Tag Archives: disaster

Kate Chopin House: Taking a look at a heritage recovery operation

By Jeff Guin

A lot has happened in the three months since the U.S. National Historic Landmark Kate Chopin House was destroyed by fire. Much goes into a salvage effort of this scale, and you may be surprised that how much care has been taken with the remains of the building and of its surviving contents. Voices of the Past recently spoke with Dustin Fuqua of the heritage research organization Cultural Lore about his experience leading the rescue operation. Here are some of his insights on the topic.

Any salvage operation is stressful, but cases where the structure defines the community are especially difficult. Rescue workers are faced with the challenges of limiting access to the site while being sensitive to the grief of the community. All the while, they must also be mindful that the structure and the heritage resources it contains are degrading by the minute.

The situation is inherently unsafe from the get-go and will likely remain that way until the structure is taken down completely. Fires can reignite days after the initial event. Charred walls of brick or bousillage may crumble at any time. Rescuers use personal safety equipment like masks and gloves–and good sense as well–when approaching any salvage operation.

The case of the Kate Chopin House was especially dire, with perhaps only 10 to 15 percent of the Bayou Folk Museum contents surviving in any recognizable condition. For those precious few objects that survive the fire, other environmental threats immediately arise.

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For paper objects soaked with water from fire trucks and lying amid the smoldering warmth of embers, mold blooms immediately and degrades the fibers. As the home of a famous writer, this structure had some very valuable paper items. So what to do? Believe it or not, rescuers wrapped the books in acid-free paper and put them in a freezer until they can be properly conserved. Freezing the items inhibits the growth of mold and prevents further environmental damage to the paper.

Metal objects are affected by the warm, wet environment of a fire scene as well. Oxidation starts immediately, resulting in rust on metal objects that may have already been weakened by extreme heat. A quick, but careful removal operation is necessary to keep these objects from becoming further casualties of the disaster.

As with many disasters, the path of destruction can take unexpected turns. For example, Dusty reports finding a stack of Confederate currency in good condition while huge pieces of 19th century furnishings were incinerated without a trace. The wooden objects that survive are also cared for, potentially for reintegration into a rebuilt structure or as a memorial.

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Thanks to the first response efforts of the Cultural Lore team, the NSU Masters of Heritage Resources program and the National Park Service, we will have some remnant by which to remember the Kate Chopin House and Bayou Folk Museum. But what’s happening now? I’ll tell you next week. In the meantime, you can read more about this project or contact Dusty through the Natchitoches Preservation Network website.

Related images:

Kate Chopin House Ruins

Kate Chopin House - Fire

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National Landmark "Kate Chopin House" is lost to fire

By Jeff Guin

CLOUTIERVILLE, LA–The Kate Chopin House, named for the legendary feminist writer who lived there during the 1880s, burned to the ground in an early morning fire today. The structure had been named a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior in 1993.

According to Vickie Parrish, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), the structure’s loss will be felt far beyond the Coutierville community.

“Countless people have invested their time and hearts into the restoration of this structure,” Parrish said. “So much had been done. But the real tragedy lies in how much more could–and would– have been done to make the Kate Chopin house a preservation showcase for the country. So many people loved it.”

The house was in a serious state of disrepair before APHN became steward of the property in 1979. The organization invested in several restoration efforts, including the installation of central air and heat in 1999.

The Creole-style home was built between 1805 and 1809 by Alexis Cloutier using slave labor and exemplifies the building style of that time. Creole architecture is characterized by its spacious galleries, gallery roofs supported by light wooden colonnettes and a form of construction utilizing a heavy timber frame combined with an infill made of brick.

Officials from the National Park Service’s Cane River Creole National Historical Park were on hand this morning to help salvage the few artifacts that survived the fire. The head archivist from the Cammie G. Henry archives at Northwestern State University of Louisiana was also assisting in the recovery.

The contents of the Bayou Folk Museum, which was housed in the Kate Chopin House, were also lost. Local resident Doris Roge’ says the loss is being especially felt in the Cloutierville community because so many citizens had contributed to the museum.

“A lot of people in the community donated or sold pieces for the museum,” she said. “Many pieces belonged to my grandfather. We’ve all lost a part of our heritage.”

Kate Chopin came to Cloutierville  with her husband Oscar, a New Orleans businessman who bought the house in 1879 at a sheriff’s sale. Kate was pregnant with their sixth child and quickly made enemies in the town.

According to Roge’, her grandfather often told stories of Chopin’s then-scandalous public smoking and flirtations with men other than her husband.

Many of Kate Chopin’s most important works, including Bayou Folk and The Awakening are set in Louisiana.

Dr. Lisa Abney is a Chopin scholar and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. She believes the burning of the Chopin House is a loss to the literary community as well.

“Kate Chopin’s work is important both nationally and regionally; Chopin’s creative and innovative fiction changed the face of American literature,” she said. “The loss of the Kate Chopin House and Bayou Folk Museum is a tremendous loss to fans of Chopin’s literature and to preservation. This is, indeed, a tragedy to no longer have this important treasure.”

The Kate Chopin House/Bayou Folk Museum is another significant blow to the history of the Cloutierville Community. Several important structures have been lost there over the years including the Carnahan Store, a National Register for Historic Places structure, which burned in 2004.

What caused the fire at the Kate Chopin House is still under investigation.

Photos from the scene of the fire can be seen at the NCPTT Flickr stream.

View more about the salvage operation in the video below:

Major cultural sites caught in crossfire of Georgian conflict

Reports are beginning to hit the net about heritage sites that have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Here is a rundown of a few of the items being discussed:

In his post Fog of war obscures state of cultural heritage sites in Georgia, Tom Flynn of the artknows blog, recounts what’s at stake–including three sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and fifteen more on the Tentative List. He references the ICOMOS, (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), website, which states “the entire cultural heritage of Georgia is endangered,” and recounts a preliminary report prepared by ICOMOS Georgia  regarding the shelling of a sixth-century Ateni Sioni Church, where affiliated professionals were working. Casualties in the heritage preservation field are being reported as well. Among the points Flynn presents in his long investigative piece:

  • Approximately 345 registered historical monuments and archaeological sites are located within the main conflict zones
  • The ICOMOS draft reports concern over news of rockets being fired into the Uphlistsikhe rock-cut city (5th-century BC-7th century), a site on the World Heritage Tentative List
  • Reports of looting of the 11th-century Samtavisi Cathedral (another candidate for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List)
  • The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has issued a ‘Watch List’ of “Georgian museums in uncertain conditions situated in regions occupied by the Russian Army.
  • The villages of Tamarasheni and Qurta were destroyed and possibly the buildings of the museums as well

Meanwhile, the Russian non-governmental news agency Interfax, based in Moscow, reports that Georgian fire destroyed many cultural monuments in South Ossetia. Among the monuments in question were 19th century cathedrals and architectural memorials dating to the eighth and ninth centuries. The article quotes Alexander Kibovsky, head of Federal Service for law observance supervision in the field of protection of cultural heritage as saying:

“When Georgian forces intruded to South Ossetia all mentioned monuments were destroyed or suffered a great loss because of their barbarian operations.”

The impact of the war on a team of archaeologists from the University of Winchester’s Department of Archaeology is discussed in the post Archaeological excavation affected by war in Georgia from the BAJR Blog. The team was on an expedition with Georgian colleagues to excavate a rural site shortly before the hostilities began. All of the British team, which included 10 students from universities across the UK and seven experienced archaeological and specialist staff, were able to return home the day before the conflict began. The University of Winchester had been forging ties with the Georgian Archaeology Commission to strengthen archaeology courses at Georgian universities. The expedition’s co-director, Dr. Paul Everill is quoted as saying:

“We are an expedition of archaeologists and historians, but we all share a love of Georgia, its culture and its people. We hope to find some way of raising whatever funds we can to eventually help the country rebuild.”

Related Links:

Risk of Destruction from Historic Sites in Georgia-The Cultural Property Law Blog

Georgia on My Mind-Cultural Property Observer

Georgia, Eredvi village, near South Ossetia-YouTube iReport video

ateni sioni photo by perret.rukhadze on Flickr

Top five sources for disaster response information

With the frequency of epic disasters in recent years, the preservation community is quickly adopting the Boy Scout motto “be prepared” in its approach to the recovery of heritage resources. Pages dedicated to the topic are popping up all over the web. Here are our picks for five of the best.

AIC Disaster Recovery Resources

The American Institute for Conservation links to recovery of various types of materials and also health-related considerations. Disaster-related articles from back Issues of the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation (JAIC). Also links to the findings of the Ground Zero/World Trade Center disaster.

Disaster planning for collections

The Society for Historical Archaeology administers this page on disaster response. It is practical in its approach, giving details on useful publications as well as ordering information. It also includes step-by-step instruction (with images, no less) on needed supplies, triage considerations and drying methods.

English: Logo of the National Center for Prese...

NCPTT disaster recovery page

The official disaster recovery site for the National Park Service, this site links to pages with of FEMA and the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. Content can be filtered by need, including damage assessment, earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricane recovery, wet recovery. Also contains downloadable PDFs and National Weather Service advisories.

Solinet Preservation Disaster Recovery Page

Easy-to-navigate page of links listed by both disaster and material type. Also includes a handy “advice” section on preparedness and choosing vendors as well as navigating the FEMA and disaster aid process.

National Trust Flood Recovery

An assortment of flood response web pages and pdfs assembled as a direct response to the summer floods in the Midwest. Includes a breakdown of the affected area by state along with links to affected cultural institutions.

We know there have to be additional resources out there. If you know of others, please share them.

Disaster recovery playlist from YouTube

Featured thumbnail photo by Alice Ann Krishnan

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