Difficulties fighting Notre Dame fire draw comparison to Governor’s mansion arson

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Notre Dame has been widely praised as an architectural masterpiece with workmanship that dates back over 850 years. The fire that devastated much of the building on Monday has potential to wipe out centuries of work. 

“Even the structure itself, the wood structure of the roof is historically significant,” said John Volz, a restoration architect and owner of Volz and Associates, Inc. 

Volz has spent much of his career focused on preserving historic structures. He said the impact of the fire in Paris is devastating. 

“One can reconstruct them, but then you are not dealing with a historic building because you are don’t have historic materials any longer.” 

For local firefighters, it stirs up memories of fires much closer to home. 

“It’s kind of a poke and a reminder and it gets us as firefighters talking about what those operations look like,” said Battalion Chief Josh Portie with the Austin Fire Department. He recalled the moment he heard about the fire in France. He said his team immediately began drawing comparisons to the blaze at the Governor’s mansion in June 2008. 

Just like the fire at the Governor’s mansion over a decade ago, Notre Dame was also undergoing renovations. That adds to the complexity of the fire, with flames able to reach open voids in the walls and ceilings.  

“Once it gets into those void spaces, it just makes our job that much more difficult. Even just looking right here at this truck room with very tall ceilings, the Governor’s mansion had 16-foot ceilings. The cathedral has 40-50 foot or even greater,” Chief Portie said. 

Both fires, one in Austin over a decade ago and the other halfway around the world, teach an important lesson in maintaining the value of historical buildings. 

“We need to inventory what is historic in Austin, we’ve started that process, we need to continue, we need to provide protections for historic resources,” Volz said.

What happens after a historical building catches fire 

After a fire like the one at Notre Dame occurs, Volz told us there are certain steps that must be taken. 

  • First, those involved in the restoration process must assess the structural impact of the fire. 
  • Then, they must mitigate the water damage from the firefighting efforts to reduce the mold exposure. 
  • The structure must then be stabilized and the condition of everything that survived assessed. 
  • Finally, a detailed catalog will allow restorers to properly inventory what’s left. 

A message from historic preservationist Dealey Herndon 

We also reached out to Dealey Herndon, the project manager who restored the Governor’s Mansion. She provided this statement: 

“Those of us who experienced the destructive fire at the Texas Governor’s Mansion in 2008 will never forget the immediate sense of loss and shock – the sadness that Texas may have lost one of the three most historic buildings in the state. People around the world are feeling that shock today as the magnificent and historic Norte Dame burns in Paris. The world is feeling the pain of losing a building that is personal to them and hundreds of millions worldwide. 

It is early in the evaluation of the extent of damage. My hope is that Notre Dame can be saved and then rebuilt where too much is lost. Our experience with the Governor’s Mansion was that it took months before the details and possibilities for restoration were defined. For the iconic Notre Dame, the process of stabilization and evaluation will begin tomorrow. 

Catastrophic fire damage to historic buildings always involves structural stabilization and evaluation and planning; major cleaning with attention to preservation of historic materials; and water removal of the millions of gallons of water used to fight the fire. Water and smoke cause as much or more damage as fire. These efforts will consume the next year, hopefully with an informed restoration and reconstruction plan following. 

I have confidence that France and the World will save the remarkable and meaningful Cathedral. The cost will great, but so many will be willing to donate. We will all understand the possibilities as the damage is determined over the be next month – and a whole world of great preservationist stand ready to assist.” 

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