Looking Back: 1978 fire destroys roof, attic of Dodge Clubhouse

Bridget Janis, Managing Editor

A fire broke out in the Dodge Clubhouse attic on Oct. 17, 1978, which according to Jim Liewellyn, then-Oakland University news director, caused about $175,000 in damages. 

At the time, the clubhouse was 63 years old and built by John F. Dodge. It was mostly used for student events, parties, small receptions and meetings.

Two painters were inside the attic working on staining the shingles on the roof. The workers also painted the interior of Dodge Hall and a cafeteria on campus, but those structures did not burn down like the roof. 

“It was just like someone turned a switch on, the roof began to flame,” said David Hartsoe, one of the men from West End Painting. 

The Avon Township Fire Department took a half-hour to fully extinguish the fire due to the lack of entry points. While the fire department declared the reason to the fire to be undetermined, many people and staff on campus came to assume that it was started from faulty wiring. 

Jeffrey Key, Avon Township fire marshall at the time, said the fire originated  in the south portion of the attic and that “there are a limited number of sources of ignition there … very few ceiling lights there.”

The damage to the building was extreme but contained in just the attic except some slight water damage on the lower level. The floor of the attic had to be removed, but a renovation plan began to be in the process. The ideas ranged from including an extension of 500 square feet off the west side of the building and having an area for men and women showers and locker facility

“My hunch is if we can get the data back [damage and repair estimates] by Wednesday as expected, it will be considered by the board that night at their meeting,” said Kenneth Coffman, vice president of campus and student affairs. 

The Board of Trustees discussed the damage at a meeting. They talked about converting it to a golf course clubhouse. From an insurance point of view, it was beneficial to have an investigator look into the fire and hope for answers. The Insurance Company of North America allowed a professional to come in and look at the incident. The University had a blanket insurance policy of $78 million.

“No matter what the cost of the damage, the insurance should cover the repairs,” Richard Light, OU’s assistant vice-president for business affairs said then.

In order to fully understand the damage and cost of the repairs, the insurance company wanted to be able to see the situation itself.

“There is this expert who wants to check for the cause,” Light said then. He said the insurance investigator may send part of a clubhouse attic fixture to a laboratory “to get a better prediction of how the fire started.”

The Board of Trustees ended up coming to the conclusion that the needed renovations and anything that needs to be fixed on the clubhouse should be done and the changeover into a golf clubhouse should commence.