Volume 8, Number 1, Jan. 1986, pp.12-13

Fire at the Huntington Gallery: A Preliminary Report

by Jim Greaves

On October 17th, shortly after midnight, there was a fire at the Huntington Gallery of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California. The suspected cause was a defective light fixture in a recently installed elevator. It is disturbing to realize that the elevator cab met all code specifications yet still provided enough combustibles to create such a fire. There was no fire detector in the elevator shaft.

The fire was first detected by intrusion detectors which notified the internal Huntington security force. (We surmise that the smoke created enough of a shadow to set off these motion detectors.) Almost immediately thereafter the heat detectors and then the smoke detectors went off. The San Marino Fire Department responded within three minutes. The closed elevator doors were blown open by an explosion just as the firemen entered the building, possibly because the entry introduced additional air. Within 12 minutes the fire was put out. The fire was extinguished with water; however, the firemen were skilled and particularly responsive to the needs of the collection and virtually no water damage occurred. One fireman was even positioned to squeegee water away from the great Savonnerie carpet which is located almost opposite the elevator shaft. The San Marino Fire Department should be congratulated on their expertise. It should be noted that the Fire Department makes frequent practice drills to the Huntington Library and was therefore fully familiar with the buildings and special needs of the collections. Dry runs might be worth considering for your institutions as they may well have prevented a total disaster at the Huntington.

Fortunately, the amount of total destruction was limited. When the fireball blew from the elevator shaft at the main floor level, it totally charred and fragmented Reynolds' full-length portrait of Mrs. Edwin Lascelles (Lady Harewood). Two tapestry coverings of adjacent chairs were burned as were the finishes on the wood, but the wood frames were not burned.

Once the elevator doors blew, the entire Art Gallery was filled with smoke (a denser, black smoke consisting of organic and elemental carbon and a lighter gray smoke estimated to consist of more elemental carbon moisture.) Much of the heaviest smoke damage was on the second floor because the ground stairwell adjacent to the elevator acted as a chimney, drawing the smoke into the upstairs galleries. It should be noted that the building was not equipped with fire doors. Had the regular room doors been closed, the spread of the smoke would have been greatly reduced; however, these doors were routinely kept open for reasons of air circulation and climate control.

The conservation communities' response was immediate. Jim Greaves who acts as Consulting Conservator to the Art Gallery, was among the first persons to enter the Gallery after the fire. Andrea Rothe contacted Dr. Robert Wark, Curator, with offers of assistance from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Glenn R. Cass and Paul Whitmore from California Institute of Technology took soot samples for chemical analysis. Other specialists were contacted and within the next few days and weeks a program for treating the collection was developed.

The approach was to make haste slowly. Nothing was to be moved until the appropriate conservators decided upon the best method. The entire first week was spent testing and consulting. The number and volume of items to be cleaned was vast: approximately 100 paintings and their frames, 150 pieces of fine furniture, 300 pieces of silver ceramics, marble and bronze sculptures, 5 large tapestries, 2 dozen chair tapestries, several fine carpets and numerous books and graphics. Space for actual work was limited -- all but the remote Main Gallery would eventually have to be cleared of art. The initial problems were therefore as much logistical as technical.

Shelley Bennett, Associate Curator, Carol Verheyen, Art Gallery Conservation/Preparator, and Barbara Roberts, Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture (Getty), were primarily responsible for organizing the treatment program. Barbara was instrumental in the massive effort to remove the soot from the multitude of objects. Others involved were Jerry Podany, Maya Barov, Mark Kotansky, Linda Strauss, Teresa Longyear, and Billie Milam. The J. Paul Getty Museum was especially generous in donating many work days by their conservators.

Assisting these conservators are a group of 40 to 45 Huntington volunteers, primarily from the Art Gallery Docent program. Barbara Roberts has supervised the training of five specialty groups, with each volunteer working a minimum of 20 hours in two week shifts. The ability to train and incorporate these volunteers into the conservation efforts has been an important factor in view of the great logistical problems.

Barbara Roberts began actual work and training 10 days after the fire. Initially, working with the volunteers, the objects were wiped (using appropriate solvents such as mineral spirits, etc. as determined by testing) and moved to storage, items such as ceramics and silver all requiring individual wrapping. More complex disassembly and cleaning is now in process by many of the conservators mentioned above.

With the exception of the destroyed Reynolds, the removal of soot from the paintings has presented no problems to date. Water, Orvus and water, and/or VMP naphtha all remove soot cleanly. Three full-length portraits still must be examined more closely to evaluate damage and possible delamination of linings along upper portions where the intense heat collected below the ceiling. ROBIN LILL is assisting Jim Greaves with the treatment of the paintings.

The most difficult remaining questions concern the treatment of numerous textiles which are covered with oily soot. Cathy McLean and Ann Svenson, both of the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, began testing on the afternoon of the fire. Stan Derelian of S.D. Derelian & Sons, Santa Cruz, Jane Hutchins of Textile Conservation Center, North Andover, Massachusetts and Jeanne Brako of the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center have also examined the textiles. Practical cleaning experiments (using non-art decorative fabrics, curtains, etc.) are proceeding. William Ginell of the Getty Conservation Institute is conducting additional analysis and accelerated aging tests on soot coated fabrics. As many of the textiles, especially the silk tapestries, are extremely fragile (and large) this project is expected to proceed slowly.

The exposed books and paper materials are being cared for by the Huntington Library's own staff conservators, Ron Tank, Griselda Warr, and Jim Corwin, working with the Art Reference Librarian, Diana Wilson, and her staff. These items have presented no special problems.

Much work is yet to be done, but with the exception of the textiles, the work is proceeding smoothly. The pace is determined primarily by logistical considerations. Current plans are for the Art Gallery to reopen in late April, once the entire interior has been refinished. It is expected that one or more detailed presentations on this project will be made at the next WAAC Annual Meeting.

Jim Greaves
Conservation Services

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