Volume 12, Number 1, Jan. 1990, pp.8-10

The Little Big One: The San Francisco Earthquake

by Chris Stavroudis, including

On the afternoon of October 17 at 5:04 pm, Santa Cruz and surrounds were shaken by a Richter magnitude 7.1 earthquake. The earthquake caused considerable damage and numerous personal tragedies, some better covered by the media than others. It was with considerable relief that the first conservation news out of the Bay Area was that none of our colleagues were injured.

The earthquake was news because: 1) it was the largest quake in the Bay Area since the 1906 really-big-one; and 2) the media, particularly television, was in the area in force for the coverage of the World Series baseball game.

Damage to art objects has been covered to some extent in the media (see: In The News). An excellent and comprehensive review of the earthquake's impact on the paper and library conservation scene was prepared by Ellen McCrady and appears in the November 1989 issue of The Abbey Newsletter, (Vol 13, no 7, pp 113-116).

The most interesting, non-mass media, non-conservation article I have seen appears in the December 1989 Unix Review (Vol 7, no 12, pp 40-49) in Glenn Groenewold's regular column called "Rules of the Game" which discusses legal issues in the computer world. The column, subtitled "When You Have a Lemon", discusses the failure of television as an information medium and why the rest of the world was "badly misled as a direct result of the way we have chosen to use the wonderful technology we call TV."

I, as editor, asked a number of conservators in the region to scribble their thoughts on the quake. I was interested not so much in what broke and what didn't, but rather what events were surprises. A few conservators in the Bay Area have taken some of their precious time to contribute the following thoughts.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The earthquake of 17 October 1989 left the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art generally intact. While the building interior suffered cracks in plaster walls and fallen architectural elements, it was declared safe by city engineers, who allowed staff to return two days after the temblor. Eight days after the quake, the public was readmitted to the galleries.

Most of the works of art that were damaged by the movement of the building were located in the exhibition spaces on the fourth floor, which apparently moved more than the lower floors. Artworks in basement storage, in fact, shifted only minimally, causing some damage from abrasion when pieces stored too close to each other jostled together. (These were mostly large, heavy pieces of furniture.)

The conservation, installation and registration staff at SFMOMA learned some worthwhile lessons from the earthquake, in preparation for the Big One. A system of rubber restraining straps that protect three-dimensional objects in storage bins from falling out performed its function admirably. (The Museum's library, almost all of whose books fell to the floor, could learn a lesson from this system.) The deeply bent S-hooks that hold the paintings on their wire storage racks held the artworks in place during the shaking. In the galleries, the paintings and framed works on paper are hung on J-hooks which are screwed through drywall and into the thick plywood behind it. This system proved to be effective during the earthquake; only one large painting fell from an interior wall which apparently took an unusually strong jolt. In this one case, the screws, which are two inches long, sheared, causing the hooks, and hence the painting, to fall.

The display of sculpture and other three-dimensional art objects is a problem whose resolution is still being discussed. Many objects on vertical pedestals fell to the floor in the earthquake, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the pedestals. The degree to which the objects should be attached to their display units, and those display units attached to the floor, is currently under investigation. While a number of bronze and steel sculptures sustained little or no damage from their falls, two ceramic pieces were seriously affected, perhaps beyond repair.

The conservation department was fortunate to have escaped damage. The fireproof cabinets where organic and other solvents are stored, contained the glass and metal receptacles safely; there was no breakage. The magnetic catches on other storage cabinets proved ineffective in keeping the doors closed, but thanks to an intrepid assistant conservator, disaster was averted. A system of safety-latch closures is now being instituted on the cupboards and cabinets. We have proposed a similar system for works on paper that are stored in the graphic study area, whose drawers all flew open in the earthquake, exposing the artworks to falling debris.

In short, those systems which were already in place in anticipation of an earthquake performed their duties well. Further preparatory measures are currently being taken to avoid preventable damages in the Big One, yet to come.

J. William Shank, Senior Conservator

Stanford University Libraries and Museum

At Stanford University, the Libraries were among the seriously affected areas on campus. Campus-wide, approximately half a million books were tossed to the ground and shelving units were twisted or toppled but there were no injuries and permanent structural damage was for the most part inconsequential.

A significant exception however was the West Wing of the Cecil Green Library, the "Main" library. This wing was built in 1919 to replace the original Main Library, which was destroyed in The Other Earthquake, and houses the Department of Special Collections and Archives, the Technical Services Department (including the Preservation Department), and a 7-level tiered stack. Damage to this part of the building was quite severe and some portions will not be habitable for the next several years. Green East, the new wing built about ten years ago, was virtually unharmed, except for several hundred thousand volumes that were dumped unceremoniously on the floor. A massive volunteer effort got the books back on the shelves in about 3 days.

After several inspections of Green West it has been determined that the structural components of the building (steel) are still sound, but that the material between those components (hollow clay tile and plaster) will continue to be prone to falling wantonly about the head in the case of future tremors. The first floor of the building, which was relatively unscarred, has been boxed in with plywood to prevent potential injury from falling debris, and the largest portion of the Technical Services Department has moved back into their space. Part of Preservation (Binding and Finishing) has also been able to reoccupy their newly plywooded space.

A similar renovation has made accessible the 7 levels of tiered stack, which had about a year ago been the object of a seismic bracing project and thus withstood the shaking quite well, and they are now open to the public.

As for the rest of Preservation, it is unlikely that we will be able to return to our space for 2-5 years. Until that time, we will be housed in temporary modular trailer-like buildings some distance from Green. We are currently trying to design reasonable lab and office space at breakneck pace in hopes of being able to occupy the new space in January or February, but at this point are uncertain how much space will be available, where it will be, and how long we will be there.

Plans for dealing with the Department of Special Collections and Archives, which is housed in what is probably the most severely damaged and risky part of the building, have not been set. Exhibits have been removed and collections in areas that might be vulnerable during heavy rains have been covered (it rained the weekend after the quake and everything seemed to work properly). In addition, all collection materials have been reshelved (if not fully sorted).

There was amazingly little damage to collection materials in either the Department of Special Collections and Archives or the general collections.

The Stanford Museum, built in 1891, is a lovely and important historic building, the first public building constructed from reinforced concrete. Damage from this earthquake has been severe and the building will be closed until it can be repaired, an involved project that may take a year or more. There are fears that in the event of another quake or severe aftershock two rotundas flanking the central area will collapse.

Fortunately the collections fared much better than the building did, the greatest part of the collection being undamaged. Among the items reported damaged were some ceramic Jose Vermeersch sculptures on loan from the Belgian government, a Rodin plaster, a Renaissance marble figure and four pieces from the Asian collection. Large portions of the collections are being relocated in the basement of the Museum.

Happily, the Rodin Sculpture Garden was unaffected. Many of the Greek vases and Roman glass objects in the collection had been protected by special braces and installation techniques that Museum staff had installed. According to Wanda Corn, Acting Director of the museum, "Nothing was lost that was protected in this way."

Walter Henry, with information from Stanford University
Campus Report

Conservators who live and work in earthquake prone areas can hope that our colleagues in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area will, when the dust has settled a bit, find the time to publish articles on safeguarding against damage from similar disasters. The WAAC Newsletter is always available (hint-hint).

My vote for the best philosophical quote goes to The Guardian, from London, as extracted in the December World Press Review.

Every disaster in this overcrowded, overstressed age reveals a gap in our defenses against catastrophe....The San Francisco disaster raises once again the question of how much a society is prepared to pay, whether financially or in terms of inconvenience, for making safety an absolute priority.

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