Fire at Historic Site in Washington County (Pa.) Stresses Need for Life-Safety Systems

WASHINGTON, Pa. – Washington County in southwest Pennsylvania is home to many historic houses and collections that are considered important to the nation’s history. A call to ensure the structures are protected with security and fire/life-safety systems was prompted in the wake of an Aug. 18 fire that destroyed nearly all of the antiques and artifacts housed at the Century Inn in Scenery Hill, which had been in continuous operation for the past 221 years.

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The owner of the Century Inn, Megin Harrington, has indicated she plans to rebuild the stone house on Route 40 that opened in 1794 as a stagecoach tavern, the Observer-Reporter reports. The facility had a fire alarm system that alerted emergency officials to issues in the past; however, on the morning of the fire it didn’t sound for unknown reasons.

Other historical site operators in the area told the newspaper they are reviewing their life-safety initiatives following the Century Inn blaze. 

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For example, the valuable archives at Washington & Jefferson College, which include documents bearing the signatures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are protected in a bunker-like room in the basement of the college library.

No one is permitted to be alone inside the room, to ensure the documents are properly handled and not stolen. It’s further protected by an alarm system that triggers when the temperature there isn’t between 65 and 70 degrees, according to the newspaper’s article.

The Washington campus also has the historic brick and stone McMillan Hall, which is the oldest academic building still in use west of the Allegheny Mountains. A hall there is lined with photographs or sketches of all of the men and one woman who have served as the school’s president, while the lobby boasts chandeliers, a Colonial bentwood railing on the stairway and antique furnishings.

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Old Main, which was built in 1868 at California University of Pennsylvania, is protected with smoke and heat detectors, as well as a sprinkler system, Cal U. spokeswoman Christine Kindl said. All of the buildings on campus have a fire-detection system that sends an alert directly to Cal U.’s police headquarters, where officers are on duty around the clock, she told the newspaper.

The university’s archives are in Manderino Library, a building where alarms sound when materials, including those in the archives, are removed without authorization, Kindl added.

Meanwhile, the Washington County Courthouse, which is often referred to as the “People’s Palace” because of its ornate decor, isn’t protected by a burglar alarm or fire sprinkler system, said Gary Bertosh, the county’s director of buildings and grounds.

The fire extinguishers in the 115-year-old building are being upgraded, and many of the rooms and offices contain smoke detectors that report their locations to a panel when they sound to alert firefighters where to go upon arrival, Bertosh said.

“They work, because they’re working on the elevator, and they keep setting them off,” Court Administrator Patrick R. Grimm said.

Woodville Plantation in nearby Collier Township contains a house with architecture unique to the region and rich ties to the region’s and nation’s history. The 1 1/2-story frame Neville House on the property on Washington Pike was built in 1774 by John Neville, who was a friend of George Washington and became the chief tax collector during the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s protected with a 21-year-old sprinkler system, parts of which are exposed in the attic rooms.The Neville House and its antiques also are protected by an intrusion alarm system.

“We had a break-in two years ago. It deterred the intruders. They didn’t break or steal anything,” said Windhorst, whose organization is affiliated with the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival in Washington. The security measures at Woodville are an expensive priority, he said.

“I think it’s worth it to be able to keep that place for another 200 years,” he told the newspaper.

Most owners of historic houses, even those that are private residences, take many precautions to protect them because they love old buildings, said Sandy Mansmann, a coordinator with the Washington County History & Landmarks Foundation.

“We encourage people to take care of these places. What else can we do?” Mansmann said. “I’m always concerned.”

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