Learning the hard way

Shaded by the heavy August foliage, the house at first looks almost complete. Only when you get closer can you get a good view of the damage: the missing roof, the wood panels blocking the gable windows, the charred-brick chimneys propped up by two-by-fours. Seen this way, in the fragile morning light, the Old Kentucky Home has rarely looked so … old.

And tragedies rarely come laden with so much irony. After wading through a lengthy bureaucratic process, the North Carolina Historic Sites Commission had finally been able to earmark funds for renovating the Wolfe House — shortly before it was severely damaged by a fire, early on the morning of July 24. The planned work was to have included foundation repairs, roof repairs, building a handicapped-access ramp, reconstructing brick pillars, repairing the wood and plaster, repainting the house in period colors — and, yes, a fire detection-and-alarm system.

Community response in the wake of the Wolfe House fire has been remarkable: The day after the fire, local TV station WLOS launched a fundraiser at Bele Chere, and other local institutions have generously shared personnel and resources. But still, the question remains: Why was the Wolfe Memorial — one of the city’s most distinctive (and least replaceable) landmarks — not equipped with the proper protection systems? And are other local historic sites any better prepared?

“As far as the Wolfe house, we weren’t caught unaware,” said Jackie Ogburn, director of public affairs at the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh. “The request for a fire-detection system had been in for some time. We had just received $400,000, and the state Construction Office had begun bidding for a local contractor when the fire took place.”

The fire-detection system was due to be installed within 45 days of the date of the fire. Ironically, the Historic Sites Commission was holding off so that it could schedule the work at the same time as other planned renovations. “The [fire-detection] system was going to be state-of-the-art,” Ogburn explained. “In a historic structure, you don’t want to affect the appearance of the home, and you want to keep the alterations to a minimum. You can’t just tear down a wall and put up some Sheetrock imitation. That’s why the system was arranged to be installed when the other renovations were taking place.”

That was precisely the right approach, observes Harry Weiss, director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. “It’s a good idea to do all the work at once,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “In renovations like these, the building will be closed; if [the construction crews] have to go into a wall or something, they can’t be doing that stuff in stages.

“Of course,” Weiss continued, “many historic resources not only do not have fire-prevention systems [such as sprinklers], they don’t even have fire-detection systems. But you have to look at the realities of funding — where the money is coming from, how long it takes to get there. And there’s a natural conflict here, as well: How do you keep the architectural integrity of a historic site with a very intrusive sprinkler system?”

Meanwhile, no one seems to be talking about the current level of protection in place at other historic sites. Spokespersons for several prominent local sites declined to comment when asked about their fire-prevention plans.

Ogburn, however, blames the lack of protection — a situation that, presumably, has prevailed for decades — on the tangled legislative process that the Historic Sites Commission must wade through in order to get funding. “We have to go through an extra committee,” she explained, “an extra hurdle, and so there was a bit of a lag.”

That hurdle is the Historic Sites Repairs and Renovations Review Committee, which oversees any funds allocated by the Historic Sites Repairs and Renovations Fund. Before submitting a proposal to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, the committee must first approve the repairs and renovations.

When asked about the fact that a legislative hurdle had contributed to making one of North Carolina’s most treasured landmarks a sitting duck, state Rep. Wilma Sherrill said, “I certainly hope action is taken immediately. I hope all of our state-owned properties are protected. This will hopefully raise awareness about this issue and get things done.”

Sherrill added, “I’ll be asking for an appointment this week with [N.C. Department of Cultural Resources Secretary] Betty McCain,” to talk about protecting the state’s landmarks.

Fortunately, the Wolfe House has been found to be largely restorable. But several key questions remain. Perhaps the most important is, why were funds available to build a Visitors Center — but not to protect the primary site?

The staff of the Wolfe Memorial were unable to answer any questions, pending insurance-company investigations. Weiss, however, believes the fire points up the all-too-human tendency to ignore potential problems till they hit you in the face. He also notes that we need to learn what lessons we can from the tragedy, because we can’t afford to get caught flat-footed again at any historic site. “Sure, complacency [might be] fine for your own home: We’re all lulled by the false sense of security insurance can give us. But while you can usually replace a house, you can’t replace a historic site.”

Sherrill agrees: “It’s a shame that we pass legislation to require rental houses to have smoke alarms, but we don’t protect all of our public buildings. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. We usually act in a retroactive manner, rather than a proactive manner. We don’t even think in those terms. We don’t prepare for an arson situation, because we would never do this sort of thing.”

One lesson we can definitely learn from the fire, said a well-placed National Park Service employee who assisted in the salvage efforts at the Wolfe house, is the need to anticipate disasters and prepare for them in whatever ways you can.

“Awareness is the first step,” the employee said. “Many people are going learn from the Wolfe fire. Unfortunately, that’s called learning the hard way. … [But] a disaster like this is a learning opportunity for the preservation community. That’s really the only positive way to look at it.”

Losing a treasured historic landmark is bad enough, but Weiss stresses that the community is also losing the revenue the Wolfe Memorial brought to Asheville. “The Wolfe House was a very important economic resource,” he said. “There are many things to lament here, not the least of which is the fact that there will be an economic impact in the community. Tourists are coming to these places more than ever. And historic sites are much more elevated in profile, because of the economic impact.”

Restoration of the house is scheduled to be completed in stages. In the meantime, however, the annual Thomas Wolfe Festival will be held as planned, Sept. 24-27. The Visitors Center, which was not harmed, reopened Aug. 4, and several of the house’s undamaged artifacts will be on display there. A task force — including Site Manager Steve Hill, Paul Bock of the state Department of Cultural Resources, and Jane Mathews of Mathews & Glazer, the architects who were contracted to oversee the renovations — will soon be making detailed assessments. “Mathews knows as much as anyone about the house,” Ogburn explained.

And, while we wait for the complicated state-level budget talks to be concluded, Harry Weiss suggests a low-cost, interim solution.

“In the Preservation Society,” he explains, “we work with quite a few older buildings. Some of these buildings don’t even have electric facilities, so it’s quite complicated to install any sort of fire-detection system. But a simple baby monitor, like the ones sold at various baby stores, will solve a lot of these problems. Just put a monitor under the floor of an old structure, and you’ll know the moment someone sets foot in there. It’s a simple way to prevent a fire — particularly arson.”

In the case of the Wolfe House, however, a baby monitor would not have helped — unless someone had been within range to hear it in the middle of the night.

“Really,” Weiss concluded, “everyone is looking to blame somebody. The house burned down because of the arsonist. But you could also say the fault lies with all of us. It’s a collective blame.” And one that North Carolina residents might have to bear again — if we don’t insist decisionmakers protect all state and local historic sites.

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