WASHINGTON – James Shepherd hopes Notre Dame’s architects and preservationists will call for advice when they’re ready to start reconstruction of France’s iconic medieval cathedral, which was devastated by fire on Monday.
Shepherd is director of preservation at the Washington National Cathedral, where he has spent the past six years overseeing that famous church’s painstaking renovation – and fire safety upgrades – after it was damaged in a 2011 earthquake.
“We are, just coincidentally, in the midst of … putting in some protections that will prevent us from hopefully ever having to undergo what they are undergoing,” Shepherd told reporters Monday as he and other American church officials absorbed the heartbreaking images of Notre Dame engulfed in flames.
Shepherd and other experts say there are major differences between Europe’s cherished historic sites and America’s landmarks that make protecting those in the U.S. much easier.
“You’re really talking apples and oranges,” said Dave Fornell, Detroit’s deputy fire commissioner who has also worked in New York City, Boston and Chicago.
For starters, American churches and other landmarks are centuries newer – and most are required to have sophisticated fire prevention systems.
“Now, a lot of these older churches are grandfathered in (with outdated building codes),” Fornell said. “You just can’t go in there and demand putting sprinkler heads in there. But all of our churches are required to have extinguishers, alarms systems and clear means of egress.”
Take, for example, the birthplace of American democracy: Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where construction began in 1732.
“All of our historic buildings have modern fire suppression,” said Adam Duncan, a park ranger at that World Heritage Site. “Sprinklers, alarms, pretty much anything that you would find in a modern office building, you would find at Independence Hall.”
He noted that Independence Hall, as part of the National Park Service, is subject to strict federal regulations that dictate building standards and any renovations. Although it’s not clear yet what started the fire at Notre Dame, it was under renovation and some fear that work, through a spark from equipment or some other incident, may have caused the fire.
Duncan said Independence Hall has a 15-person cultural resource team – with architects, designers, and other staff – involved in determining what kind of repairs and upgrades should to be done and what can’t be done. A slew of other experts are involved in any work that goes forward, he said.
“Independence Hall has been renovated several times without issue,” he said. “It’s not something that we undertake very lightly.”
What about the 2.2 million historic artifacts that are part of Independence Hall’s museum collection, including books, manuscripts and portraits of prominent American revolutionaries?
Duncan said they have a protocol for saving those, but he can’t discuss it.
“It’s just not something that we would want to expose in case someone gets any grand ideas about pulling the fire alarm and taking this or that,” he said. “We have a collection that’s priceless.”
At the Smithsonian – a vast complex of 19 museums with more than 155 million historic objects and specimens – all the buildings have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems, said spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.
“We have a special air handling system that sucks oxygen out of a room – such as the Star-Spangled banner exhibit – that has an artifact that cannot be touched by water,” St. Thomas said.
Eric Gentry, the Smithsonian’s director of emergency management, said each building also has special monitoring technologies – such as heat and smoke detectors. And they conduct regular walk-throughs with local firefighters in Washington, D.C., so the first responders are familiar with the layout and collections of each building, whether it’s the American Indian Museum or the Hirshhorn.
Smithsonian officials train the firefighters on the various collections and what the best extinguishing methods are for different works of art. And it's not just fires they're worried about.
“Each hazard has its own set of procedures,” Gentry said, whether it’s fires, floods, earthquakes or theft.
All that planning is aimed at preventing disasters from occurring – and then containing them when that fails. Does that mean a catastrophe on the scale of the Notre Dame fire could never happen at an American treasure like the Smithsonian?
“I would never say never, but every precaution that can be taken generally is,” Gentry said.
At Washington’s National Cathedral, Shepherd has an inkling of what will face Notre Dame officials as they turn toward the arduous task of rebuilding and repairing.
“We are almost eight years out from the earthquake, and we are only halfway done with our work,” he said. That magnitude-5.8 quake hit Mineral, Virginia, on Aug. 23, 2011, and sent tremors 90 miles northeast to nation’s capital, opening cracks in the Washington Monument and seriously damaging a series of pinnacles on the Washington National Cathedral’s tower.
As the cathedral repairs that damage, they’re also making fire and life safety upgrades, Shepherd said, including new emergency lighting and augmented fire alarms. But he said the cathedral is already more protected from fire than Notre Dame simply because of its age and its building materials.
“We are a modern cathedral, unlike Notre Dame that has heavy timber wood structure in their attic that dates to 800 years ago,” he said. “We are only 111 years old. We used steel, concrete, brick and limestone to build our cathedral.”
Shepherd said the biggest challenge facing the Notre Dame renovation crew will probably be money. Work on Washington's cathedral is currently at a standstill as church officials struggle to raise the $2-plus million needed to finish the repairs, he said.
More immediately, though, Shepherd said Notre Dame needs a team of conservationists on site Paris to prevent more damage as officials sift through the rubble. “You’re talking about things that might be 700-800 years old that … might have been partially burned, partially damaged by water,” he said.
If Notre Dame’s renovation team calls, Shepherd said he will be at the ready.
“We are a community of cathedrals that have unique problems,” he said. “And we like to make sure we’re being as magnanimous as possible with our lessons learned and help each other out with such crises.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Notre Dame: Could America's historic landmarks be devastated by such a catastrophic fire?