Wisconsin state capitol fire 1904

An artist's rendering of the Wisconsin Capitol fire of 1904. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

Capitol Stories | How States Are Working to Prevent Destructive Fires 

By Kae Warnock | July 8, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine 

The Minnesota legislature was in session the night of March 1, 1881, when the Capitol was engulfed in flames.

“The Senate chamber was a mass of fire almost before its occupants had reached the outside of the building,” the St. Paul Globe newspaper reported at the time.

Fortunately, no lives were lost and many of the legislative records were saved by senators and staff. The structure had been equipped with several fireproof safes that protected some “valuable tomes [that] were carried out by armfuls …” before the building, including much of the state library and its historical records, were destroyed.

Amazingly, the legislature reconvened by 10 a.m. the next morning in the nearby Market House building in downtown St. Paul. It was never determined definitively how the fire started, though theories of gas light leaks and smoldering cigar butts were both investigated.

Fire has always been an enemy of old buildings, and state capitols are no exception, with at least 25 of them burned down in the 19th and 20th centuries. At least five of Virginia’s pre-independence capitols were destroyed by fire.

Long-lasting fires require good fuel, plenty of kindling and a flue to draw the smoke upward—conditions that abound in historic capitols. Many are decorated in fine hardwoods, house offices filled with paper and are built around rotundas that act as natural chimneys.

Wisconsin’s Capitol suffered a fire in 1904 that nearly led the state government to move out of Madison to another city.

“The fire began when a gas jet used for lighting set fire to recently varnished woodwork in a closet on the second floor around 2:30 a.m.,” Wisconsin Public Radio reported in 2017. “Nightwatchman Nat Crampton was the first to spot the fire, which soon turned into one of the largest in Madison’s history.”

Among those pitching in to fight the blaze was Governor Robert La Follette, who rushed to Capitol Square when news of the fire reached him at home around 4 a.m. “La Follette ran into the burning building and personally directed the effort to save documents, files, books and paintings. Drenched from head to toe, La Follette kept at it for about three hours when a doctor dragged him back to the executive residence to change into dry clothes. He was back within the hour and helped rescue documents in the basement,” according to Wisconsin Public Radio. Firefighters battled the blaze for 18 hours.

Another 22 capitols have survived fires that were extinguished before they totally destroyed the buildings. The Illinois Capitol, in particular, has been extraordinarily lucky over the last century, surviving nine fires—the earliest in 1877. The worst of them, in 1933, took more than three hours to dowse.

Making Old Buildings More Resilient

As stewards of these majestic yet fragile buildings, capitol restoration teams have added fire safety measures and suppression systems to help prevent future destruction.

Portions of the second and third floors of the Idaho Capitol were gutted when smoldering cigarette butts were thrown into a plastic garbage can in 1992. Luckily, the fire was discovered early and the building was saved from extensive damage. A subsequent renovation included the addition of fire suppression systems and accessible fire alarms.

A large fire in the Texas Capitol in 1983 killed one person who was in the building and severely damaged the Senate wing. That year, the Texas legislature created the Capitol Preservation Board to protect the Capitol and other designated buildings.

Michigan’s third and current Capitol was built in 1879 to better withstand fire by using solid masonry walls, floors and ceilings. The protections worked in 1931 when a fire on the ground floor consumed the available fuel (carpet, art and other flammable items) but traveled no further.

Full or partial restorations in more than a dozen state capitols in recent years have included evaluation of and updates to the fire safety measures in the buildings. Since these are iconic properties, every effort must be made to preserve original structural elements, restore historical rooms and protect delicate materials such as plaster or fabric.

Where possible, concealed fire sprinkler systems are installed, but ceilings may be too high in some areas for water to reach a fire before evaporating. Historic spaces and materials can have an impact on what can be added or changed without damaging irreplaceable decorations or structures. Evacuation routes may need to be added or changed, and signage may need to be improved.

Smoke-evacuation systems for rotundas can be a challenge as the fans needed to pull in the fresh air and pull out the smoke are quite large. Rotundas are natural gathering places and often feature temporary art or educational installations that can be quite flammable.

Original wallcoverings can present challenges because they were often made of highly flammable fabrics. During the restoration of the Utah Capitol’s State Reception Room, often called the Gold Room, modern replica fabrics with added fire resistance were used to help protect the room.

A major upgrade to Colorado’s Capitol included the installation of a fire suppression system and improved emergency exits. The original stairs had gone from the basement to only the second floor. By extending those stairways from the upper floors to the basement, project managers provided two new escape routes from the building.

Capitols were often designed to be majestic and draw visitors’ eyes upward. This visual technique can be quite beautiful, but it’s inherently flawed when it comes to fire suppression because large multi-story rotundas are too tall for sprinklers and other traditional fire suppression to be effective. The challenge for capitol restoration teams is to fight fire with forethought, incorporating modern firefighting techniques while considering the delicate nature of these treasured buildings and their contents.

Kae Warnock is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.

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