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

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.

Advised by conservators "not to rush in," Wark and Bennett began to think through a problem that was as much logistical as technical. Everything had to be dismantled and precise records kept to guide reinstallation. Paintings had to be removed from their frames, decorative objects unglued from display cases, sculpture braced for earthquakes, elaborate drapes taken down, space found for cleaning. Treatments for metal, stone, wood, fiber and paint had to be determined, and help enlisted.

Money--about $90,000--also had to be found, because insurance covered the building but not conservation of the artworks. An emergency grant from the National Endowment of the Arts yielded $17,500; another from the National Endowment for the Humanities brought $30,000. Gifts from the Michael J. Connell Foundation, several corporations and many individuals covered the balance.

The most substantial professional assistance was given without charge by the Getty. "The Getty has been a savior," says Wark. "I don't know what we would have done without them." Though it provided several experts, "the Getty" soon became synonymous with one British woman, Barbara Roberts, Getty conservator of decorative arts and sculpture. Watching Roberts in action, Wark and Bennett got the impression that she was a veteran of other catastrophes. "Oh, no," she protested, "but I've done a lot of work on English country houses, and they are all disasters."

Ten days after the fire, Roberts was on the job in San Marino. She personally cleaned the furniture and some ceramics, and she organized about 25 volunteers to work with professional conservators. Her tape-recorded instructions were transcribed and read by supervised volunteers before they began systematically cleaning, wrap- ping, packing and recording their progress. Every art object had an identification sheet and work record. Each worker who promised a 20-hour-a-week commitment was issued a set of supplies: plastic bucket, solvents, disposable gloves, face masks and diapers--ideally soft and absorbent for cleaning artworks.

Each gallery customarily holds a compatible mixture of art and furnishings; these had to be regrouped for cleaning. All paintings were moved to an unfinished room of the gallery, where Jim Greaves, a consulting conservator to the Huntington for paintings, found his work relatively simple. Unlike porous stone and textiles, the paintings have sealed surfaces, so all that was needed was a superficial cleaning. Greaves applied mild water-base solutions to varnished canvases and mineral spirits to "break the wax and get the soot out" of English pictures that have wax in their sealers.

A more tedious job awaited volunteers who checked the ornate frames for loose gesso and replaced wayward fragments with glue applied with bamboo sticks. Using Q-tips for small crevices, larger cotton balls for open spaces, they wiped the surfaces gently, then dabbed them with rolled-up diapers and buffed them twice with chamois. "It took nearly 500 hours of work to clean the 110 picture frames," Bennett says.

On the furniture, Roberts used mineral spirits and various other solvents. Each piece, she says, presented "an independent problem, depending on its finishes and decoration." She instructed volunteers to clean marble table tops with ethyl alcohol on diapers folded in squares, using as few wipes as possible and frequently flipping the diapers over to expose a clean fabric surface. Ethyl alcohol was also the prescribed solvent for bronze sculpture, but workers were advised to use a "light and quick touch" to avoid damaging the art's waxed surfaces. Marble sculpture was treated with a poultice to absorb greasy dirt from the porous material.

The curators went to work on the tapestries. Wark climbed a scaffolding and tackled Francois Boucher's huge wall pieces, while Bennett attended to upholstered chairs. Both curators vacuumed an inch at a time with a hose that was never allowed to touch (and so press dirt into) the fabric.

The final cleaning of textiles has been exceedingly problematic. "We consulted experts all over the country and discovered how little is known about textile conservation," Wark says. "There is no consensus at all. However, we have been assured that once you decide on which treatment to use, the treatment itself is comparatively easy."

"It's essentially a question of whether to use a bath of soap and water or solvent--which requires removing upholstery from the furniture--or applying a type of poultice which would be spread on the fabric to absorb the soot and then removed," Bennett says. The Getty conservators have yet to make a decision.

With the art conservation under way and insurance inspections complete, an anticipated six months' work on the building finally began in earnest in January. Jones Brothers Construction Corp., which built the Huntington's Virginia Steele Scott Gallery for American art, was called in to wash and paint walls and check wiring. The museum was deodorized by filling it with a gas that absorbs the smell of smoke. Workmen then cleaned air-conditioning ducts by cutting holes in them, inserting vacuum cleaner hoses, sucking out the soot and patching up the openings.

Jones Brothers also had to find solutions to esoteric and artistic problems. The decorative plaster molding on the cast-concrete ceiling in the hallway--about 130 feet long, 12 feet wide and 16 feet high--will be recast and affixed more securely than the original had been, and broken plaster capitals of columns must be repaired.

The price of re-creating a 75-year-old mansion and its furnishings can be prohibitive. Wark and Bennett had hoped to replace the 30-year-old frayed drapes instead of just having them cleaned. But at $15,000 per window--the price of all-silk drapes woven by Scalamandre--that wasn't possible. Instead, the curators will hide the tattered inside edges by turning the drapes around.

Confident that "every change will be greeted by a chorus of disapproval," Wark and Bennett are nonetheless planning a few new color schemes (in the dining room and main gallery) along with their daunting task of reinstalling the art gallery.

The midnight disaster has given the staff compelling reasons to carry out "long overdue" renovation, all leading up to the gallery's reopening, expected late this summer. And bright spots are already cutting through the sooty destruction. While on a tour through the museum to observe the restoration progress, Wark fondly examined Michael Rysbrack's sparkling white-marble bust of Oliver Cromwell and announced, "I dare say he has never been so clean."

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