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The Fiery Fate of McFie Hall

By Rick Hendricks

In September 1890 more than three thousand spectators were on hand for the laying of the cornerstone of the first building erected on the campus of New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces. The large turnout was an indication of the excitement the townspeople felt in over the establishment an institution of higher learning in their community.

Named for Judge John R. McFie, the building, also called Old Main, was designed by noted British architect George Edward King in grand Italianate style and built by contractor J. R. Bogardus. King is best known for his buildings in Leadville, Colorado. He also designed several opera houses and a theater in Mexico.

McFie Hall, a two-story brick edifice with a semi-basement, was ready for classes in February 1891. Its thirteen rooms were in constant use as classrooms. The top floor housed the college preparatory department, and the rest of the rooms were for math, English, commerce, languages, and military science.

On the night of September 12, 1910, a fire broke out the basement of the building. The roaring inferno drew the largest crowd ever gathered at the college in Las Cruces. The fire spread rapidly throughout the structure, fed by the heavily oiled floors. Strong winds from the southeast fanned the flames. McFie Hall, valued at $30,000 was completely consumed in the conflagration. Among the valuable items destroyed were a large telescope, surveying equipment, and musical instruments.

The cornerstone, made from locally quarried limestone and weighing half a ton, is all that remains of the original McFie Hall.

The storied El Paso architectural firm of Trost and Trost was immediately called in to design a replacement building. The firm had begun to develop a comprehensive architectural plan in 1907, competing its first building, Wilson Hall, dedicated to the study of agriculture, in 1909.