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Hail to the Hills: Old UCLA Burns

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Published Oct 1, 2008 9:00 AM


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From the files of the UCLA History Project

The 125 students enrolled in Professor Hosmer W. Stone's Chemistry 1A course were in a class by themselves — literally. Early one morning in March of 1929, the young scholars met for the first day of instruction — on UCLA's new Westwood campus, months before its official opening. And the circumstances behind their history-making move remain one of UCLA's unsolved mysteries.

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California Hall on the Vermont Avenue campus lies in ruins after an unexplained blaze broke out in the early morning hours of January 3, 1929. Rather than rebuilding from the ashes, plans were pushed forward to have the Westwood campus ready for classes by March — six months before the campus' official opening.

The students came to the new Chemistry Building (now Haines Hall), even though only 60 percent of the building had been completed, because of a suspicious fire. At 2:42 a.m. on January 3, two students living across the street from UCLA's Vermont Avenue campus were startled by a small explosion and subsequently found California Hall — a two-story wooden structure built in 1917 as barracks for the Student Army Training Corps that at the time housed the chemistry laboratories — on fire. By the time firemen arrived, the blaze was out of control, aided by the highly combustible chemicals in the building. By dawn, California Hall was nothing more than charred embers.

UCLA Director Ernest Carroll Moore telegraphed the news of the destruction to University of California President William W. Campbell, and measures were urgently put in place to replace all lost materials and push forward the construction of the Chemistry Building at the new Westwood campus.

Several theories were advanced for the cause of the fire, but it was never solved. At any rate, no one mourned the loss.

The Daily Bruin ran a tongue-in-cheek story that began: " 'Cal' Hall — the bugaboo of the campus — the butt of many a college wise crack — no longer torments the U.C.L.A. campus."

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Students enter the newly-constructed Chemistry Building 
(now Haines Hall) at the Westwood campus on March 18, 1929. A honor of christening the campus after a 
fire destroyed the laboratories at UCLA's Vermont Avenue campus.
Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections.

"Everyone said that some day 'Cal' Hall would burn down," the article continued, "and finally 'California' Hall gave up the struggle and submitted to the universal opinion."

Some campus wits placed blame on USC pranksters. Others joshed that Chemistry Department Chair William C. Morgan found a convenient way to get an emergency appropriation for new supplies and speed up the move to the larger, modernized building at Westwood.

Even the characteristically stern chairman couldn't help but quip about the matter.

"That old barracks should have burned down long ago," Morgan reportedly said the morning after the fire. "And wouldn't you know it — when it did, all the witnesses were looking the other way."

Detective Work Wanted

Were you a Bruin Pioneer in the first chemistry class? Do you know anything about the mysterious fire? Contact us at UCLAHistoryProject@UCLAlumni.net or at (310) 206-0383 to share your memories and photographs. For more on UCLA history, visit www.UCLAHistoryProject.ucla.edu.

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