Older buildings hard to protect

High costs, limited laws among challenges to making historic structures fire-safe


To douse the five-alarm fire on Annapolis' historic Main Street last weekend, firefighters had to drag 300 feet of hose and stand on nearby buildings to spray water into a store blocked in on three sides by other structures.

They returned the next day to look for a better way to fight a future fire. They found that if they maneuvered a new fire engine just the right way, they could get into a skinny alley, much closer to the older buildings that line Main Street.

The charm of narrow streets and tightly nestled buildings is the bread and butter of the tourist trade in Annapolis' downtown Historic District. But they illustrate the types of fire hazards confronting historic districts.

Narrow streets, quirky buildings with old electrical wiring and layers of ceilings, no firewalls, access problems and a lack of sprinklers are among the major issues. Firefighters would like to see sprinklers retrofitted in all such buildings, but installing them is expensive, and if not done as part of a major renovation, their fire suppression value might be reduced.

Moreover, local officials cannot simply require such changes. They have to be mindful of individual property rights, as well as the intrusive effect that renovations might have on historic structures.

"None of these challenges is unique to Annapolis," said Capt. Joseph Martin of the Annapolis Fire Department. He said fire officials feel fortunate that the fire didn't break out a night earlier, when high winds could have sent the blaze tearing through other parts of the historic district.

"Hopefully, the same thing won't happen here. The older buildings certainly were not built with fire walls and sprinklers," said Robert C. Willey, the mayor of Easton.

The historic district in that Eastern Shore town had two smaller fires in recent years.

"It is a concern. But there is not a lot that we can require until there is a renovation," Willey said.

Historically, city fires have been so common and large that some say it is amazing that any blocks of old structures are still standing.

Cities generally require that new construction and renovations meet current building and fire safety codes that include firewalls, sprinklers and upgraded electrical service.

That does not apply to existing structures that are not being redone. Yet the worry over spaces that are untouched for decades is enormous, said Orlando Ridout V, an architectural historian with the Maryland Historical Trust.

"There is little reason to update the wiring where all you are going to do is store things," he said. "But you have a wire and a light bulb."

Local officials say they try to coax improvements they cannot mandate, and say that insurers might demand them.

Codes recognize that historic buildings cannot meet every current standard, from door widths to having fire exits.

Besides the balance between what is desirable and affordable, there is a recognition that saving historic buildings means trying to achieve a level of safety in other ways without tearing apart a structure's historic fabric. In communities where history is part of the lifestyle and culture, the old buildings are irreplaceable.

"One thing is to try to update historic buildings to modern standards. One of the problems is you tend to destroy things that are historic," said Milosh Puchovsky, fire protection engineer for the National Fire Protection Association, based in Quincy, Mass.

The Nov. 25 fire in a cluster of buildings at 118-128 Main St. in Annapolis highlights fire-safety issues.

The blaze began beneath the second-story floorboards of Zachary's Exquisite Jewelry, but above the ceiling of the first floor. It destroyed that building and damaged 19th-century structures on either side that housed an ice cream business and candy store - but stopped at the next building, which had a firewall, said Annapolis Fire Lt. Ed Hadaway.

The ground-floor exterior of the candy shop is where the fire became visible, where the candy and jewelry stores share a wall - a common practice years ago, but long banned. The cause of the fire, initially suspected of being electrical, is under investigation.

Annapolis' downtown street plan, which features narrow and winding streets, dates to the 1600s, said historian Jane McWilliams. The buildings span three centuries - meeting whatever codes, if any, that existed when they were built. Electricity arrived in 1889.

Some buildings have old wiring in which copper lines run through ceramic tubes, a design that fell out of use more than 50 years ago, said Clint Pratt, electrical inspector for the city. Safe if maintained, he said, the wiring poses a fire hazard when trapped by insulation or ductwork that has been added later.

In 1997, Annapolis barred splicing modern wiring into the old wires, but that practice goes on elsewhere, he said.

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