After A Fire

by Don Friedman on July 15, 2016

Catastrophic fires are among the worst things that can happen to historic buildings. They destroy, in hours, years of construction effort and decades or more of use.

Ruins of a courthouse after the 1871 Chicago fire. Ruins of a courthouse after the 1871 Chicago fire.

I recently mentioned the fire at St. Sava, but such fires are distressingly common. About fifteen years ago, I worked on the reconstruction of the Central Synagogue after its 1998 near-destruction by fire. Our office has worked on houses and loft buildings gutted by fire. Windsor Castle, which I have to believe is a well-maintained and carefully-scrutinized building, had a severe fire in 1992. And until I read a recent newspaper article, I had somehow missed the fact that Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art had been badly damaged by fire.

The article on the Glasgow fire discusses the other end of the problem: what do you do afterwards? The synagogue chose to rebuild in a manner that looks nearly identical to the destroyed building. There are hidden differences, including mechanical upgrades and new fire protection, but you’d have to look very hard to find visible signs of the changes. That is a legitimate choice, in my opinion, but not the only choice.

You can save the ruins as a reminder of the loss and construct a new building for the previous uses. You can incorporate the remaining portions of the old building into a new structure. You can say that a destroyed building can’t stop the future and keep it alive using digital media within a new building. There are many variations and all can be okay depending on the circumstances. If there is any topic in preservation that calls for a sensitive and individualized approach, this is it.

I have no grand conclusion here, only a feeling that we need to be more careful about fire protection. And some sadness for losses that served no purpose at all.

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