Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

Restoring Order

How modern fire and life safety technology is being woven into the fabric of America’s historic courthouses


Last year, visitors to the Edgartown District Court building on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts witnessed a rare sight in today’s modern world—court officers pacing the hallways every 15 minutes to conduct fire watch tours of the 161-year-old building.

The practice, common in the 19th century, was a temporary solution devised by then Edgartown fire chief Peter Shemeth after a courthouse fire drill and inspection revealed several severe safety deficiencies. The issues included an emergency exit door that wouldn’t open, an unreliable smoke detection system installed in the 1980s, a lack of audible and visual fire alarm signals, and faulty emergency lighting, according to the Vineyard Gazette newspaper. Shemeth told the newspaper in February 2017 that officers could either conduct the fire watches or the courthouse would close, and he didn’t want to choose the latter. Eventually, the necessary safety upgrades were made and the watches ceased.

The flaws found in the Edgartown courthouse aren’t an anomaly. Across the country, many courthouses built in the 19th or 20th centuries lack robust fire and life safety protection systems such as fire sprinklers and modern fire alarm systems. Often, upgrades to these systems are folded into larger projects aimed at restoring and preserving the historic buildings, and architects face pressure to maintain a structure’s historic look while also incorporating modern fire and life safety technology.

It’s a challenge that professionals in both the historic preservation and safety communities have been able to conquer by devising alternative design methods like those offered in NFPA codes and standards.

Aftermath of the Prince George's County Courthouse fire in Maryland

In 2004, the Prince George's County Courthouse in Maryland burned, resulting in a loss of $8 million and, as one observer put it, "a lot of history gone." Photograph: Getty Images

“One of the things we’re proudest of is taking these buildings, making them safer, making them more usable, while we also restore them to their historic appearance,” said Susan Gammage, an architect and assistant director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP). “Integrating all of the fire suppression systems and other fire safety features is very complex … and the preservation architects and other professionals that work to preserve historic Texas courthouses have done an outstanding job integrating fire suppression and notification systems, providing second means of egress, ensuring the doors swing outward from assembly spaces or primary building exists, and that other life safety measures are included, all with only minimal impact to the historic appearance of the building.”

Why do we save courthouses?

The THCPP, a program of the State Historic Preservation Office in Texas, is one of many organizations, governmental and nongovernmental alike, across the United States that support the preservation of historic courthouses. Affinity for these buildings runs deep almost everywhere. Some enthusiasts even travel the country in search of the oldest and most beautiful courthouses—an activity known as “courthouse tourism.”

“There is a deep cultural attraction to courthouses in America,” Erik Hein, executive director of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, wrote in an email to NFPA Journal. “In many communities, these buildings represent the very best in public investment. They can be the grandest building in town and incorporate the work of local artisans using the best of materials. Prominently located, courthouses can be a symbol of community pride.”

The THCPP, Hein said, is the largest and most well known state preservation program in the country, having risen to popularity with the help of strong public support. In Texas alone, there are 242 county-owned historic courthouses—defined as those that were built 50 or more years ago—still in active government use today. Since launching in the late 1990s, the THCPP has provided almost $300 million in matching grants to counties across the state for courthouse preservation.

GIF highlighting the fire protection elements included in restoring historic courthouses 

HIDDEN PROTECTION During historic courthouse restoration projects, architects work tirelessly to incorporate modern fire and life safety technology with minimal impact to the building’s appearance. Shown here are three examples of either completely concealed or somewhat hidden fire safety features that were added to historic courthouses in Texas in recent years, including concealed fire-resistant curtains, a concealed sprinkler, and painted sprinkler piping. Photo sources for GIF: Getty Images and the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program

It’s this love for old courthouses that seems to drive communities to most often choose preservation over erecting a new, modern building. While there’s little data kept on the total number of courthouse preservation projects happening throughout the country, the web is full of news of projects recently completed, occurring now, or that have been proposed. And while occupant safety is the primary driver for adding modern fire safety elements into these historic buildings, it’s not the only reason.

“What people may not realize about courthouses is that they have archives of your county; that is where the births are recorded, and where the marriages are recorded, and where the deaths are recorded,” former first lady Laura Bush, an outspoken advocate of Texas county courthouse restoration, said in a 2013 interview with Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “With those old archives, those old papers and books, which are easy to be destroyed by both light and temperature, much less by fire, it’s really important to restore those archives and make sure they’re protected.”

Statistics on the amount of historic courthouses in Texas that are still in active government use and that have been restored

Making compromises: history vs safety

Historically, county records were well protected from fire, according to Gammage, the THCPP architect. That’s because the vast majority of courthouses in the U.S., especially ones built before 1940, contain a fire-resistant metal or concrete vault for storing records. “While the rest of the building has beautiful, carved architectural wood trim throughout, these protective spaces are concrete or metal, with windows protected by wire glass or steel shutters, and therefore fireproof,” she said. “Nearly all of the older historic courthouses have some form of fireproof vault.” In some parts of the country, courthouses and jails are legally required to keep records in a fire-resistant vault or similar structure.

More difficult to protect from fire and other hazards are the buildings’ other spaces, such as the hallways, the staircases, and the courtrooms—the places where you find people, not papers.

Number of annual average fires in courthouses in U.S. from 2012 to 2016 is 50 and the annual average loss per fire is $2.2 million

The biggest challenge, Gammage said, is adding modern fire and life safety technology, such as fire sprinklers or extinguishers, to these historic properties without damaging valuable building materials or altering the courthouse’s original appearance. “Imagine that you have a public hallway that needs a fire extinguisher, but the hallway has this unique marble wainscoting that’s five feet high, and now you’re talking about having to cut into that beautiful grained marble that you can’t replace,” she said. “Trying to avoid any permanent damage like that to historic fabric is important and a challenge.”

Gammage said alternative design ideas are continually devised throughout courthouse restorations to provide the necessary safety features while keeping aesthetics in mind. As an example, Gammage said, the Harris County Courthouse restoration in Houston in 2011 included the installation of discreet, fire-resistant curtains that drop down to close off the atrium in case of a fire—a stained-glass dome at the top of the atrium prevented the installation of a smoke evacuation system.

On other projects in Texas, architects have taken steps to minimally affect the courthouses’ historic appearance by using recessed fire sprinklers hidden by escutcheon plates; retractable emergency lighting, the housing of which can be painted to match the walls; and transparent, frameless exit signage. “There is a give and take on both sides to get the building safe and to meet building codes, but also to retain its historic character,” Gammage said.

NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures, gives examples of alternatives like the ones Gammage described in an annex section called “Examples of Compliance Alternatives.”

“Ideally, all piping should be concealed, but this is not always possible because of the structural, architectural, and financial implications of constructing new enclosures in historic spaces that may contain ornamental ceilings or contoured surfaces,” the document reads, alongside photographs of ways exposed piping and sprinklers have been concealed in historic buildings. One such photo shows a sprinkler placed in the center of a decorative ceiling rosette, which makes it look as much an art piece as it is a life-saving piece of technology.

In Ouray County, Colorado—a sparsely populated expanse known as the Switzerland of America because of its rugged mountain landscape—architects and city officials plan this month to begin a years-long restoration of the county’s courthouse, which was built in 1888 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Officials have said that making the courthouse safer is the project’s main priority, but those efforts have already required making compromises with the state organization helping to fund the work.

Outside photo of the Ouray County Courthouse in Colorado

ROCKY MOUNTAIN LAW A restoration of the Ouray County Courthouse in Colorado—wildfire county—will include fire-resistant composite roof shingles. Photograph: Jim Kehoe

“The Ouray County Courthouse has a wood-shingle roof that the State Historical Fund wanted us to keep,” said Marina Skiles, an architect with Charles Cunniffe Architects, the firm working on the Ouray project. “But our area is prone to wildfires. We have a wildfire burning right now actually. So our client, the Board of County Commissioners, requested we replace it with composite shingles that have a much higher fire resistance than the wood ones. We were able to get that okayed by the State Historical Fund, and that was a big deal.” After winning that battle, Skiles said, project leaders then agreed to put the accessible entrance, used by people with disabilities, in the rear of the building, as the State Historical Fund had requested. Typically, such entrances are in the front.

In general, the solutions that architects and safety professionals have developed to preserve history while also meeting fire and life safety requirements have worked—both in courthouses and other historic building preservation projects.

One success story is a 2004 fire that occurred in a four-story, 130-year-old brick building in Brattleboro, Vermont, which had been restored in the 1990s. Although some of the safety features added to the building during the restoration were unconventional compared to modern methods, the solutions the architects came up with for the sake of historic preservation worked, preventing the smoke and flames from spreading to the entire building.

“The [original] doorways to the building’s units had glass transoms and were not self-closing, so that they would not have provided a reliable barrier preventing smoke and fire from spreading into or out of the units,” according to the 2006 edition of “Fire Prevention and Building Code Compliance for Historic Buildings: A Field Guide,” which is published by the University of Vermont and draws heavily on requirements contained in NFPA codes. “Instead of requiring that the doorways and transoms be ripped out and replaced with modern, self-closing, transom-less doors, and thereby destroying the historic character of the building’s hallways, fire safety officials devised a solution that permitted the doors to be retained subject to the addition of automatic door closers, and the transoms to be retained so long as they were backed with plywood. … As fire engulfed the building’s upper stories, the doorways of those units where the transoms had been backed (and where the door closers had not been disabled by human intervention) served as reliable barriers, as intended, and prevented the spread of fire and smoke.” A second restoration has since brought the Brattleboro building back to its former glory.

Things didn’t end as well for the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Maryland when it was struck by fire in November 2004. The structure, built in 1801, burned to the ground while it was in the middle of a $27 million restoration. Investigators traced the cause of the blaze to faulty electrical wiring within some temporary lighting that had been installed by construction workers. According to the Associated Press, the workers had also shut off the building’s fire sprinkler system during the restoration, which allowed the fire to spread unimpeded.

The incident highlights the importance of maintaining fire safety measures during restorations; NFPA 914 says restoration work should include safety measures in NFPA 241, Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations.

The Prince George’s County Courthouse fire resulted in an $8 million loss—one of the largest property loss fires in the nation that year—but when it burned, much more than money was taken; the structure was one of the nation’s oldest courthouses. “It’s a big loss and a lot of history gone,” a teary-eyed law librarian told The Baltimore Sun as she watched the 200-year-old building burn.

Changes Afoot for 2019 NFPA 914

A number of changes are slated for the 2019 edition of NFPA 914, Fire Protection of Historic Structures. First is a change to the code's name to Protection of Historic Structures. Dropping the word "fire" reflects the code's expanding scope to include security concerns in an age where active shooters and other hostile threats are top of mind, according to Greg Harrington, the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 914. The scope of the code will also change to include entire historic districts, Harrington said.

Other changes to NFPA 914 will incorporate requirements from NFPA 3, Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, and NPFA 4, Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing. For more information about NFPA 914, visit the document information page.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: GETTY IMAGES