The history of Blackburn College has been defined by destructive fires, including the blaze that destroyed Robertson Hall in 1959. The loss of Robertson severed a remaining link to Blackburn’s past. Sunday, November 10, marks the 60th anniversary of the fire, which claimed much of the biology and art departments at Blackburn, as well as a portion of the College library and archives. Though the students and the Carlinville Fire Department fought valiantly, the old building burned to the walls.
Robertson Hall was a three-story, red brick, nearly square Georgian structure built-in 1880 through the generosity of William A. Robertson, a wealthy Carlinville land speculator whose keen interest in Blackburn was his only connection to the school.
Located on the site of present-day Ludlum Hall and facing out to Nicholas Street, Robertson sat across the lane from University Hall, or “Old Main,” and the two buildings dominated the early years of the Blackburn campus. Cars entering the campus off Nicholas could drive almost up to Robertson’s front door.
The building housed the Literary Society halls, particularly the Philomathean and Orthopatetic societies for men and the lesser-known Oioparthenian Society for women. As those groups died out, the physics and art departments assumed their space. The chemistry and physics departments moved to the new Olin Science Building in February 1957.
At the time, an estimated $10,000 was spent in renovating parts of the building to accommodate new purposes. The art department took over the third floor, while the music department assumed the first floor.
Meanwhile, the biology department, which had also been renovated in 1951, stayed behind on the second floor.
The second floor of Robertson also housed the Taylor Museum, the crown jewel of the building. The Taylor collection included some 25,000 fossils, 8,000 minerals, and an extensive assortment of rare American Indian relics, housed in the museum that was established in 1881.
While the main Blackburn library was in the present-day computer lab in Hudson Hall, a library annex was created in Robertson and housed in a white, prefabricated structure that sat off the west side of the building. Though the annex detracted from the visual appeal of Robertson, it was just another way that the building served the campus.
Fire, however, had proven an ominous threat throughout the 1950s. A fire had originated in the chemistry stock rooms in 1950 and spread to a nearby office, causing moderate damage.
In its annual April Fools Day issue in 1954, the Blackburnian wrote of a fire that had destroyed Robertson, with tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the damage and the future of the campus. Just five years later, this bit of dark humor proved sadly ironic.