Syracuse University Magazine

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Reflections

The Flag-Hunting Prefab Incident

By Saul I. Weinstein

When I attended Syracuse in the early ’50s, the campus was filled with prefabricated metal buildings the University had purchased from the federal government as war surplus material when World War II ended. These prefabs were acquired to meet the demands of the GI Bulge as thousands of veterans enrolled in studies on campus and were used for dormitory space, offices, classrooms, and laboratories.

In my senior year, as a member of the United Nations Club, I experienced a strange occurrence related to these prefabs. Every year, the club held a model security council with groups from other colleges and universities in upstate New York. Syracuse represented the United States, while other college delegations represented other security council members. The club president asked me to take charge of preparing Maxwell Auditorium, where the event would be held. The job entailed asking the caretaker of Maxwell to bring up the semi-circular table from the basement to seat the delegates and to check with the Buildings and Grounds Department (BGD) about using a set of flags to represent UN members and to decorate the room.

I arranged for the table to be set up, but BGD refused to bring the flags out of storage without an appropriation of funds from the University Senate. Instead, on my first free afternoon, I went downtown to City Hall to inquire about borrowing the city’s flags. There, I was directed to the elevator operator, who took me to the office of the appropriate commissioner. 

On entering the office, I told the commissioner the purpose of my visit. He summoned his secretary and ordered her to arrange to deliver the flags to the Hill on the appropriate day. The secretary, however, reminded him that he had already promised them to the Girl Scouts for an event that day. The commissioner asked me if the University had its own set and after I told him of my meeting with BGD, he said the University should get its flags out of storage. As I left the commissioner’s office, I heard him call his secretary to get the Chancellor on the phone.

When I returned to my “dorm” room, everyone on the floor wanted to know where I’d been and what I’d been doing because the coin telephone on our floor had been ringing off the hook with callers looking for me. A professor, the UN Club’s faculty advisor, was seeking me every few minutes. The Chancellor’s office was also looking for me. I had become the most wanted person on campus!

The professor explained that when I went to City Hall, I had stirred up an ongoing disagreement about the University’s prefabricated metal buildings. They only had one door, which was the sole means of egress in the event of a fire. They did not comply with the city building code, but New York State had enacted a statute allowing for emergency housing that exempted campus use of war surplus material from local building codes until 1954. In my visit to City Hall, I had unwittingly reignited the rift between the city and University administrators on the matter. I was told to stay away from City Hall and forget about the flags.

Years later, I learned of the tragic 1959 fire in a prefab, Skytop M-7, which claimed the lives of seven Air Force men taking courses at SU. During my freshman year, I resided in Skytop M-9, which was adjacent to M-7. The thought of that is still unsettling to me.

  Saul I. Weinstein graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1953 and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1956. An attorney, he lives in Woodmere, New York.