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Left in the Dark: The Mystery of the Main Building Chandelier

This essay is the second in the series Drexel students write about Drexel history

Left in the Dark

by William F. McHale

A chandelier offers light to lead the way, to create a path for you to follow, to make your journey easier.  But what do you do when that light goes missing?

In Drexel’s 109-year history, many events have occurred that have changed the shape of this campus, from presidency changes to new building construction.  Yet no event has caused as much mystery and intrigue as the 1956 Tidewater Explosion and the missing Main Building chandelier.  To this day, everyone wonders how such a valuable and huge object as a chandelier could have disappeared.

The chandelier, part of the original Main Building, was one of the primary sources of light for the Great Court.  It was described as “a splendid bronze chandelier with incandescent lamps” (George Thomas, Architectural History of the Main Building).  The Great Court was supposed to be designed like an Italian palazzo, but instead of natural light they installed the chandelier along with a stained glass skylight.

Main Building, Great Court, Circa 1900

The 50’s were a great time for Drexel; the campus had grown with a new library (now known as the Korman Center) and a new Basic Sciences Building (now known as Stratton Hall).  Then an incident occurred that would change the face of Drexel for years to come: forty years to be exact.  The Tidewater Grain Explosion would profoundly change the way the campus grew.

The Tidewater Grain Elevator was situated in a perfect location, a short distance to 30th Street Station, which was Tidewater’s gateway to the world.  This grain elevator acted as a storage space for any grain produced in the area and could hold a significant amount of grain to be exported via the Pennsylvania Railroad or the shipyard.  Transporting these grains caused a large amount of grain dust to be produced, which is a highly combustible substance.  If large amounts of this dust were to gather, all that would need to be present would be a small flame for the dust to explode with deadly force.  To add to the lethality of the event, the Tidewater Grain Company was fined $10.00 just over a week before the explosion for having poor dust suppression.

Wednesday, March 28, 1956 was an average day by all accounts.  At Drexel, evening classes were taking place.  It was at this time, that suddenly, at a few minutes after 8PM, a loud boom shook the campus.  One personal account stated, “As we started across the bridge, all of the buildings in front of us turned red and I recall reacting by grabbing Pierce’s arm and shouting, “get down.”  As we were dropping down behind some of the steel piled there, I felt a shock wave blast of air go over my head.  As it did, I could hear glass breaking all around us and as the shock wave hit the building in front of us, I could hear breaking glass there. I looked back the way we had come and there was a huge fireball about two blocks away in the vicinity of the Bulletin Building but across Market Street.  We could not imagine what had happened.  One speculation was that a plane had crashed.  Another was that some kind of bomb had gone off.  We walked closer but debris was everywhere and we did not think it was particularly safe (Donald Koch, 2010).”

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This boom shattered windows all around 31st and Market Street, causing a fortune in damages to the surrounding buildings.  Some of these windows blew in on evening classes being taught, but no Drexel students were killed, just a few scratches and bruises from escaping the classrooms.  This may be in part to the fact that some of the professors were veterans and knew the sound of an explosion when they heard it.  They instructed the students to get out of the room and take cover.  One example of the destruction caused is how the walls of Randell Hall buckled under the pressure from the blast.  The Drexel Student Building, which was the closest Drexel-owned building to the blast, sustained heavy damages and was deemed unsuitable for use.  The most notable damage done to our campus, though, was that caused to the stained glass that hung above the chandelier in the Great Court, which caused the glass to rain down on the bystanders below, risking heavy damage.  No major damage was sustained to the actual chandelier, but it was now open to the elements and, for all anyone knew, close to falling.  Here is where the average story of an urban disaster turns into a tale worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Harold Myers, the newly appointed treasurer, was tasked with talking to the insurer and negotiating the funds necessary to rebuild the damages, which amounted to over three hundred thousand dollars, which may not sound like much, but that amounts to about 2.5 million dollars if accounting for inflation.  It is said this was Myers’ “first traumatic experience” as treasurer, but he handled it with skill and acquired sufficient funds for these repairs.  The man who was given the job as head of emergency repairs was one William Martin.  When he arrived at the task of repairing the Great Court, he made the decision to take down the chandelier.  He believed that it was too great a risk to leave the chandelier suspended above the most busy spot on campus.  It was dismantled and placed into storage.  This is the last documented action involving the chandelier.

Over the span of 54 years, many people have spent significant amounts of time trying to find the chandelier.  One such woman is Jacqueline DeGroff, current Curator of the Drexel Collection.  Her first assignment as curator was to attempt to track down this illustrious artifact.  She looked through the various storage spaces throughout the Main Building but found nothing.  She asked her predecessor as curator, who had no recollection of the location of the chandelier.   The university has since replaced the chandelier with a replica, hung in 2006 where the original once was.

What was once a symbol of Drexel’s prestige, is now out there in the world, somewhere.  Some suspect that an administrator sold it for scrap metal during a tough economic time, which would make sense because they would never admit to scrapping such a monumental piece of Drexel history.  Others think it is still somewhere in the Main Building, which has various large storage spaces.  To add some credit to that rumor, it is known that the original blueprints of the Main Building are missing, so there could easily be a room in a distant part of the building that houses this secret treasure.  Despite these rumors the mystery lives on, and every year there will be another person who wonders how the chandelier was lost.  Someday after a little more time and research, and a lot more luck, it can be found.  But until then, we are left in the dark.

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