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Artim protects presidential home

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Posted on November 10, 2011 |
By John Flowers



Monticello.jpg
PRESIDENT THOMAS JEFFERSON’S Virginia home, Monticello, recently got a new system to better protect it from potential fires. Middlebury resident Nick Artim, a fire prevention specialist, designed the system.

MIDDLEBURY — Nick Artim owns a lot of pictures of the many buildings he has helped equip with state-of-the-art fire protection services. Those buildings range from small bed-and-breakfasts to large national museums.

But those who want to get a glimpse of his latest project — work that Artim considers the pinnacle of his 32-year career — just have to pull out a $2 bill.

There, on the back of the currency, is a picture of Monticello, the stately and historic Charlottesville, Va., home of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the U.S.

Artim, a Middlebury resident and selectman, has spent the past two years engineering fire protection and security systems for Monticello, one of the nation’s most historically significant landmarks.

He’s not sure if anything will top his latest project.

“I have been joking that it’s time to change careers, because I don’t know what I’m going to do after this one,” Artim said.

Expressing doubt that any project in his future might top Monticello in terms of historical significance is saying a lot when one looks at Artim’s résumé. His portfolio features fire protection work at several other presidential homesteads, including those of Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and James Madison.

It was during a public talk at the Smithsonian Institute about his work on the James and Dolly Madison home that Monticello’s director of security asked Artim if he would be interested in assessing fire and security needs in Jefferson’s former home.

Artim accepted quickly.

“One doesn’t say ‘no’ to going to Monticello,” Artim said.

An initial inspection revealed that Monticello indeed needed some substantial improvements to better protect it from potential fire or intrusion, Artim said. He noted the building’s systems had not been appreciably upgraded for the past 60 years. The building is equipped with a conventional sprinkler system that is decaying, Artim noted.

“It was long overdue,” he said of the fire and security updates.

But an update was easier said than done.

Dealing with a building of such historical importance that draws more than 500,000 visitors per year, Artim had to think extra carefully about how his proposed upgrades could be absorbed into the structure as seamlessly as possible.

“There was a period of evaluation and a period of engineering that was highly detailed,” Artim said.

He drew up his plans in consultation with Monticello’s historian, director of security, facilities manager, local fire officials and the historical site employees who lead tours through the building.

“We needed to place components where visitors wouldn’t necessarily see them,” Artim said.

That meant working within the parameters of a stately building that was constantly updated with architectural flourishes that a well-traveled Jefferson borrowed from other countries and ordered for his own estate. Work began on Monticello in 1768 and continued until Jefferson’s death in 1826.

Artim said it was clear Jefferson “changed his mind a lot” when it came to the evolving design of Monticello. The structure features bricks with odd cuts and some oddly placed mortise and tenon joints that indicate shifts in construction plans.

“This building tells a story,” said Artim, a self-described “student of history who happens to be an engineer.”

He spoke of being in awe while walking past many of Monticello’s treasurers, including Jefferson’s eyeglasses, books, harpsichords, pianos, proclamations and artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark. The bed in which Jefferson died also remains in the house.

“Jefferson was an amazing individual,” Artim said.

For two years, Artim worked with Monticello officials to engineer a fire protection system that will be second to none; he compared it to the delicate system on a famous cruise ship. 

“This is the best of the best,” Artim said. “It is what Cunard uses to protect the Queen Mary.” 

The smoke detection system will be able to alert on even the tiniest smoldering electrical wire. The sprinkler system will be pressurized in a manner that will effectively douse a fire with less water than the norm, thereby increasing the survival chances of historic documents and furniture.

“The sprinkler system will have multiple orifices,” he said. “It will scrub the smoke, knock down the fire and prevent heat from spreading through the building.”

Monticello is owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which commissioned the $500,000 project, expected to be completed by next March. Artim said the carefully selected contractors will begin installing the systems gradually, first in the non-public parts of the building, so as to minimize inconveniences for visitors. The more visible work, on the main floor, will likely occur early next year at a time when Monticello does not see as much traffic.

Those who visit during the repairs might find it interesting, Artim said.

“The people who come to this building value it,” he said. “The fact that there will be some open walls and noise isn’t going to bother them.”

And who knows what contractors might find when they become the first people to glimpse inside Monticello’s walls in more than 200 years.

“This house was built by slaves,” Artim said, alluding to one of Jefferson’s — and the nation’s — inglorious practices of the era. “I don’t know what things they might have tucked in there.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisoinindependent.com.

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