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November Explosion: The Destruction of the Sigma Chi House at Butler University

Note: A version of this post appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association Newsletter.


Early on the morning of November 19, 1955, a massive explosion tore across the Butler University campus and the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood.  Emergency services raced to the scene where they found that two thirds of the Sigma Chi fraternity house, located on the southeast corner of Clarendon Rd. and Hampton Dr., had been reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. Rescuers found eleven fraternity members in the wreckage, along with the house mother. The fraternity, which had over 80 members at the time, but only 50 of whom were living in the house, escaped further injuries, and possible deaths, due to the extension of a curfew to allow students to attend a dance the fraternity was co-hosting with Phi-Delta Theta at the Indianapolis Athletic Club downtown, which had been scheduled that same night.


Butler university Indianapolis history sigma chi explosion
Indianapolis Star, November 20, 1955

The Sigma Chi house was a massive three-story brick structure, and had just been constructed five years before, costing $155,000. Images of the aftermath show half of the house had collapsed, and debris strewn about. Several students were trapped within the ruins and had to be rescued by Indianapolis firefighters, police, and other students over the course of the next few hours. One student, Hoagland Elliot, had been sleeping in his room on the second floor when the blast hit, and found himself trapped under brick and concrete blocks and other debris in the basement of the house.  He described being wedged against a mattress which helped block much of the debris from hitting him. He told the Indianapolis News that he thought he was dreaming when the explosion first happened, although his mind quickly shifted to a possible Russian attack. Elliott suffered shock as well as numerous cuts and bruises. Several other fraternity members also suffered injuries, along with a police officer who was struck by falling debris during the rescue operations.


One of the trapped students was Ray Craft, a Butler basketball player and former member of the Milan High School state championship team, upon which the movie “Hoosiers” was based. Craft was on the side of the house which did not collapse, although the floor of this room sank down into a steep angle, requiring him to be rescued via fire ladder from his second story bedroom window.

Investigation of the explosion quickly zeroed in on a 1,000-gallon water heater which had just been installed the day before. An inspector from Citizens Gas had found that the water heater had wiring problems, which resulted in the heater randomly switching on and off and ignoring the thermostat setting. The inspector had contacted the private contractor who had installed the heater, who apparently told the Citizens Gas inspector that they would come out and fix the problem. They had not done so by the time of the explosion. The fraternity retained a firm from Detroit to investigate the incident, although the state fire Marshall reported that the water heater had numerous deficiencies, which led to the explosion.

 

The residents of the home were given accommodations at dorms on campus, and as reported by The Butler Collegian, would continue to hold meetings and other functions at the Atherton Union. Members of other fraternities had joined in to help residents salvage personal belongings and other items from home in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. A wrecking company had been brought in the next day to knock down several precarious and dangling sections of rubble, to make it safer for salvage operations to continue. All this was done under a 24-hour police guard which had been placed on the house to keep away sightseers and curious nonresidents.

Butler university Indianapolis history sigma chi explosion
Indianapolis News, November 19, 1955

The ruins of the house were unsurprisingly declared a total loss, and the house was demolished within days of the explosion.  A new Sigma Chi house now stands on Hampton Drive next to the Ross Residence Hall, just to the east of the site of the destroyed house.  The location of the destroyed Sigma Chi house is now the vacant lot on the southeast corner of Clarendon and Hampton. The excerpt of a larger aerial image from ca. 1956 below shows the empty lot (red arrow) left after the ruins of the Sigma Chi house was demolished. The house to the east had been constructed by the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity in 1932 and was purchased by Sigma Chi in 1956 as their new house. That house was later renovated and expanded on its west side to create the larger house which stands today. The new house was completed in October of 1961 and formally dedicated in December of that year.


Butler university Indianapolis history sigma chi explosion

Since the demolition of the old house, the site where it stood has hosted a parking lot (as shown above) and a volleyball court, although today, as seen below, the lot is grass covered and empty.


Butler university Indianapolis history sigma chi explosion



Sources


Aerial photograph of Butler University circa 1956-1959, Butler University Digital Collections, https://palni.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/BldgsGrnds/id/835/rec/4


Indianapolis News: November 19, 1955, November 26, 1955, December 8, 1955


Indianapolis Star: November 20, 1955, October 8, 1961


The Butler Collegian: November 22, 1955, April 26, 1961


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