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Protecting the priceless

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Nick Artim still vividly recalls his high school guidance counselors’ reaction when he first told them of his desire to work at a job that melded his love of history and architecture.

“They said, ‘You’re never going to make money at that,’” Artim recalled.

Well, Artim is currently proving those guidance counselors wrong.

Artim, 50, has quietly become one of the country’s most respected authorities in designing fire protection systems for some of the western world’s most historic homes, libraries, museums and castles. Even if you look real closely, you’d be hard-pressed to see his handiwork — sprinkler heads, smoke detectors and the like — craftily camouflaged within the rafters, banisters or log walls within such iconic structures as Edinburgh Castle in Scotland and the Vermont Statehouse.

“I liked history, and suddenly, I’m in history,” Artim said with a smile.

It wouldn’t have happened but for a twist of fate.

Artim initially took his guidance counselors’ advice to heart and enrolled in an aeronautical training program. But he quickly shifted gears, electing to earn a fire protection degree from the University of Maryland. He reasoned that as a firefighter, he could help protect some of the historic structures he so admired.

While in Maryland, a friend told him of a job opportunity with the Architect of the Capitol’s office in Washington, D.C. That office is responsible to the U.S. Congress for the maintenance, operation, development and preservation of the U.S. Capitol Complex, including the Capitol building, Congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress buildings, the Supreme Court building, the U.S. Botanic Garden and other facilities.

As a lark, Artim decided to apply for the job as chief fire engineer, responsible for the fire protection systems in buildings under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol.

“I though it would be interesting just to get a tour of the U.S. Capitol building,” Artim recalled.

But much to Artim’s surprise, he was offered the job.

“It was one of those dumb-luck scenarios,” Artim said.

He quickly accepted the job. It led to an eventful few years.

“That’s when I really started to get my education,” Artim said. “I ended up with one of the best bosses you could ask for; he demanded that everyone in his office think. You were asked to think about how these national buildings could be protected, without using standard codes.”

While he enjoyed his job, it wasn’t too long before Artim wanted a change of scenery. He and his family moved to Needham, Mass., where he joined a small fire protection consulting firm. Artim soon learned that the contacts he had made in Washington had paid dividends. He was asked to lend his expertise to renovations to the Thomas Jefferson Building (the original Library of Congress building) in Washington.

Once that job ended, he got a call to provide fire protection advice to the National Library of Canada, in Ottawa. That assignment gave him the confidence to strike out on his own. From his home base in Middlebury, Artim has received a steady stream of work advising people throughout the world on how to preserve some of the world’s most important cultural heritage properties. Some of these properties may contain irreplaceable archives, such as historical documents or priceless paintings. And in some cases, it’s the structure itself that can’t be duplicated.

“School buildings and housing projects are usually things that can be replaced,” Artim said. “That doesn’t happen with a cultural heritage project. You can’t replace a Monet, a Degas or the Canadian Constitution.”

Designing fire protection systems for great buildings has required great aesthetic discretion, Artim noted.

When Artim was asked to protect the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif., he made sure to conceal a smoke detecting tube within a handrail in the estate.

He made sure sprinkler heads within the Ahwahnee Hotel at the Yosemite National Park were painstakingly painted the same color as the wall finish in the building.

He recommended that smoke detector and fire suppression systems be placed within copper tubes blended into the logs in a building in the Grand Canyon National Park.

“It’s more than pure engineering; it’s considering human interaction with the space,” Artim said.

Hillsborough Palace in Northern Ireland was one of the trickiest projects with which Artim has had to contend. Representatives of the British royal family warned Artim and his associate that Queen Elizabeth II was very attentive to details.

“They said, ‘The queen doesn’t like to see anything abnormal; she knows every detail of the place,’” Artim recalled.

Artim and his colleague sat on either side of the throne and scanned all the walls and ceilings to determine how they could satisfy the queen’s discerning eye. They did so, in part, by blending sprinkler heads with the very ornate plaster rosettes adorning the ceiling of the throne room.

And while he likes traveling to distant places, Artim has felt particularly privileged to have seen, up close, some of America’s most historically significant buildings. He has worked on the James Madison Home in Orange, Va.; the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Mass.; and the Robert E. Lee Mansion at Arlington National Cemetery, to name a few. He has also helped protect public buildings overlooking some of the nation’s most significant Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields.

“I’m richer, because of that,” Artim said. “Money isn’t everything.”

Understandably, Artim spends a lot of time on the road. But when he’s home, he still finds time to help his community. He is designing a fire protection system for the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. He is leading an ad hoc committee that is analyzing future facilities needs for the Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department.

He also relishes the time he gets to spend with his wife, Diane, and their two children.

“They are the strength of what I do,” Artim said.

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