A Devastating Fire That Was Not A Tragedy
January 18, 1970
Remembered Forty Years Later
January 18th marked a significant anniversary in High Mowing’s history: A turning point in the life of the school. On this day forty years ago in 1970, it began with Sabina Nordoff (teacher of eurythmy, drama and English, 1950-97) waking up at one am to the smell of smoke. Looking out her bedroom window she saw flames in the three arches of the passageway between the old faculty house and the main building. She headed out through smoke-filled rooms, corridors, and the old chapel to awaken Mrs. Emmet. In Mrs. Emmet’s words:
“Out of the darkness of deep sleep came the word ‘Fire’—the school is on fire! I turned on my light to find Sabina standing by my bed, a breathless eurythmic figure with smoke streaming eyes.”
Mrs. Emmet telephoned the fire department and Bob Pittman, ’44. The girls were alerted and went to the boys’ dorm for roll call. Everyone was safe and the fire department arrived quickly. For a while it seemed that the fire could be contained in the three arches, but the water gave out, and a fire truck was stuck at the foot of the hill blocking the way for other fire engines.
“We never had any more water...flames burst forth from the windows of the faculty house and I watched the Christmas books* go, and then on to my library. The whole house was a glorious bonfire. We realized it probably all must go. Several…boys carried (the statue) Pan over to Mrs. Karl’s house where he stood in the window (until the new faculty house was built in 1972) and he went back to his old well stone.” (Upon Mrs. Emmet’s passing in 1978, Pan went with her son John to his home in Connecticut.) “Old wood and a tarred roof, and a strong west wind to toss the flames—nothing was left but three lonely chimneys…. I went to (the present gym house) and sat among a quiet group of girls warming my feet at the fireplace.”
“The room was quiet soft movement and soft voices in firelight and candlelight—waiting, waiting …. One could see outside the window the flash out and on of (the fire engine) lights, blinking—blinking—blinking…. Suddenly one of the boys burst in carrying the lamb from the chapel, still hot from the fire, and very much a black sheep as he must have taken a nose dive into the fire. The boy was instantly mobbed with cries of the lamb, the lamb…the reaction was amazing, surprising and heartening. Then Bennett Frye ’64 stood beside me and asked me where my Greek coins were. I told him in two wooden (Dutch inlaid) boxes on top of the high bureau next to my bathroom. After awhile…a young fireman stood beside me saying: ‘I have two boxes here for you.’ I thanked him and told him they were very valuable and tucked them under my arm—cuddled them in fact.”
Although the fire was being checked by the firewall in the big room, sparks were hitting the roof of the main building. Bob Pittman got permission from the fire department to drive a bulldozer through the burning structure leading into the main building. By knocking down the burning embers, any danger to the main building was averted and the school was saved.
“Of the school, no one was hurt, nothing was harmed—we lost only one school room… What was gone was history and beauty, but only its material evidence.”
“We held chapel that night, Sunday, in the big room with the lamb and the two old iron candlesticks saved from the fire, and flowers. I can remember writing words at the office desk and asking Sabina, sheet by sheet, if it was all right. Since she had tears in her eyes, I decided that perhaps it might do. (Stephen Chapin, ’69 played for us. We had no hymnbooks.) We opened with The Vesper Hymn (“I gaze into the world…”). Then the following prayer:
May the events which seek me come unto me
May I receive them with a quiet mind
Through the Father’s ground of peace on which we walk.
May the people who seek me come unto me.
May I receive them with an understanding heart
Through Christ’s stream of love in which we live.
May the spirits who seek me come unto me.
May I receive them with a clear soul
Through the spirit’s light by which we see.
We sang the Lords’ Prayer and Thomson’s Alleluia.
Then I spoke:
“Fire what does it mean? One of the four elements: strong, active. Heraclitus said it was the basic element—motion—everything flows; Panta Rei in Greek. It is also said that fire cleanses. Somehow this school always rises to an emergency as you have today—this big night and day—in so many ways. Chapel tonight, to bear witness to the fact that we carry on as usual or better than usual. I have been wondering why a fire on the Hill after 28 years. I have been wondering why all parts of this school that go back into history have gone up in smoke, but that the places that house the young of today were not threatened (or almost not). I do not believe that any event (even one so apparently disastrous) cannot be made to bear good fruit. What must we build from this event of today? What must we learn, all of us? My entire life or any material evidence of it has gone up in smoke. Could the 80 years be the cause of so much smoke? I have often said that even at my age I look toward the future and that it is your doing, you people who made it possible. Now I will have to prove it, somewhat bitterly, I must confess, for we are going on, building on, thinking on. It is a great challenge. Forty years these buildings have stood in my care, housing so much that came from rich experience. What can we do now? What can we build to balance that richness? It is too soon to tell, but not too soon to think of it. What can you give the School as rich as what you have lost today, and I am not speaking of material things. (History and beauty are gone, but only their material evidence.) Extraordinary as that picture is. It is the significance of those things. What can we substitute now for what is not here materially—can we keep its significance, the culling of a long life's experience? Let us try.
We rose and closed with 55.
Then it seemed time to sleep.” From Farm to School, pp57-9.
Mrs. Karl Remembers
I was not there the night of the fire. Brigitta and I were home in Temple for the weekend with Mr. Karl. On Sunday morning my husband was outside shoveling the driveway. He came into the house and said that “Bill” Blood, our neighbor above and a Temple fireman, had stopped to tell him that “High Mowing burned down last night.” Those were the words as he heard it. We never had a telephone in Temple and we could not imagine how “High Mowing” —all of it??? Could burn down? But we had no way of finding out anything until we drove back as soon as we could and got up the rise of the hill…. I was there then for Mrs. Emmet’s chapel in The Big Room…. (The next morning) the sunrise made the smoke, still rising from the fire area, pink.
Guy Wolff ’70 Remembers
As the girls headed over to our dorm, quiet, some crying, many of the older boys got on coats and headed over to the work at hand. Coming up the stone stairs by the corner of the Big Room we saw a Wilton fire truck just arriving. With a few minutes work at the hoses we really had the fire under control and we were looking forward to a happy ending with not a lot of permanent damage to the architectural treasure that stood before us. The fire was almost out when the hoses lost pressure and we had the horror of seeing, as those first minutes passed, the flames waking, as if rising from a nap. It was a terrible thing to see. That was the last water truck from town we saw. Abbot Hill was covered in ice.
As the fire spread we all felt so helpless. Standing near the power of that fire one realized later body burns even through clothing. Bob Pittman got on a rather old, but very large bulldozer (the kind with no cab protection) and headed directly for the wall near the metal door to the Big Room (attacking at the hallway right outside the corner English Room). That section of wall was engulfed in flame and there was a real question whether the story and a half wall of fire would fall away from or on Bob. It was one of the bravest things I have ever seen anyone do. Bob was always very proud of his time in the Marine Corps and we, as a school, were so lucky to have him there at that moment. There is no doubt in my mind that if Bob Pittman had not taken the extraordinary chance he did we would be without the Main Building today.
A week before the fire in a faculty meeting (held in the old faculty living room) Bob said ‘This in the most beautiful room in the world’—never to be forgotten words.
After the fire support from alumni/ae, friends, trustees, Mrs. Emmet’s family, together with the immediate school community came quickly and warmly. “On St. Valentine’s Day, the students gave me a book. The cover was a box made from wood saved from my house. The inside pages, stressing the sun again and again, were many more than at Christmas, until as I turned them page by page, I realized that it was a New Year book and almost a roll call book. And withal it had the quality of the Phoenix.” From Farm to School, p4.
The New Year Book in a way symbolized the eternal quality of High Mowing and the potential for further growth and determination to rebuild. On the first anniversary of the fire in 1971, Mrs. Emmet was presented with another New Year Book—from the alumni/ae with their many contributions in drawing and in word. The present Emmet House was rebuilt on the same cellar hole (probably dug by David Cram around 1840) as Mrs. Emmet’s old house. The foundations for the present chapel and faculty house were redesigned, and the building construction was completed by 1972, under the leadership of Bob Pittman, along with Toimi Parsinnen, the carpenter that had helped in the building of the school in 1942. The faculty house received extensive renovations and expansion for the present library around 1983.
With the lamb being rescued from the fire, it was often heard that the heart of the school had been saved. At the time of the renovation and expansion of the main building, it was said that the Big Room was and must remain the heart of the school. That Sunday evening of January 18, 1970, the lamb was in the Big Room for the chapel service and has been in the Big Room with each Nativity performance since 1942.
written by David White, ’62
*Although the Christmas Books from 1942 to 1969 were lost in the fire, a number of pieces from these books are saved in a volume “Setting down in writing is a lasting memory,” which Mrs. Emmet assembled and prepared for High Mowing’s twentieth anniversary in 1962.