For our first day of class, we went to the rare book room of the library and got to look at some old maps and pictures of Davidson’s campus, showing everything from topography and vegetation to building layouts. It really gives a sense of how the campus has evolved and grown over time (personally, the change I most appreciate is not having to live in the same building where classes are held). However, the thing that I noticed most in the maps and pictures was how the old Chambers building burned in 1921, and how the lot where it once stood remained untouched for many years after.
In many ways, mankind’s history, particularly in the United States, has been a story of a slow but sure mastery over nature. As technology has advanced, humans have conquered many of the obstacles nature presents. We have cities full of buildings, some a hundred stories tall, which protect us from the cold and other elements. To cross North America was once a long, dangerous task—now, one can simply fly across the country in six hours. Unsurprisingly, this has given humans a sense of superiority over nature, a belief that nature no longer poses us a threat. However, disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis strike often enough for most people to retain a healthy respect for the power of nature.
Davidson seems to have gotten its own lesson in nature’s wrath when the old Chambers building, the focal point of its campus, burned down. In a letter to his mother, one student present for the fire writes that he “never saw such a magnificent, awe-inspiring, heart-rending sigh in all my life and never hope to again,” also noting that people could see the glow from the fire from as far away as Winston-Salem. The student also describes that the building looked “ghastly,” with only its walls and pillars still standing. That leads me to the next thing I found interesting—the school’s choice to, after leveling the ruins, leave the empty lot, which became known as the “Ghost of Old Chambers” where the building once stood. One could look at the decision to leave the Ghost as a simple memorial to the old building. However, one could also view the Ghost as constant reminder to Davidson students and faculty that, no matter how much we advance, we are still vulnerable to the powers of nature. Looking at a picture of the Ghost on the school’s online archive, one must admit that it functions as an ominous reminder not to become overconfident in our dealings with nature.
Link to page with letter: http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/fire-old-chambers-primary-sources
Link to photographs: http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/fire-old-chambers-photographs