15 Years of Hindsight: the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Fire

ThomasWolfe-afterA few days ago Chief Curator of North Carolina Historic Sites, Martha Battle Jackson, (who is also one of our C2C workshop instructors and a CREST team member) presented a webinar about the fire that occurred at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site in Asheville to an international audience, through the Connecting to Collections online community. The webinar helped mark the 15th anniversary of the fire, which broke out in the wee hours of the morning on July 24, 1998, the day before Asheville’s popular Bele Chere music festival.  An arsonist broke a window and set fire to curtains in the dining room of the house. Ultimately, fire consumed roughly 25% of the structure and 15% of the collection of 800 artifacts. Site staff spent the next 6 years working on recovery and restoration efforts before re-opening the historic house to the public. [To see a local news interview with Site staff last July describing the fire and recovery, click here.]

Battle Jackson’s presentation had more than a commemorative purpose; it also had several important disaster preparedness lessons to impart. There were 3 ways the staff had prepared well before the catastrophe that helped tremendously during the recovery phase.

  1. Wolfe staff had previously established relationships with first responders: The blaze was so intense and that with a normal house, the firefighters would not have entered. Their protocol would have been to hose it from outside and let the fire burn out. But because they understood the importance of the structure to the community and to the state, the firefighters entered the building and took more aggressive salvage measures.
  2. Wolfe staff had documented the site’s collection: A thorough inventory had been completed on the entire collection and included photographs. These records were critical when the time came to make insurance claims and also during the conservation and reproduction processes. In a fire artifact numbers often become illegible. Acrylic resin base coats can pop off, tyvek tags can shrink, and sooty coatings can camouflage numbers in black ink. Photographs are an important tool to match  damaged artifacts to their records.
  3. Wolfe staff participated in a network of support among local cultural heritage practitioners. Staff members from the Biltmore Estate and Blue Ridge Parkway were among the first to join with TWM and other NC Historic Sites staff for artifact recovery.

Another preparedness lesson from the Wolfe fire is to shut interior doors at closing. One room adjacent to the dining room was used as furniture storage and the door kept closed. Despite its proximity to the blaze, artifacts inside the room appeared untouched. They suffered only a thin film of soot in the fire’s aftermath. Hindsight, however, is still not 20/20 regarding the perpetrators of the arson. A group of local literary enthusiasts are now offering a new $1500 reward for information about the arson that occurred 15 years ago.

If you missed viewing the webinar on this instructive case study of disaster preparedness and recovery, you can still access the archived version here. What additional lessons have disasters at your site taught you?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on July 30, 2013, in disaster preparedness, fire, historic houses, historic sites and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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