Saving art, saving history University to commemorate Russ Hall fire 100 years ago
As she works to restore two presidential busts, Rhona Shand is learning a bit of Pitt State history.
“Art isn’t necessarily made for art’s sake,” says Shand, associate professor and chair of the university’s art department. “You sometimes make art to explore history and other disciplines.”
Shand has been working on busts of Theodore Roosevelt, who was U.S. president when the university was established, and Woodrow Wilson, who was president when fire destroyed Russ Hall.
She is among many faculty members who are taking part in keeping alive memory of the fire 100 years ago. In commemoration of the fire’s centennial, the busts, which have been stored away for years, will be brought back in public view on the second floor of Russ Hall.
But first they need minor touchups from Shand’s expert hands, filling in major cracks in the base, repainting the metallic paint to match their new home and other work.
The busts will be unveiled during a ceremony at 10 a.m. Monday, June 30, in front of Russ Hall.
The fire began with a single strike of lightning during the early morning hours of June 30, 1914, where the south end of Russ Hall was hit and engulfed in flames. The building, which was only 5 years old at the time, was quickly flooded with students, townspeople and other volunteers who tried to salvage as many textbooks and desks from the north end as possible, before a great wind from the south end delivered the fire to the rest of the building.
Among these volunteers was 22-year-old Rex Tanner, who at the time was attending summer school to earn an advanced degree.
Tanner was killed when a power line that connected Russ Hall to the Industrial Arts Building fell. Deck, a horse he was attempting to keep calm, also was killed. Tanner’s acts of courage are recorded on a brass plaque at the entrance of Russ Hall today.
“Through refurbishing the busts I get to learn a little bit more about Pitt State’s history,” Shand said, adding that she hopes the busts will remind current and future students of the spirit that drives the university.