their recollections of the building.

“Back in my day, Franklin was the place to be,” one member of the Class of 2005 said. “I lived there my sophomore year, and there was a feeling of community which I never experienced in any of the other dorms at Vassar.”

Although Franklin resembled Noyes on the outside, the interiors of the two buildings could not have been more different. Whereas Noyes hallways and common spaces sport a futuristic, space-age look, Franklin was designed to give the impression of the inside of a cave. Its multi-purpose room—furnished with rocks, sticks and bones—was affectionately known as the Flintstones’ Lounge, a foil for Noyes’ well-known Jetsons’ Lounge.

“I loved living in Franklin, but yeah, actually, that was pretty weird,” a 1999 Vassar graduate said. “The only light and heating inside of the building was from open fires. People were constantly rubbing two sticks together to create sparks. You had to keep your fire going through the night if you wanted to keep warm and frighten away the beasts.”

The tragedy of the fire was compounded by just how unexpected it was. As a common saying among Vassar students at the time went, “Franklin House: It looks like it’s been here for 10,000 years, and it looks like it’ll be here for 10,000 more!”

Alas, this confidence was disastrously misplaced. On the night that Franklin burned down, bonfires were roaring throughout the dorm in celebration.

“My friend had just invented the wheel, and everyone was going nuts,” a member of the Class of 2007 recalled. “It was a total rager. Someone brought a keg, we were planning to roast a mammoth—and then tragedy struck.”

At around 11:42 p.m., the revelers decided to leave the dorm and check out what else was happening that night, leaving the bonfires alight. The cause of the fire that burned down Franklin is unknown to this day, but by the time the merrymakers returned to the building approximately an hour later, the situation was unsalvageable. Although the fire department was called soon after, there was little they could do but prevent the spread of the fire to the surrounding buildings. 

Franklin House was never rebuilt. Frances Daly Fergusson, then President of the College, called it “a dark day in the illustrious history of this fine institution,” and vowed to preserve the memory of Franklin for the generations to come.

Reached for comment on the 20th anniversary of the fire, Fergusson offered only a brief reflection on the significance of the event and the importance of remembrance:

“What?”

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