Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Today Old Tarble is used for Art Department studio space and secure storage, but the building has a long history. It has been a library and a student center. It was almost burned down in September of 1983, and lay vacant for years afterwards. It briefly provided studio space for the Dance and Theater departments, and now it is being used by the Art Department. Here the Daily Gazette provides a brief history of the building along with photographs charting its history, including the fire and current renovations.
Old Tarble (then called Carnegie Library) was built in 1906 as the main library building of the College, and at that time was one of the few buildings on campus. The building featured a large reading room with a balcony and a clock tower, whose bells would become an important icon of Swarthmore’s campus.
In 1928 the first addition to the library was added to make room for the Friends Historical Library. The addition was designed to be fireproof, and this was the only part of the building to survive the fire.
The addition was designed by Edward L. Tilton, the same architect that designed Carnegie Library, but this addition was in the Collegiate Gothic Revival architectural style. This was a time that a lot of buildings in the Gothic style were being built on campus: Clothier, Bond, and Worth, and Professor of Art Randy Exon notes that this building spree occurred at the same time as the Honors Program was being set up. Swarthmore was redefining itself as an academically excellent institution and not merely a simple, Quaker college, and Exon thinks, the buildings built in the Gothic style were part of that redefinition.
As the library space became too small another addition in the rear of the building, constructed largely of glass and called the glass stacks, was built in 1935.
Carnegie Library continued to inhabit its space, but the growth of the library warranted a completely new and larger building. In 1967 McCabe was opened and the library moved to it. During the next year the building underwent major renovations, including tearing down the glass stacks, and the building was reopened in 1968 as the Tarble Activity Center.
The Activity Center featured a large lounge space in the old reading room. A snack bar occupied the space of the Friends Historical Library. Offices for clubs and student government were included on the second floor, and there were games rooms with pool and ping pong tables in the basement.
The Tarble Activity Center stood for the next 15 years until September 16th, 1983 when a fire nearly burned the building to the ground. Public Safety was notified of the fire shortly before 5 AM, and it took about 90 minutes and six fire companies: Swarthmore, Media, Garden City, Springfield, Morton, and South Media to put out the fire according to the September 23, 1983 issue of The Phoenix.
Professor of Art Randy Exon was living in Crum Ledge, faculty housing near the Field House and Ware Pool, when the fire occurred. He was woken up by the 4-klaxon fire alarm which is sounded when there is a fire on Swarthmore’s campus. “The Stadium wasn’t there . . . so I could see the glow” of the fire from his house. He immediately went running towards the fire. “At Sharples I heard the bells fall. They made a horrible noise.” The signature bells of Tarble fell 20 feet and crashed into the first floor of the building when their supports in the bell tower burned.
The Phoenix and The Delaware County Daily Times reported that Parrish and Mertz residents (but not Willets or Worth residents) were evacuated from their dorms during the fire because sparks were blowing towards them, but the fire was kept from spreading.
The September 18, 1983 issue of the Delaware County Sunday Times reported that “The social center was gutted, but firefighters prevented flames from spreading to the snack bar and dining area, which remained intact.” This area was the fireproof Friends Historical Library addition, and still stands today. Damage from the fire was estimated as between $1.5-2 million, according to several newspaper articles.
On September 20th the fire was officially ruled arson. The September 21, 1983 issue of the Delaware County Daily Times notes that gasoline was probably used and that there was evidence that a fire was started at several locations on the first floor.
The September 23, 1983 issue of the Phoenix notes similarities to several other recent fires at Swarthmore: The Mary Lyons 2 fire of spring 1982 and the Clothier fire of spring, 1983. All three fires happened under suspicious circumstances in the middle of the night when the buildings were empty. However, the Tarble fire was the only one of those three to be officially declared arsons.
No one has ever been convicted for setting the Tarble fire. However, Pat O’Donnell, an Archivist at Friends Historical Library, said “I have talked to alums who were on campus at that time and they believed that it was another student.” There was a general belief among the student body that a particular student was responsible. O’Donnell didn’t want to know who that student was and never asked for the name.
The fire also made fire safety a priority on campus. The fire didn’t cause the heat-activated fire alarms to go off because before the building got hot enough the electrical supply was cut off because of the fire. There were no smoke detectors in Tarble. The Phoenix reported a student outcry over the status of fire safety on campus at a campus-wide meeting at the Friends Meeting House several days after the fire. There was also a sit-in staged on campus. The administration pledged to upgrade fire safety immediately after the fire, according to The Phoenix article. Today all of Swarthmore’s buildings are equipped with smoke detectors with multiple back-up power sources as well as heat-activated sprinklers that do not require electricity.
After the 1983 fire Old Tarble lay vacant for several years. In 1988 the space was briefly used as a dance rehearsal space. The September 18, 1998 issue of the Phoenix notes that Old Tarble was being used as both an art studio and a Theater Department rehearsal space. Today the building is devoted completely to the Art Department (and secure storage), and the Department’s presence in Old Tarble will grow this year as a result of the renovations undertaken over the summer.