Tag Archives: Firefighting

Red Roofs

Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”.  And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”,  and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.

aptopix-france-notre-dame-fire-20190415155934-12400800AP Photo by Thibault Camus

As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link.  The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.

Cathedral CollageThe Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.

The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.

Vanished Halls

Edwards Collage

Vanished Halls Reims_Cathedral_burning_during_World_War_I

Vanished Halls Reims PC

The burning of Reims Cathedral after the severe bombardment by the Germans, 17-24 September 1914Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.

Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.

1211872-musee-des-sapeurs-pompiers-de-loire-atlantique-fonds-hervio

[The Angel of the Resurrection on the Roof of Notre-Dame, Paris]Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.


Where’s the Fire (Engine)?

Exactly one hundred years ago in Salem, people were flocking to the Essex Institute to see a piece of Salem history that had recently been returned to their fair city: a Georgian fire-fighting engine, by all contemporary accounts the oldest in America. Here we see a complete reversal of the situation we find ourselves in now, with the Essex Institute’s successor, the Peabody Essex Museum, shipping out the city’s material history rather advocating for its return—and showcasing it. The Union hand-tub engine was imported from Great Britain by one of Salem’s first private fire-fighting companies, the Union Fire Club, established in 1748. In the following year the company placed its order for one of Richard Newsham’s recently-patented “water engines for the quenching and extinguishing of fires”, and it arrived in Salem in 1750.

Fire Engine Colonial WilliamsburgA Newsham Engine of similar vintage @Colonial Williamsburg.

The Union was in service for quite some time as far as I can tell, but by the middle of the nineteenth century both its technology and its company was obsolete: steam and public fire-fighting departments were replacing hand-tubs and clubs. On a ceremonial visit to Philadelphia in the summer of 1866, a few remaining members of the then Union and Naumkeag Fire Club gifted their hosts, the William Penn Hose Company, with the Union. This provoked a “great hue and a cry” at home in Salem, but the old engine was not returned until 1917: and right into the Essex Institute it went. (I am wondering if Salem’s experience of conflagration in 1914 inspired the City of Brotherly Love to return the Union as a sympathetic gesture, but cannot find any confirmation of this theory).

Fire 1865

Fire Union 1866 Collage

Fire PhotoRobert Newall photograph of the William Penn Hose Company in Philadelphia with their steam engines, 1865, The Library Company; Harper’s Weekly photograph of the Union, “the oldest fire-engine in the United States” in 1866; a photograph of the Union in an article announcing its return to Salem in The American City, January 1918.

You can easily discern how important the threat of fire and the organization of fire-fighting was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by browsing through the online catalog of the Phillips Library, where the papers of the Union and Naumkeag Club are held, along with its predecessor club, the Union and Essex, and myriad other fire clubs: the Active, Alert and Amity clubs, Engine #9, the Enterprise Club, the Franklin Hook & Ladder No. 1, the Friend Engine Company, the Old Fire Club, the Social Club, the Reliance Hose Company, and the Relief Fire Club, among others. I do appreciate the PEM’s digitized library catalog, although it does not quite compensate for the lack of digitized items, or their removal from Salem. However, as I have been meeting and talking to people who have much longer associations with the PEM’s predecessors and the Phillips Library than I do, I am increasingly aware that they are missing objects as much as texts, and those objects are difficult to locate, both on the web and in reality. In the company of the “world-class” museums it claims to be, the Peabody Essex does not seem to be committed to comparative open access, to either its texts or its objects. Several years ago, one could search through a “collection gateway” that seemed to yield access to a good part of the PEM collections (it can still be accessed here but appears to be functional only in accessing items from the Native American collection), now we can only see selected “highlights”. Try comparing the collections portals of say, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even the Worcester Art Museum, with that of the Peabody Essex Museum: and see how little you will yield. I wouldn’t know where to find the Union online: the Phillips Library finding aid description states that both it and an oil painting entitled The Union Hand-Tub by W.B. Eaton are in the PEM collections, but they are both absolutely unattainable in both digital and actual forms: a regression, certainly, from 1918.

Fire brochure

Fire 1970s

firebucket_fpoThe Union and some fire buckets were featured prominently in a 1978 Essex Institute booklet: Museum Collections of the Essex Institute by Huldah Smith Payson, and fortunately for us, one of those very same buckets is one of the PEM’s online highlights of its American art collection.


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