Before March 1890, The Hilltop included a timber-framed church, an elegant Academy building, an old inn and a store – by 1898, it would be completely changed due to three devastating fires. The first building to be lost happened on March 20, 1890 when the Meriden Hotel, bought by KUA in 1853 for a dormitory, caught on fire. It was completely destroyed along with a barn and shed behind it and Moulton and Roberts’ Store located between the hotel and Rowe Hall. The fire spread to Rowe and over to the Duncan House on the opposite side; both houses were heavily burned but saved. The embers were carried by the wind across the green to the tall steeple on the church, setting it on fire. Four men quickly climbed the steeple, cut through the main posts and toppled it to the ground thus saving the church.
A new, four-story hotel was built in 1892. In the summers it became known as the Bird Village Inn in honor of naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes who had established the Meriden Bird Club that brought many visitors to town. During the school year, it was called Dexter Richards Hall in honor of its benefactor, the Hon. Dexter Richards of Newport, NH, a trustee (1869-1898), “…who had often remembered the school with gifts, very much is due for securing the beautiful structure….”
The second disastrous fire struck The Hilltop at 3:00 in the morning of February 21, 1891 when one of the four chimneys of the Third Academy building caught on fire. The library, furniture and most of the other valuables were saved, but “…the familiar sweet-toned bell had rung its last call .… An expression of the deepest sadness was upon every countenance when the old structure lay in ruins. A strong attachment for the time-honored academy building existed.”
The decision to rebuild was immediate and a cornerstone for the new Fourth Academy, later named for its generous benefactor Dr. Edward Baxter, class of 1858, was laid on June 18, 1891. Opening exercises were held on March 21, 1892, 120 years ago this very month; pause and think of the thousands of boys and girls who have walked its halls and sat in its classrooms since that day. At the dedication in June 1892, the Rev. Cobb included these words in an address to the school, “In no spirit of vain boasting, but rather of grateful recognition, we should take great pleasure in tracing the lines of light that have been drawn around the globe by men and women that had a part of their mental training and furnishing here. We should need to go back of the life of any one present to-day, and far forward into the cycles of eternity, to find what Kimball Union academy has done, –is doing, and will be doing as the ages roll on.”
On Saturday, June 16, 1894, a hot, muggy day, lightning struck the new, shortened steeple of the church; the following day during Sunday worship, thanks were given that the church had not been set on fire. The very next day, Monday, lightning struck again. Workmen up at the Monroe [Munro] House witnessed the strike and rushed to the church, but the interior was ablaze and they could not enter. It might have been saved but for the fact that that very morning the caretaker had filled all the kerosene tanks in the chandeliers that hung by metal rods from the ceiling. It is believed lightning travelled down the rods to the globes thus throwing kerosene over the entire interior of the church. For five years church services were held at the Academy chapel while the stone church, the very one we look at everyday as we go about our business, could be completed with grateful thanks to the very generous donations of John D. Bryant, class of 1845.
Photo 1:The Fourth Academy, built in the Queen Anne style, opened in March 1892, and was later named Baxter Hall. The building was renovated in 1921 removing the Queen Anne features and adding Colonial Revival features. The cement block with dates over the door on the left now resides on the ground to the right of the front door.
Photo 2: The first Dexter Richards Hall was a wooden structure built in 1892 the Second Empire style. The KUA Daycare, not seen in this photograph, is all that remains; the current brick structure replaced the building in 1936.
Next time: Hannah Chase Kimball, a champion for female education in the 19th century