Main Building Fire Sparks a Rebirth
Remember the Main Building: Located on 8th Street, the
building was destroyed by fire in 1904.
Just as Rensselaer is in the midst of rebirth in the early
21st century, so a hundred years ago the Institute underwent
momentous change that established the heart of its modern-day
The great fire of 1904 that destroyed the university’s Main
Building provided the impetus for transformation, and sparked
the movement of reconstruction and remarkable growth of
On June 9, 1904, a fire blazed through campus and destroyed
the Main Building. The first building designed and constructed
for the Institute, the Main Building on 8th Street represented
the core campus. The four-story brick building was erected on
land given by the family of Joseph M. Warren, a former
Rensselaer trustee. It was completed in 1864 at a cost of
The facility had a library, assembly hall, lecture and
recitation rooms, drawing rooms, cabinets of natural history
specimens, and laboratories. (Ironically, the Main Building was
built as a result of another great fire in 1862.)
Besides the damaged Winslow Chemical Laboratory (now the
home of the Junior Museum), situated next to the Main Building,
four smaller buildings were left standing on the small,
three-acre parcel on 8th Street.
The question of rebuilding quickly emerged. Should the
Institute rebuild on the same crowded site, or move to a new
location more suitable for future growth?
One proposal was to extend the campus downhill toward the
city. Another option was leaving Troy altogether. Columbia
University proposed that Rensselaer merge within its New York
In the end, Rensselaer set its sights uphill, at the crest
of a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River Valley. For $125,000,
the Institute purchased the 10-acre estate of Walter Phelps
Warren just above the existing campus site.
Plans to rebuild a new Main Building in the same location as
the old one were abandoned and the property was turned over to
the city. The Approach, a massive granite staircase, which
symbolically and physically connects the Institute with the
city, was completed on the site in 1907.
On the first anniversary of the fire, Institute President P.
C. Ricketts, well-known for his indefatigable efforts in
reshaping the campus, reported to the trustees that 1905 had
been “the most prosperous year in the history of the school.”
Donations from alumni and others had more than doubled the
previous value of the Institute.