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Cleaning Up at the Huntington : Last Year, Fire Struck the Huntington Art Museum in San Marino, Destroying One Painting and Damaging Hundreds of Precious Artworks. The Flames Were Extinguished Within Minutes. Then the Painstaking Renovation Began

March 09, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is the Times art writer

Late at night, on Oct. 17 of last year, as the Huntington Art Gallery lay shrouded in darkness, a flicker of light began to burn inside the grand old building's elevator. A defective motor in the elevator cab had heated up, sent off one spark and then another, until a small fire with a voracious appetite melted plastic components and attacked the elevator's wooden structure.

The doors were shut tight, and there was no smoke detector inside the elevator to warn the Huntington's security force of an impending disaster. Shortly after midnight, smoke finally seeped through a crack, casting a shadow that triggered an intrusion detector. No sooner had that alarm sounded than the gallery's heat and smoke detectors went off.

The San Marino Fire Department was on its way instantly, arriving at the gallery in three minutes. As firefighters rushed into the stately old mansion--former home of railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington--a fireball exploded, blasting open the elevator doors. Fed by the fresh supply of oxygen, the flames leaped 12 feet across the hall, consuming Sir Joshua Reynolds' life-size "Portrait of Mrs. Edwin Lascelles" and the tapestry seat covers on two chairs below it. Surrounding the elevator was an irreplaceable cache of English and Continental treasures in an 18th-Century setting.

The firefighters had trained extensively for just such an emergency and were aware of what they were trying to protect. Water, their most effective weapon, can destroy the art it is meant to rescue. But in this case, the location of the fire was fortuitous, because they were able to direct their hoses at the elevator in the hallway and away from the lavish collection. One fireman, wielding a squeegee, held back a flood from a 17th-Century Savonnerie carpet, commissioned for the Louvre by Louis XIV.

Intense heat began to blister the painted walls and melt the glue that held plaster moldings to the hall's decorative ceiling and columns, causing sections to fall and crumble. The flames were stifled within 12 minutes, however, and the priceless collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts was saved. Among the distinguished survivors are Jean-Antoine Houdon's large bronze of the Greek goddess Diana, elegantly furnished 18th-Century rooms and prime examples of full-length British portraiture, including the Huntington's most popular paintings, Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie" and Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy."

Melvin Aldershof, the superintendent of buildings, was the first staff member to enter the smoking structure after the fire was extinguished. "Mel ran in and out. When I saw his face, I knew we were in for trouble," recalls Huntington art collection curator Robert R. Wark, who was also summoned to the scene that night. "When I followed him, the first thing I saw was that 'Mrs. Lascelles' was gone."

Though stunned by the devastation, Wark and Shelley M. Bennett, associate curator of the art collection, gradually realized that nearly everything else could be saved. The botanical gardens and library could remain open, and the Junior League's tours for sixth-graders would also continue, though several art displays--including "Pinkie" and "Blue Boy"--had to be quickly moved to the library.

Though permanent losses were minor, the fire had nevertheless caused considerable damage. Only firefighters and fire victims can appreciate the full impact of the term smoke damage. The Huntington staff discovered that billowing clouds of smoke (composed of ordinary elemental carbon, plus a greasy substance from plastic components of the elevator cab) had covered the gallery's vast walls and deposited an oily film on dozens of marble and bronze sculptures, about 100 pieces of porcelain and 400 silver objects. Gummy smoke darkened 110 paintings and their frames, coated 180 pieces of English and French furniture and even infiltrated clockworks. Soot encased every thread of fabric in five large tapestries, several exquisite carpets, two dozen chair upholsteries and the gallery's fringed silk drapes.

Staff members were facing months of tedious and delicate cleanup, and they would need plenty of expert outside help. The first call came from John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, who said that the Getty's conservation staff was at the Huntington's disposal. Caltech scientists analyzed the soot to help determine how to remove it. Conservators from as near as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as far as the Textile Conservation Center in North Andover, Mass., shared their expertise.

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