Around 7 p.m. Wednesday, the East Lansing Police Department received a call indicating that Morrill Hall was on fire, Sgt. James Phelps said.
Smoke was seen coming from the roof of the building, attracting a large crowd before authorities announced asbestos was leaking from the windows. Police scanner traffic indicated that the fire most likely started near the roof, resulting in a collapse with no reported injuries.
Firefighters began entering the building around 7:45 p.m., breaking open the windows of the top floor. Officials were unable to be reached for comment regarding the cause of the fire or any potential injuries as of press time.
Demolition of Morrill Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, began early last week after the MSU Board of Trustees decided to tear it down in June 2010. The process was slated to be completed in June 2014.
The decision to tear down the building came as a result of rotting wood beams at its core, which were causing it to collapse in on itself. The building has been vacant since the end of 2012.
Despite the danger of breathing in the asbestos-filled smoke, Perry, Mich., resident Angel Whitaker said other spectators did not seem to be alarmed.
“Nobody panicked,” Whitaker said. “They seemed to be fascinated by the fire, but then things escalated quickly. Flames turned into flying ashes, then thick black smoke.”
Graduate student Anna Feuerstein, who used to work in the building, said she saw the fire while walking on West Circle Drive.
“We just saw black smoke billowing over the top of Morrill Hall,” Feuerstein said.
Although he worked in the building for more than 30 years and never received confirmation of the presence of asbestos, history professor David Bailey said in a prior interview that he had his own suspicions.
“In the basement, there (was) wrapping-around pillars, so I kind (of) wondered what this material is used for,” Bailey said. “But there are some things you just don’t (want to) know.”
Barb Kranz, the director of Facilities Planning and Space Management, said refurbishing the building would have been too costly, and that the demolition and restoration of the site will cost about $1 million.
“The building exceeded its ability to be occupied beyond repair,” Kranz said. “(The) cost to do that was significant.”
Bailey said Morrill Hall was considered unsafe before demolition began. He said pieces of the building itself, which essentially was held together by paint and plaster, often broke off from time to time.
The building mostly housed faculty from the Department of History, which was relocated to Old Horticulture in 2012.
“No one wanted to be inside on the day a big wind came,” he said. “They told me there was the possibility that my office would collapse down a floor, so I’m not entirely convinced the move was a bad thing.”
Before it was converted for office and classroom use in 1937, Morrill Hall was referred to as the Women’s Building and was used as a womens-only dormitory and learning center.
Portia Vescio, the assistant director of University Archives and Historical Collections, said although it has become outdated, the building was once one of the largest on campus.
“They used the best materials they had at the time,” Vescio said. “They didn’t realize some of the long-term sustainability of the materials they were using.”
Kranz said the restoration plan for the site will include a terrace with benches and landscaping, as well as plaques made out of sandstone taken from the building.
Prior to the fire, bricks from Morrill Hall were to be sold at the MSU Surplus Store for $35 when they were removed.
Despite his acceptance of the demolition, Bailey said it will take him some time to get used to the soon-to-be empty space in Morrill Hall’s place.
“It’s a damn shame,” Bailey said of the demolition.
“There’s an awful lot of history and an awful lot of wonderful people who have come through that building.”
Staff reporters Holly Baranowski and Tyler Beck contributed to this story.
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