Fire Tears Through Historic University of Vermont Building

Fire officials say the age of the building, which is from the 1860s, made it hard to fight the blaze

A historic building on the University of Vermont campus was badly damaged by fire Thursday.

Flames and smoke could be seen from all around starting after 8 a.m., chewing through the roof of the Civil War-era Torrey Hall on the Burlington campus.

“It’s losing its shingles—it’s losing its charm,” witness Julie Gunderson said, watching firefighters remove smoldering portions of the building’s roof. “It’s so sad to see!”

Some of Burlington’s busiest streets, including part of Colchester Avenue, had to be temporarily shut down through the morning and much of the afternoon, as firefighters from several Chittenden County communities worked in the August heat.

Among their biggest challenges, Chief Steven Locke of the Burlington Fire Department said, was Torrey Hall’s old architecture. It features a lot of tight nooks and crannies, but no sprinklers, he said.

“It’s one of the very few unsprinkled buildings on this campus,” Locke noted.

The landmark has been under renovation this summer, the university said, and the fire department is sure the flames were sparked by accident, when contractors were soldering a new copper roof.

Torrey Hall houses historic and priceless scientific specimens, a UVM spokesman said, including several hundred thousand samples of insect life, zoological specimens, and plant life–including rare ferns and the largest collection of Vermont plant life anywhere.

“Collections like these are the fundamental basis of understanding the diversity of life on Earth,” said Dave Barrington, the curator of the Pringle Herbarium. “Curators like me live in continual fear of something like this happening.”

The curator said he hopes the UVM nature collection may have escaped destruction from flames, smoke, and water, but damage assessments will take some time.

No injuries were reported by midday Thursday to anyone inside the building, or to firefighters, according to the Burlington Fire Department. 

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