Historic artifacts escape Torrey Hall flames


Lindsay Freed and Greta Bjornson

A fire broke out in Torrey Hall the morning of Aug. 3 while construction workers were renovating the building.

The fire was started by workers who were soldering copper roofing tiles around the attic, said Steven Locke, chief engineer at the Burlington Fire Department.

“[The workers] immediately saw it, called us and tripped the fire alarm,” Locke said.

There were no reports of injuries from civilians or firefighters, he said.

Though the third floor of the building sustained the most damage, the majority was on the exterior of the building, according to Locke.

The third floor of Torrey is home to the Pringle Herbarium, which has over 300,000 plant specimens, according to an Aug. 3 email sent to the UVM community by Gary Derr, vice president for executive operations.

Most of the herbarium collection was saved from the fire because it was housed in metal cabinets, said Dorothy Allard, assistant curator and digital herbarium coordinator.

The cabinets were bought with the money from a National Science Foundation grant, according to Allard.

“They were fireproof and waterproof for the most part, and before that we had some steel cabinets, but many of them were made out of wood; they were probably 100 years old,” she said. “I’m sure that if they had been there during the fire we would have lost a lot more specimens.”  

Dave Barrington, the herbarium curator, said most specimens lost to the fire were not the most valuable of the collection.

“Some materials are undergoing a special freeze-drying treatment to restore their utility for study,” he said.

The surrounding on-campus buildings, including Kalkin Hall and Lafayette Hall, were evacuated as a safety precaution, and Colchester Avenue was temporarily closed, according to an Aug. 3 Burlington Free Press article.

Junior Bridget McNamara, who lives on Colchester Avenue, recalled the day the fire occurred close to her home.

“It was really alarming to leave the house and not be able to go downtown,” she said. “The entire fire department from all the surrounding towns were blocking Colchester Avenue to fight the fire.”  

Following the fire, the plant specimens were moved to Jeffords Hall, according to Michael Sundue, assistant curator and research librarian at the herbarium.

Barrington emphasized the role of the Pringle collection in educating the community, and not just those in the sciences. Plant biology, biology, environmental studies, art and history all use the collection, he said.

Following the fire, “there was a phenomenal response from the Burlington community, the international community of natural history collections and from alumni with ties to the Pringle Herbarium,” Barrington said.

The herbarium has been housed in Torrey since 1975, according to UVM’s website.

Sundue explained the importance of the collection.  

“Everything we keep has a purpose—it helps to describe the natural world and document patterns of diversity, “ he said. “We are not hoarders who keep 350,000 plant specimens just to have them.”

Although both Sundue and Barrington confirmed that the collection would eventually move back to Torrey, Barrington suggested a bigger project in the future.

“There is real talk of rebuilding the building, of the Pringle Herbarium and the other natural history collections being reinstalled there and of Torrey Hall being rebuilt to enhance its role as the home of the University of Vermont Natural History Museum,” he said.