A weekend fire at the 200-year-old Presbytere on Jackson Square never made it out of the room housing the air-conditioning units whose malfunction sparked the minor blaze, officials said.
And that’s particularly lucky, it turns out, because the building that houses a portion of the Louisiana State Museum doesn’t have a sprinkler system.
Instead it was the quick work of New Orleans firefighters that kept the blaze from doing much damage or turning into the kind of historic disaster that struck the nearby Cabildo more than two decades ago. Museum officials say the building will be reopened within weeks.
The fire began in a mechanical room in the Presbytere just before 1:15 p.m. Sunday when a compressor in one of the building’s chiller units seized up, State Museum spokesman Marvin McGraw said Monday.
Firefighters were alerted by sensors linked to the department and were on the scene within minutes; they had the fire under control by 1:37 p.m. The Fire Department’s headquarters is just four blocks away.
While the fire caused damage to the mechanical equipment and left a lingering smell of smoke throughout the building, there was no damage to any exhibits or valuable items, McGraw said.
“None of the artifacts in the collection were affected. A lot of that smoke was vented on St. Ann Street,” McGraw said.
The damage could have been far worse. McGraw said that while the Presbytere has smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and is up to code, there is no fire suppression system.
“When you look at the cuts we’ve received to the budget — I can’t say this is directly related, but right now there’s no money,” McGraw said.
“In a perfect world, in a best-case situation, we’d love to have a sprinkler system in all our historic buildings,” he added.
A suppression system was installed in the Cabildo after that building was engulfed in flames in 1988. A blaze blamed on a welder’s torch destroyed the building’s third floor and damaged other areas.
It took nearly six years to complete the $8 million effort to restore the building and make other safety improvements required by the fire marshal to the main building and three smaller buildings behind the main structure.
But no similar upgrades were made to the Presbytere, the Cabildo’s twin structure on the other side of St. Louis Cathedral.
McGraw said a temporary air-conditioning system is being installed in the Presbytere, and the museum is expected to reopen within two weeks. A contractor will be selected to do permanent repairs, which are expected to include some kind of remediation for the asbestos in the damaged portion of the building.
“Once the repairs are made, they’ll be made with an eye on ensuring this sort of thing doesn’t happen again,” McGraw said.
The Presbytere was designed in 1791 with the aim of matching the Cabildo, the government building that was being rebuilt by Spanish colonial authorities to replace the previous building on the site, which had been destroyed by a fire.
The Presbytere was originally used as a residence for Capuchin monks and then for commercial purposes before becoming a courthouse in 1834. The building became part of the Louisiana State Museum in 1911.
Both the Presbytere and Cabildo are undergoing about $2.7 million in exterior renovations.
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