JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 10 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 10 (pp. to )



ABSTRACT—ABSTRACT—On New Year's Eve 1993, a burst fire-suppression pipe flooded the Virginia Historical Society with 8,000 gallons of water. Unprocessed manuscripts, rare books, general collection materials, portraits, museum objects, and furniture were affected. The staff, assisted by the Virginia Conservation Association, Chubb Insurance personnel, and Servpro, responded quickly. The book collections were treated in various ways, including freeze-drying, air-drying, and rehousing. Some items were repaired at the historical society; others were sent to outside contractors for drying and conservation. The process of recovery and rehabilitation of the collection required 1,222.5 staff and volunteer hours and 10 months for completion. The final cost was $76,000. The article discusses recommendations and procedures learned from this experience that will benefit other institutions.

TITRE—Minuit dans un endroit d�tremp� et humide: un d�sastre � la veille du nouvel an � la soci�t� historique de la Virginie. R�SUM�—La veille de la nouvelle ann�e 1993, la soci�t� historique de la Virginie fut inond�e par 8 000 gallons d'eau, suite � la rupture d'une canalisation reli�e au syst�me d'aspersion d'eau en cas d'incendie. Les manuscrits non encore assortis, les livres rares et autres mat�riaux g�n�raux de collection, les portraits, les objets du mus�e, et les meubles furent affect�s. Le personnel de la soci�t�, aid� par l'Association de restauration de la Virginie, le personnel de la compagnie d'assurance Chubb et le Servpro sont intervenus rapidement. Les collections de livres ont �t� trait�es de diverses mani�res, y compris la lyophilisation, le s�chage � l'air et la cr�ation de nouveaux contenants d'entreposage. Quelques objets furent r�par�s � la soci�t� historique; d'autres furent envoy�s � des entrepreneurs particuliers pour le s�chage et la restauration. Il fallut dix mois et 1 222 heures et demie de travail par le personnel et les b�n�voles pour mener � bien l'op�ration de r�cup�ration et la r�habilitation de la collection. Le co�t final fut de 76 000 dollars. L'auteur propose des recommandations et des proc�dures issues de cette exp�rience, qui b�n�ficieront � d'autres �tablissements.

TITULO—Medianoche en el jard�n empapado y humedo: el desastre de la v�spera de a�o nuevo en la sociedad hist�rica de Virginia. RES�MEN—En la v�spera del a�o nuevo de 1993, 8.000 galones de agua inundaron la Sociedad Hist�rica de Virginia como consecuencia de una rotura en una tuberia para control de incendios. Fueron afectados manuscritos sin catalogar, libros raros, material de la colecci�n general, retratos, objetos de museo y muebles. El personal de la instituci�n, con la ayuda de la Sociedad de Conservaci�n de Virginia, personal de la compa��a de seguros Chubb y de Sevpro, respondi� rapidamente. La colecci�n de libros fue tratada de varias maneras, incluyendo secado por congelacion al vac�o (liofilizaci�n), secado al aire y reubicaci�n en cajas. Algunos objetos fueron reparados en la sociedad hist�rica, otros fueron enviados a contratistas externos para su secado y conservaci�n. El proceso de recuperaci�n y rehabilitaci�n de la colecci�n requiri� 1222.5 horas de trabajo del personal y de voluntarios y diez meses para completarlo. El costo final fue de US$76.000 d�lares. Este art�culo discute las recomendaciones y procedimientos que se aprendieron durante esta experiencia y que beneficiar�n a otras instituciones.


The Virginia Historical Society (VHS) in Richmond, established in 1831, is a privately endowed institution. Its collections survey Virginia history in the broadest sense and include books, manuscripts, portraits, photographs, furniture, objects, and ephemera. In June 1992, construction to double the size of the existing building was completed. The new addition included a conservation laboratory, a library, collections storage, exhibit space, a lecture hall, and offices (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The new addition to the Virginia Historical Society, finished in 1992

On December 30, 1993, a fresh-air vent in the third-floor mechanical room at the society opened during the night, allowing the 8�F outside temperature to freeze a 1� in. fire-suppression pipe (fig. 2). The next day, New Year's Eve, the society was closed for the holiday. As the outside temperature rose, the pipe thawed, burst, and pumped approximately 300 gallons of water per minute into the building.

Fig. 2. Detail of fire suppression pipe in third-floor mechanical room

Fire alarms sounded when the water was released from the fire-suppression pipe at approximately 11:00 a.m. The outside security firm immediately received the alarm on its system and notified the fire department and the head of building and security, Steven Harrell, who was the key holder. The fire department arrived first on the scene and inspected the outside of the building for fire. Firefighters saw no evidence of fire and waited for a staff member to admit them to the building. Mr. Harrell arrived at 11:30 a.m. He entered the building with the firefighters and discovered the burst pipe. He cut off the water to the building, but by that time approximately 8,000 gallons of water had flooded the structure (fig. 3). Debris from the construction clogged the drains in the mechanical room, contributing to the overflow.

Fig. 3. Elevation of Virginia Historical Society building showing areas affected

On the third floor in the manuscript storage room adjacent to the mechanical room, 40 boxes of unprocessed manuscripts, consisting of Virginia genealogical and business records, soaked up water because they were on the floor when the water gushed into the room from under the closed doors. The rare book storage area, directly below the mechanical room, was flooded by water that moved from the mechanical room through air handling vents and an elevator shaft. Water flowed out of the ceiling vents onto the rare books and broadsides in the rare book room, where it accumulated about 6 to 8 in. on the floor. Unfortunately, a deposited collection of rare European and American medical books, not owned by the society, sustained the majority of the water damage. Stonewall Jackson's bookcase, filled with his personal books, and an oversize paper globe housed in a Plexiglas case stored on the floor were also affected. The water flowing out of the rare book storage area wicked through the rug into the director's office and hallway, where John Marshall's desk, other antebellum furniture, four portraits by Charles Willson Peale, and a paper-and-ivory fan belonging to Evelyn Byrd were located.

The first floor sustained the most damage. The water flowed down directly from the third floor because the center of the library's ceiling is a two-storied atrium encompassing the first and second floors of the building (fig. 4). Above is a catwalk with a 42 in. high wall along the top of atrium. The water from the mechanical room flowed into the catwalk and over the 42 in. walls, cascading down the four walls of the atrium over the reference collection, which was shelved around the perimeter. These materials sustained the most water damage of any items housed in the reading room. The water accumulated 4 in. deep in the reading room and an adjacent gallery. The collection of Virginia genealogical books did not get wet, but they were affected by the humidity. The ceiling of the area, where the microfilm reader-printers and microform materials were stored, was saturated with water, which caused most of the acoustical tile to fall. Portraits of Virginia notables grace the walls of the reading room, including Black Hawk by Robert Sully, Martha Washington by Rembrandt Peale, Patrick Henry by Thomas Sully, and Ellen Glasgow by Raymond Neilson. Busts, statuary, and models of ships were also housed in the reading room and were directly affected by the water. On the ground floor, water entered the general collection storage room from a large vent that was connected to the third-floor vent on the wall in the catwalk area. The books in the northwest corner of the building became wet on the edges.

Fig. 4. The reading room atrium


The head of building operations contacted the director, Charles F. Bryan Jr., who is assigned total responsibility for the operations of the Virginia Historical Society by the board of trustees. The associate director, Robert F. Strohm, and the chief of conservation, Stacy Rusch, were also called immediately. Ms. Rusch quickly asked Holly Herro, associate conservator, to meet her at the society. At this point, the phone tree for the staff was implemented. The staff members started arriving by noon. Because of the two-day holiday, some could not be located or were out of town. The director established a command post on the second floor in his office suite. The insurance companies, Chubb and DeJarnette and Paul, were called. The head of building operations tried to remove the water on the second floor with a shop vac, but it was ineffective. Servpro, a fire and water damage restoration company recommended by the insurance company, was called in to remove the water and stabilize the building environment. Servpro arrived by 1:00 p.m. Documentation of the disaster, using a camcorder and a camera, was initiated. The security staff was contacted and stationed throughout the building to provide 24-hour protection for the collections.

The director and the insurance company coordinated the salvage of the building. A plan of action was established based on the damage to the various collections. Strategies were laid out and responsibilities assigned. In the confusion of the moment, clearance to enter the building was not established, and all the hazards were not eliminated. In the reading room, for example, the electrical power was not turned off, even though there were electrical outlets throughout the floor under 4 in. of water. Fortunately, the circuit breakers worked effectively, and no injuries occurred. In the reading room, even though ceiling tiles were collapsing under the weight of the cascading water, no one thought to don hard hats.

In our initial conservation assessment, we recognized that a multitude of materials had been affected. We needed professional assistance with salvaging the furniture, paintings, and objects that had sustained water damage. We called the Virginia Conservation Association (VCA), a regional and multidisciplined group of conservators. Response from the VCA was overwhelming, and 11 dedicated professionals from all over the state abandoned their New Year's Eve plans to assist. The University of Richmond was the only library in the city that was open. It sent the entire available staff to aid in the salvage effort.

Mobile disaster recovery supplies, such as plastic sheeting, paper towels, and packing materials, were available for initial response, but there were not enough supplies to complete the task. Both the insurance company and the director arranged to purchase additional supplies from a large local hardware store.

The disaster plan was a work-in-progress. It did not include phone numbers for disaster recovery services and supplies. The insurance company provided much-needed assistance in locating available space for freezing the wet books. Finally, a local food distributor, Carmine Foods, agreed to provide the necessary space. It also made available free of charge a tractor trailer for transportation of the boxed materials.


Servpro began water removal on the first, second, and third floors simultaneously. Members of the VCA were asked to bring portable hygrothermographs to assist in monitoring all areas containing collection materials. We did not have enough available to monitor every area. Servpro supplied industrial-size fans and dehumidifiers to assist in establishing a controlled environment. This equipment was placed throughout the building.


Because four floors were affected by the water disaster, a three-pronged approach was adopted. As a result of a delay in contacting the head of technical services, who lives more than an hour from Richmond, and the unavailability of the head of library services, Servpro was instructed by the command post to pack up all books to be put in the freezer. The head of technical services assumed supervision of that task after her arrival on the scene. Ms. Herro headed up salvaging the reading room and rare book storage and general collection storage areas. Ms. Rusch supervised and trained staff and volunteers in air-drying the unprocessed manuscripts. This operation took place in the lecture hall, a ground-floor area unaffected by the water disaster. The VCA conservators started arriving within a half hour of notification and began to assess the needs of the nonbook collections. The conservators began to remove the paintings, furniture, and objects from the water-laden areas (fig. 5). Later-arriving conservators were stationed throughout the building.

Fig. 5. Recovery of the reading room in progress

Before the new year arrived, 69 boxes of books, both rare and general collection materials, were packed and delivered to –20�F cold storage. To assure security and safe delivery, the associate director accompanied the truck to the storage facility. The microfilm was removed from its shelving and placed in a dry, stable environment in an adjacent gallery. The library furniture, antebellum furniture, paintings, and objects were stabilized in a dry, temperature-controlled area of the building. Furniture with wet feet was air-dried on blotters. The paintings sustained minimum damage. Only two paintings had damp backings. Fans were aimed toward them to facilitate drying. The 40 boxes of unprocessed manuscripts were in the process of air-drying. All manuscripts were continually interleaved with paper towels in a controlled environment in the first-floor lecture hall until dried. As afternoon stretched into evening, food was provided for all the workers.

On New Year's Day, the staff returned to continue the salvage and rehabilitation. An analysis and examination of the building and the stacks were conducted. Upon inspection, several more wet books in rare book storage and the reference collection were discovered. For the overlooked wet books, replacement copies of books that were not out of print were ordered, and the replaceable wet books were discarded. This decision saved the time and the expense of air-drying. The rest of the wet books were moved on book trucks to the lecture hall on the ground floor, where the manuscripts were being treated by air-drying. These books were interleaved until dried.

The environment in the reading room was not stable, and the temperature and humidity were too high. Ten ranges of dry Virginia genealogical books were moved that day on book carts to the general collection book stacks on the ground floor. Volunteers and staff placed the volumes in call number order on the bottom shelves of the book stacks. The manuscripts continued to be air-dried that day and for the next three days. When they were dry, the items were rehoused in archival folders and boxes. Servpro proceeded with the drying and cleaning of the carpeting in the reading room. The insurance company made the decision to retain the existing rug, saying the rug was backed with a plastic coating that prevented water from penetrating it. The insurers believed no mold would develop in the future. Food and refreshments were again provided for all the workers.

The next day was Sunday. We rested.


On the first day of the disaster, the books were stabilized by freezing at –20�F. Then the VHS's conservation staff began researching the options for restoration of the sodden books. We conferred with several companies that provide disaster recovery services. We investigated the options of vacuum freeze-drying and freezer-drying. Several companies stated that they were able to recover both rare and general collection books with good results. Upon further investigation, by talking to former clients, we found this assertion misleading.

The recovery of the general collection differed from the recovery of the rare books. The bindings of rare books are artifacts and need to be preserved because of their significant historical value. To gather firsthand information about recovery of rare books from a disaster, we contacted Romaine Ahlstrom, subject specialist for arts and recreation librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library. The conservators talked with her concerning the recovery from fire and water damage of that institution's collections. Ms. Ahlstrom advised us to vacuum-freeze-dry the general collection. Vacuum-freeze-drying has good results with cloth and buckram bindings. The rare books at the Los Angeles Public Library had been vacuum-freeze-dried with undesirable results because the bindings dried before the text block, which caused the leather and vellum bindings to crack and shrink. On Ms. Ahlstrom's recommendation, the society sent the general collection books to Document Reprocessing for vacuum freeze-drying. The results were excellent.

The conservators continued to investigate other options for the rare books. They researched the process of freezer-drying. It also proved undesirable. Ice crystals can form in the cellulose if the temperature of the freezer is not low enough. The bindings again dry first, so there is the possibility of distortion. Also, a conservator would not be overseeing the process.

Next, the conservators called Don Etherington at the Etherington Conservation Center, Division of Information Conservation Inc. Because of the types of 17th- and 18th-century bindings that were involved and the age of the books, he suggested air-drying and dimensional restraint in a press. Mr. Etherington would be directly involved with the rehabilitation, and only four or five books would be dried at a time. The rest would remain in –20�F cold storage near his facility.

The conservators consulted Tom Albro at the Library of Congress and, along with the administration of the society, discussed whether to air-dry the rare books at Mr. Etherington's facility. On Mr. Albro's advice, air-drying was recommended as a solution, and the rare books were sent to Etherington Conservation Center. The results were excellent. Evidence of water damage remains, however; tide lines are visible on some volumes. Selected volumes required conservation treatment partly because of the sustained water damage.

The process of recovery and rehabilitation of the collection required 1,222.5 staff and volunteer hours and 10 months for completion. Bill Ivey, a private furniture conservator who was one of the VCA volunteers, was retained to repair the water damage to the finishing layer on Stonewall Jackson's bookcase and the library furniture in the reading room. The final cost of the water disaster at the Virginia Historical Society was $76,000 (table 1).

Table 1. The Final Cost of the Water Diaster at the Virginia Historical Society in 1993
Physical Plan Cost— Recovery of Building 
Professional cleanning $25,000 
Supplies to restore equipment $11,100 
Subtotal $36,100 
Collections Cost—Recovery of Collections, Including Cost for Transportation and an Additional $300,000 
Freeze-dry the reference collection $7,000 
Hand-dry the rare books $22,000 
Supplies to recovers the manuscripts $4,900 
Additional book conservation $6,000 
Subtotal 39,900 
Total $76,000 


Although the response and recovery were successful because all materials were saved, the staff still felt that the disaster recovery manual needed to be revised and improved. The chain of command to deal with disasters was reorganized and strengthened as well. The society now has a Disaster Action Team (DAT), composed of an emergency plan coordinator, personnel manager, media manager, collection manager, conservator, photographer, protective services manager, safety and welfare supervisor, security and building supervisor, and equipment and transportation supervisor. Three staff members are designated for each position. If the first person is unavailable, the next person on the list will serve in that position. The DAT team also includes the salvage and cleanup teams that will be assigned during the actual emergency. A job description and list of duties are outlined in the disaster plan for each position. The completion of the manual became a priority. Current names of sources of services and supplies were added. The telephone tree for the staff was updated and will be revised every six months. Members of the Virginia Conservation Association were included as a part of the tree. Salvage priorities and instructions for drying each type of collection material from all curatorial departments were amended. We realized that conservators and curators should work with collection salvage as much as possible; other personnel will be assigned such tasks as contacting people on the telephone tree. Copies of the disaster plan and telephone tree will be located in the homes of all administrative personnel and also at a neighboring institution, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The disaster plan as a whole is scheduled to be revised every two years by the Disaster Prevention Team, which consists of the head of building operations, the head of technical services, a conservator, and an administrative officer.

A new ambient-temperature alarm, which sounds when the temperature in the room drops below 40�F, was installed in the third-floor mechanical room. In the wintertime, an insulation panel is placed over the louver vent in the mechanical room to prevent any cold air from reaching the fire-suppression pipe. The mechanical rooms are cleaned regularly and checked daily.

On the first day of disaster recovery, attendance by staff and volunteers was high. As early as the second day, the number of recovery workers was reduced by half. The attrition rate was exacerbated by the fact that the disaster occurred over a two-day holiday immediately preceding a weekend. Response was a volunteer effort by staff and others. Stabilization of the collection could have been accomplished more quickly and effectively had greater numbers of people been available on the second and subsequent days of recovery.

The staff at the society learned not to store collection materials on the floor. If the manuscript boxes had been on pallets, the water damage could have been reduced. The conservator made the decision to air-dry the manuscripts based on communication received concerning the quantity of wet manuscripts. In retrospect, the 40 boxes of manuscripts should have been sent to the freezer, then vacuum-freeze-dried. Also, in the future, boxes of materials sent to be frozen will be inventoried by call number. Because no such inventory was made, it was difficult to determine for insurance purposes which materials were out of the building.

Disaster recovery plans and the chain of command in the event of an emergency should recognize that people react differently in a crisis situation. Emotions run very high. Colleagues who are perfectly congenial and professional under normal circumstances may behave in counterproductive ways during a disaster and recovery when asked to perform tasks outside their usual course of duties. Because of stress, communication can be ineffective. People given authority by the command post to complete certain tasks should be assisted and not thwarted. Lack of cooperation hampers the response time.

In visually documenting the disaster by camcorder, the operator made a serious error. In the excitement of the event, he taped over the main body of the documentation of the disaster. Only a six-minute section filmed at the end of the disaster remains for posterity.

As conservators, we recommend that other institutions develop close associations with other conservators and institutions in their area to call upon in times of crisis. This list of people can be added to the phone tree in the disaster plan. Not every institution has expertise in every field.

In conclusion, the Virginia Historical Society did not lose any of the materials that were water-damaged when the fire-suppression pipe burst. Now the society has the DAT with assigned duties and personnel. This organization of responsibility will assist us in avoiding the mistakes of this disaster, such as thwarted and ineffective communication and visual documentation problems. Having duties assigned before a disaster strikes will assist in keeping more people involved through the entire disaster recovery process. The society was fortunate to have the assistance of the VCA and the University of Richmond staff. It is the responsibility of conservators to continue to educate and assist each other in issues concerning disasters in order to preserve historic and artistic works.


The authors wish to thank Sara B. Bearss, managing editor, Virginia Historical Society, for her assistance in preparing this paper.


STACY J. RUSCH has been the chief of conservation at the Virginia Historical Society for the past 11 years. She created the conservation and preservation program at the society after gaining three years' experience at the J. Paul Getty Center Library in its special collections. She has privately apprenticed with book conservator Tom Albro for the past seven years and with paper conservator Sylvia Rodgers Albro for the past three years. She has an M.L.S. from the University of California, Los Angeles. Address: Virginia Historical Society, P.O. Box 7311, Richmond, Va. 23221. E-mail address: Stacy@vahistorical.org

HOLLY T. HERRO is the librarian for preservation and conservation services at the University of South Carolina, where she will create its preservation and conservation program. She previously worked at the Virginia Historical Society as the associate conservator for five and one-half years. She privately apprenticed with book conservator Tom Albro for six and one-half years and paper conservator Sylvia Rodgers Albro for two and one-half years. She has an M.S.L.S. from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Address: University of South Carolina, Thomas Cooper Library, Columbia, S.C. 29208. E-mail address: HollyH@gwm.sc.edu

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