Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Symbol Reborn

A frantic call from my wife interrupted my lunch last Friday and her news hit hard and deep: the Arthur Irwin House, the flagship home of Hampton Heights, was burning. I raced to the neighborhood and found the house belching thick black smoke while firefighters surrounded the house and yard. Neighbors and friends formed a distraught chorus on the street and in yards nearby, watching in agony as the grandest Queen Anne residence in Spartanburg succumbed to a devastating fire. The fire engulfed the roof and part of the second story before being snuffed out by hard work, and 100,000 gallons of rushing water.

The scene on Friday could have hardly been any worse. That house anchored the entire neighborhood and was one of the most recognizable houses in the city. Additionally, until the fire, it had been in immaculate condition and held thousands of antiques and original documents and research materials. It really felt like the heart of the neighborhood had been ripped out, and as a bystander, I was completely helpless to do anything.

The Spartanburg Herald-Journal covered the awful details of the fire, so I won't rehash all that, but I did want to touch on the follow-up story that has yet to fully play out.

I went to the house Saturday morning and found salvage crews pulling out everything from the house. They directed me to Vivian Fisher, the owner of the house, and a friend and local history colleague. Vivian has been working on a comprehensive history of Hampton Heights longer than I've been alive and was months away from finishing her task. She had collected interviews and photographs and documents that detailed the history of the neighborhood and its residents from the Reconstruction Era to now. I had helped her in the last couple of years of her project and was one of the few people she knew who could share her joy in discovering the tiny surprises that come with such a project. Beyond her family's safety, what most worried me was that all this information would have been lost in the fire.

Vivian was by the garage when I found her and her first words to me were "you're just who I wanted to see because I knew you would understand." She went on to explain that she was determined to rebuild. She was as firm as iron in that moment, and I was relieved to know that the symbol of our neighborhood was in her hands. She also assured me that all her photos had been scanned and that those files along with the electronic draft of the book were off-site. It was such a relief.

I came back soon afterwards to find her on the second floor of the house, in the library, which was only slightly removed from the source of the fire. Waterlogged books buckled out of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and against the wall was what remained of her desk, with her soot-covered computer and papers and envelopes stacked nearby. She explained that although everything had been scanned, she had borrowed photos and books from folks for the book, and she worried they might have been ruined. Digging around a bit, we were able to find one stack that had envelopes full of photos, stained with soot and soaked with water. I offered to work with them to dry them out because I was concerned that they might be ruined if they dried improperly. She was happy to have me handle it.

We laid out a huge tarp on the lawn and I began to spread out photos as a few others brought out materials from the library. It was vital to dry them out individually before the photographic emulsion bonded to nearby papers and photos. My experience with other water damaged photos (explained in a blog post long ago) told me if they dried together, they would be completely ruined. I was less concerned about light damage, although I did try to keep as many in the shade as possible. I eventually laid out an impressive number of documents and waited for the warm air to work on them. After a few hours of careful pealing and patience, the photos were dry and intact. Many of the thinner papers curled, but that can be reversed if they are re-humidified slightly, pressed, and dried more slowly. Overall, it was an encouraging success in salvage conservation. I was amazed to see so many look as good as new.

Other encouraging signs were to be seen too. Furniture cleaning crews arrived and easily removed soot and water from upholstery before loading up other pieces for more detailed work. Inside the house, it was apparent that although the damage was significant, many of the historic details and fine craftsmanship would be salvageable. Moreover, the will was there. Vivian insisted that she was bound as a "good Southern woman" to be determined and resourceful.

I hope that when this harrowing chapter is finished, the Irwin House will stand as an even more powerful symbol of our once-struggling neighborhood: A grand, beautiful home that was nearly lost to a tragic mixture of negligence and circumstance, rebuilt and reinvigorated by determined homeowners.

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