History of Comenius Hall

Photo courtesy of Liz Kameen

Photo courtesy of Liz Kameen

In 1892, Moravian College had outgrown what we now know as South Campus. In response, architect Albert Leh built Comenius Hall on Main Street, named after John Amos Comenius. Comenius Hall is built with sturdy limestone and bluestone. This building contained the entire college, dormitories, classrooms, offices, and a cafeteria and gymnasium. 

Comenius Hall was the home and school of men studying at Moravian College and Theological Seminary. Women lived and learned on the original campus, South. 

On the North side of Comenius, Borhek Memorial Chapel was built as a freestanding structure and incorporated into Comenius Hall. The Chapel was built in 1893. 

The next addition to Comenius was Harvey Library, which was added to Comenius Hall in 1908. Harvey Library was replaced by Reeves Library in 1967 and was converted into office spaces. 

One of the most interesting stories of Comenius Hall is that of the 1913 fire on Halloween night. Parties for October 31, 1913, were being held in Allentown and Bethlehem, which were connected by an Electric Railway. 

The fire was originally discovered by student Ernest Hagen, who stayed home from the parties due to feeling ill. Sometime around 8:30 or 8:45 that evening, Hagen began smelling smoke and entered the hallway to see the elevator shaft in flames. 

All of the Bethlehem Fire Department was called to the fire as well as departments from South Bethlehem. According to the original Comenian newspaper article, published in November of 1913, Comenius Hall burned for the entire night. 

It is not known exactly how many of the 60 students were in Comenius Hall at the time of the fire. Students that were in the building were quick to grab the fire extinguishers. They were able to stop the flames in the lower shaft of the elevator but were overpowered by the flames. Hagen was sent to put in a fire alarm. 

Around 9:30 pm, the roof of Comenius Hall collapsed, destroying the fourth and third floors and damaging the second floor as it fell. 

Onlookers grew concerned for the approximately eleven thousand books and made efforts to remove the books from the library. They stored the books in the gymnasium, which stood separate from the main building. 

Near midnight, the fire was considered contained, and the flames dwindled and extinguished during the night. 

The fourth and third floors were completely destroyed, the second floor received significant damage, and the library and first floor received water damage. All of the student’s belongings were destroyed in the flames. 

Bethlehem residents quickly opened their homes to the displaced students, donating to students and rebuilding Comenius Hall. Classes resumed the Monday following the fire and were held in the Laurel Street Chapel. Freshman, sophomore, and theology students were housed in rented houses near the college. Juniors and seniors roomed on the second floor of the library, and the remaining Theology students were in the Infirmary. 

The cause of the fire is unknown, but speculations point to the cellar as the source and some believe the flames traveled up the elevator shaft. 

By the fall of 1914, Comenius Hall was fully rebuilt and open for student use once again. 

Comenius Hall has been the face of our main campus and the home of generations of students learning and thriving here at Moravian. Looking back at the history of the building reminds us of the generations of students that came before us and the legacy left for current Greyhounds to follow.