TOPPENISH — A brick wall on the north side of the under-construction — and still unnamed — building at Heritage University is a vivid reminder of the devastating fire almost two years ago that destroyed the former Petrie Hall and rocked the small private school.

Click to Watch Attached Video →


Among the new bricks are old ones that remained from Petrie Hall. Construction coordinator Rob Carroll noted that they are easy to identify because of their damaged exterior.

“Some of them are really charred from the fire,” he said.

The fire that leveled Heritage’s oldest building, identified with the college’s formation in 1981, will never be forgotten by the Heritage community. But at the same time, students, faculty and staff are looking forward to its replacement and two other buildings under construction. All three are about half done and expected to be finished by the start of next school year.

“We’re looking forward to having them open in the fall,” said Michael Moore, vice president for advancement.

The new buildings include classrooms and art studios at the former Petrie site, a dining commons and bookstore near the center of campus and an IT facility. University spokesman David Mance said the cost to construct all three will total $12.5 million. Heritage is using $3.6 million from insurance proceeds to pay for a third of the cost. The university is raising funds for the remainder and is exploring a privately financed bond issue.

The former Petrie Hall housed the gym, library/bookstore, information technology, some classrooms and a cafeteria. It was built as McKinley Elementary School in 1926.

On July 8, 2012, an electrical fire started above the kitchen, ripping through half the building before anyone noticed. By the time firefighters responded, the building was engulfed in flames and could not be saved.

Because it was a Sunday during the summer, there was no one in the building. A custodian on campus at the time was eating lunch at a building across the street when he saw smoke. The resulting flames drew a crowd that included former administrators and the founding president, Sister Kathleen Ross.

“To say it was a blow to the university was an understatement,” said Moore, who recalls seeing from miles away a large plume of smoke rising from the campus. “It took classrooms, all our IT, equipment, all of the phone lines. The power and water came through there. Everything on campus went dark.”

As a result, several faculty and staff were relocated to portable classrooms, phone service was out for weeks and employees had to rely on cellphones for communication.

Carroll and Moore said there are no plans yet for any future projects, but they would like to see the portable classrooms disappear from campus.

With enrollment expected to increase within the next decade, Moore said discussions of more expansion are necessary. Enrollment for fall 2013 was 1,128 undergraduate and graduate. The campus is evolving to look more like a traditional college architecturally, so remodeling and updating could attract more students to the Toppenish campus.

“The fact that this fire struck at the core where the university started, it really allowed us to back up and replan our campus,” said Moore.