Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2018: Part II - Gilded Age Fire Suppression

During June 2018, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the third year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The workshop taught in-depth methods of caring for many different types of collections. Participants gained insight into artifact conservation and the conditions that cause deterioration. After the workshop, several of the participants wrote blog entries about their experience and a specific aspect of the workshop.

Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with NYS Bureau of Historic Sites Furniture Conservator, David Bayne.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including  Kirsten Schoonmaker from Syracuse UniversityValentine Talland formerly of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michelle Cornelison Smith, the Assistant Paper & Book Conservator at SF Art Conservation in Oakland, CA.

Part II in this series was written by Andrew Foster who is currently a Conservation Technician at Maymont Mansion in Richmond, Virginia. Andrew has a B.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking as well as a B.S. in Anthropology from the Virginia Commonweath University. He has previously worked at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Blog Author Andrew Foster moves furniture during the workshop. 

During my first day at Staatsburgh while participating in the American Institute for Conservation’s Preventative Conservation Workshop, I noticed something that I had not seen in many historic houses: fire hoses.  These hoses were not of the recently made and installed variety, but were instead a historic part of the house.  As our tour progressed, I would learn that there was a massive reservoir housed in the attic which supplied water pressure for the entire residence, including this system of hoses.  Intrigued, I wanted to learn more about what caused the Mills’ to implement such a thorough system, and more about historical methods of fire suppression in general.

Historic Fire Hose at Staatsburgh

Fire suppression in the home is not a new idea, but the nineteenth century saw the invention of various gadgets that had the specific purpose of extinguishing flames within a built environment.  The first extinguisher that we would recognize as such was invented in 1819, and utilized a potassium carbonate solution accelerated with compressed air.[1]  Devices called fire grenades were sometimes found in homes during the early 20th century.  These are small glass orbs filled with liquid carbon tetrachloride which break when hurled at a fire.  The chemical vaporizes and extinguishes the fire by limiting the amount of oxygen available for combustion.[2]  Carbon tetrachloride has since been found to be highly toxic, and historic house museums should consult with local hazmat officials to determine the safest means of disposal if they are present in a collection.[3]

Example of a Red Comet Fire Grenade in a Historic House

I came to learn that the Mills’ had a history of fire in their estate at Staatsburgh.  We were informed during our tour that the original house had been burned in the 1830s by neighbors across the Hudson.  A larger house was built in its place.  Less than a century later, a local newspaper documents the outbreak of a fire in Mrs. Mills’ boudoir in 1904.[4]  Mercifully, the fire was contained to a single room before too much damage had been done, and it was in response to this brush with disaster that the extant fire hoses were installed.  Given the destruction of the previous house and the immediacy of threat the 1904 fire would have instilled, it’s no surprise that the Millses opted for an extensive fire suppression system.

A modern fire extinguisher sits next to a historic fire hose on Staatsburgh's second level next to the entrance to the maid's quarters.

The placement of each fire hose should be of particular note as well.  It seems the Mills family did not want the utilitarian devices to interfere with the overall atmosphere of the mansion, given their location away from the spaces traditionally used for entertaining guests.  Where I work, at Maymont Mansion in Richmond, VA, we have an integrated fire hose in the house as well.  It’s located on a wall adjacent to the main kitchen in the belowstairs of the house, again a placement chosen to be out of sight of upstairs guests.  Even though both families took steps to mitigate the danger fire poses, the importance of maintaining an immaculate appearance when hosting and entertaining was at the forefront of their attention.

A historic fire hose at Maymont Mansion in Richmond, Virginia, the author's place of employment

The use of fire hoses in the Mills’ mansion and the use of fire suppression in historic homes in general help illuminate the fact that original residents shared some of the same concerns that we do today.  After their transition from home to museum, when care and preservation of the collection and built environment should be paramount, integrated fire suppression is often complicated and intrusive.  As such, many institutions choose, whether consciously or as a product of funding constraints, to opt for less intrusive options like handheld fire extinguishers, which are not designed to handle a large blaze.  Where possible, we should honor the safety concerns of those who lived where we now work, and take steps necessary to protect our collections, just as they did.

[1] Safelinks, Ltd.  “History of Fire Extinguishers.” 15 March, 2011.  Last updated 01 October, 2017. 
[2] Brownridge, Michelle. “Glass Grenade Style Fire Extinguisher ‘Bombs:’ Are They Safe?”  Museums Association
of Saskatchewan.  http://saskmuseums.org/blog/entry/glass-grenade-style-fire-extinguisher-bombs-are-they-safe.  10 November, 2016.
[3] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  “Carbon Tetrachloride.”  Centers for Disease Control.  CAS
ID# 56-23-5.  https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=35.  Page last updated 03 March, 2011.
[4] The Poughkeepsie Journal.  “Two Bad Fires in County.”  06 February, 1904.  Page 8. 

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