Quakes! Hurricanes! Keeping Historic Treasures Safe

by Mandy Katz, Communications Officer

When it shakes, it pours?

Tudor Place damage from the earthquake was 
limited mainly to cracks in the plaster. But what 
does Hurricane Irene hold for us?

Tudor Place Executive Director Leslie Buhler must have nerves of steel. Barely had she and staff finished assessing the impact of yesterday’s earthquake, when she dashed off this email: Although the exact path and intensity of the storm when it reaches here is not known, I think we need to begin preparations.

Plans for Hurricane Irene, expected this weekend, include moving exterior potted plants away from windows and stowing lighter lawn furniture, according to Suzanne Bouchard, our director of gardens and grounds. In the historic house, shutters and blinds will be closed and objects removed from window areas.  Absorbent towels are going down in the basement, bomb shelter, and other areas possibly prone to water infiltration.

No such precautions were possible before the Spotsylvania fault suddenly shifted Tuesday, shocking the  region.  Tudor Place and its contents are fine, thank goodness. It apparently takes more than a little 5.8-Richter jostling to perturb what the Peter family and architect William Thornton erected in 1816. Our buildings, grounds and collections suffered no new cracks or damage, amazingly — from Martha Washington’s tea table, to Arts & Crafts vases, to the Pierce-Arrow’s hood ornament, everything’s intact.

Well, everything but this:

A few stone shards fell from the chimney of our administration building, a stately 1867 townhouse adjacent to Tudor Place’s north garden. (Note: This is why earthquake experts advise standing away from buildings if a temblor finds you outdoors.)

In a quake, avoid taking cover alongside buildings!


A somewhat random check of fellow house museums finds our Georgetown neighbors at Dumbarton House unscathed and open for business. Across the river, in Virginia, Alexandria’s Gadsby’s Tavern is closed for several days, its chimneys’ having shifted. At Carlyle House, “John Carlyle’s 40 prints decided to rearrange themselves on the walls,” but no further damage was found, Director Sarah Coster reports. In Maryland, Riversdale Historic House is fine, but elsewhere in the Prince George’s County Park system, Mt. Calvert will need a new chimney and Marietta’s original structure may have separated from its new wing. At Beall-Dawson House in Rockville and Bowie’s Belair Mansion, damage was minor, but the words “plaster repair” did cross a few lips.

No sooner had we recovered from all the shaking and quaking, than this inbox arrival caught our eye: PROTECTING COLLECTIONS: DISASTER PREVENTION, PLANNING & RESPONSE, a seminar for museum professionals, sponsored by the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts.

Time stamp on the email? About three hours before the quake.