By Jim Buchanan
Forty years ago almost to the day, Western Carolina University – and Jackson County, and indeed the entire region – lost a true treasure.
The Joyner Building was gutted by fire.
A landmark since its construction in 1913, Joyner – named after James Yadkin Joyner, State Superintendent of Public Instruction and member of the Board of Trustees of Cullowhee Normal School – for years served as the educational and social hub of the Cullowhee campus as it transformed from Normal School to University.
The grand structure was used as a classroom building and administration building, and was the site of the library until 1952. A versatile, inviting design saw other uses, including being the stage for the first basketball game played on campus.
Joyner was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In 1981 it still had plenty of life, being the home of The Western Carolinian, the campus newspaper, the campus yearbook The Catamount, and various student clubs and organizations.
The Herald of Jan. 22, 1981 reported on the blaze that claimed the structure.
It noted that with the demise of Joyner, Moore Dorm, built in 1924, was the new bearer of the title of oldest building on campus.
From the Herald:
“The fire, according to Doug Reed, WCU public information officer, was reported at 5 a.m. by two WCU employees in Brown Cafeteria, Mrs. Geraldine Ashe and Mrs. Mary Bennett, and by a student, Randy Manshack, who lives in Madison Dorm. Reed also reported that two students staying in Buchanan residence Hall told Pritchard Smith, Traffic and Security director, they heard something that sounded like an explosion at Joyner. Kelley Roepke told Smith she heard an explosion at Joyner around 4 a.m., that she drifted back to sleep and when she awoke firemen were there fighting the fire. Cindy Albert told Smith she heard an explosion sometime between 4 and 5 a.m. However, Reed quoted Ray Holder, Jr., security officer, as stating he had driven up the hill past Joyner around 4:40 a.m. and didn’t see any evidence of fire.
“Chief Roy Shuler of the Cullowhee Fire Department said their trucks rolled at 5:10 a.m. Noting that the report originally had stated that the Student Union building was on fire, Shuler said, ‘When I saw it was Joyner, I called the Sylva Fire Department. I was here within three minutes after the call. The Sylva Fire Department was here in around 10 minutes.”’
Shuler said the structure was engulfed when he arrived at the scene. A total of 40 firefighters and four trucks responded but were unable to stave off the final outcome of Joyner. They were able to save the old Student Union next door, which was being showered by sparks from Joyner.
An SBI team examined the ruins before the remains were razed, and found the fire had started on the second floor, away from the working quarters of the Western Carolinian. (That paper’s edition for the week also went up in flames).
The SBI team found no evidence of arson.
The building’s bowels were home to an assortment of stored university records. Combined with the newspaper and yearbook, the building was more or less stuffed with paper.
Plans had been cemented for a renovation of Joyner which, sadly, was never to occur.