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Subject: Fire at Thomas Wolfe Memorial

Fire at Thomas Wolfe Memorial

From: John Horton <jhorton>
Date: Wednesday, July 29, 1998
Many of you may have already read accounts of the disastrous fire
at the historic Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a two-story frame structure constructed
in 1883 with alterations and additions into the early 20th century.
It was run as a boarding house by Thomas' mother Julia, and was the
setting for Wolfe's novel "Look Homeward Angel."

The fire began early in the predawn hours on Friday, July 24. By the
time the fire was reported and the fire department could respond,
the boarding house dining room and all of its furnishings and
artifacts were reduced to charcoal (or in the case of a silver tea
service--melted lumps of silver). The fire spread quickly up through
the balloon-frame construction into the attic where it engulfed the
entire roof structure. Investigators have said that it was arson.

When I arrived at the site on Friday morning, I was overwhelmed by
the extent of the damage to the house and the artifacts. As soon as
NC Division of Archives & History staff were allowed to enter the
house, the urgent process of removing every piece of furniture and
artifact from the house began. However, the reason for this posting
is not to describe the salvage operation, although it is worth
discussing in detail. I would just like to personally express my
sincere thanks to the curatorial and conservation staff of the
Biltmore House for their tremendous effort and assistance in the
salvage. These wonderful folks showed up at the site with all
necessary equipment, supplies and strong backs and worked throughout
the day carrying out furniture, boxes of fire/smoke/water damaged
artifacts. They then set up a backyard conservation lab and
undertook emergency cleaning of delicate items before packing them
up for storage. In addition to the folks from Biltmore House,
National Park Service staff from the Carl Sandburg Home NHS and the
Blue Ridge Parkway were of invaluable assistance in the salvage,
clean-up and storage of the collection.

In less than twelve hours, the entire house had been emptied of all
furniture and artifacts which were then quickly loaded on a truck
and moved to a secure location. Time was critical as the emergency
restoration contractor had a crane on site and was starting to pull
off the remainder of the roof structure to make way for temporary
enclosure. If the Biltmore House staff had not been there to help,
we would have been moving things out all weekend and surely the
objects would have suffered much more damage. I know I speak for
everyone in our division when I say that we will be forever grateful
to the Biltmore House and the National Park Service staff for their
assistance in this crisis.

We are also very thankful for the Asheville Fire Department who
fought the blaze from inside the house for as long as they could.
The quick-thinking firefighters threw heavy tarps over the piano and
every piece of furniture they could get to before they were driven
out of the house by the flames. The tarps prevented a lot of water
damage to the furniture when the firefighters flooded the building.

Although I am not an objects conservator, I am on the restoration
task force for the house and will be tracking the progress of
conservation and restoration of the artifacts and will make postings
as I have information. For additional information on the house and
restoration progress, please check out the Thomas Wolfe Memorial web
site at <URL:>

John Horton, Restoration Specialist
State Historic Preservation Office
NC Division of Archives & History

                  Conservation DistList Instance 12:13
                 Distributed: Wednesday, July 29, 1998
                       Message Id: cdl-12-13-003
Received on Wednesday, 29 July, 1998

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