Fires have completely or partially destroyed campus buildings on six occasions: Nassau Hall in 1802 and 1855; Marquand Chapel and Dickinson Hall in 1920; John C. Green School of Science in 1928; University Gymnasium in 1944; and Whig Hall in 1969.
NASSAU HALL FIRES
The fire of 1802 started about one o'clock on the windy afternoon of Saturday, March 6, and in two hours only the blackened walls of Nassau Hall were left standing. President Smith declared the fire the result of vice and irreligion, and a trustee's investigating committee thought it was begun intentionally. George Strawbridge 1802 (later a supreme court judge in Louisiana) made an independent investigation and concluded that no student was in any way guilty; he thought sooty chimneys probably responsible. Curators note: More here
The trustees made a public appeal for funds to rebuild Nassau Hall and in less than a year it was again ready for use.
The 1855 fire also occurred on a windy Saturday in March (the lOth). It started about eight o'clock in the evening and by midnight, once again, only the walls were left standing. This time there was no suspicion of incendiarism. Many students suffered large losses of clothing and furniture, but the Latin professor, George M. Giger, with the help of some tutors and students, rescued Peale's portrait of Washington and other valuable paintings from the portrait gallery. "Little Giger performed prodigies of valor," Alfred A. Woodhull 1856 wrote his mother, "and several times was so excited that he came near having a fight with the firemen." President John Maclean braved the smoke and flames to search for a student mistakenly reported trapped in an upper story room. "Johnny . . . got so nearly suffocated," Woodhull told his mother, "that a party of students scarcely saved him."
Nassau Hall was reopened for the lodging of students in August 1856, but the reconstruction was not completed until June 1860, when the trustees thanked God "for . . . raising up liberal friends, who by their generous contributions, have enabled us to rebuild our burnt Edifice, and to enlarge and improve it." One of the most "liberal friends" was President Maclean himself, who helped liquidate the unpaid balance of the rebuilding cost by giving up part of his salary.
FIRES IN THE TWENTIES
On Friday, May 14, 1920, a fire broke out in the original Dickinson Hall, which stood on the southwest corner of the present site of Firestone Library, and spread southward to Marquand Chapel, which stood just northeast of Murray-Dodge Hall. Dickinson and Marquand were completely destroyed, but the Joseph Henry House, which at that time stood between them, escaped with little damage. Volunteer firemen, helped by students in evening clothes -- the eating clubs were holding their house parties and there was a freshman dance at the gymnasium -- and by an engine company from Trenton, kept the fire from spreading to McCosh Hall, Prospect, and Palmer Laboratory. Marquand Chapel was replaced by the University Chapel in 1928 and the present Dickinson Hall was built in 1930.
The fire that demolished the John C. Green School of Science was discovered a little before midnight on Monday, November 16, 1928. The tower was already in flames when the firemen arrived; by 4 a.m. the last of the roof had caved in and by daybreak the building was a smouldering mass. The Joseph Henry House, which had been moved to a new location just north of the School of Science (to make way for the University Chapel) again escaped unscathed. This fire created a shortage of laboratories and classrooms, which was not relieved until the completion of Frick Chemical Laboratory in 1929 and Dickinson Hall in 1930, but the loss of the School of Science, which the Daily Princetonian thought had been "conceived under an evil architectural star," was generally unmourned.
The University Gymnasium, built in 1903, was destroyed by fire the morning of May 13, 1944. The fire was discovered and an alarm turned in at 2:47 a.m. by naval watches in Little and Patton Halls where members of the navy V-12 unit were quartered. The building was completely gutted and all its contents lost, since the dense smoke made it impossible for anyone to enter a door. Lost in the flames was Dr. Joseph E. Raycroft's library of some 2,500 volumes on health, sports, and physical education (partly restored later by gifts from friends), and scores of athletic trophies and relics, including a ball from the first Yale-Princeton football game of 1873. Heroic work by firemen and the University's grounds and buildings forces kept the fire from spreading to adjoining dormitories. The University Gymnasium was replaced by Dillon Gymnasium, completed soon after the end of the war.
WHIG HALL FIRE
The Whig Hall fire on Sunday, November 9, 1969, was discovered by a University proctor at 5:45 a.m. and was brought under control by firemen by 7:30 a.m. All but one of the exterior marble walls remained intact, but eighty percent of the wooden interior was destroyed, although most of the historic portraits of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society escaped damage. Renovations were completed in 1972.
No loss of life resulted from any of these fires; the only serious injury was a broken leg incurred by a spectator from Kingston in the Nassau Hall fire of 1855.
Source: Leitch p. 183 ff