Notre Dame brings to mind government fires

For soldiers discharged from the Army between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960, no records exist. The majority of these souls have passed on, but there’s no official proof available to their families of their military service. Hang on to those ribbons and medals.

Why? Some 18 million official military personnel files were destroyed in a legendary fire that started July 12, 1973. The files included millions of Air Force service members’ records too.

At the Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday, the fire department declared the conflagration over in several hours. The St. Louis Fire Department didn’t declare the fire at 9700 Page Boulevard quenched until four days later. The out-of-control phase of the fire lasted 22 hours.

The National Archives and Records Administration calls the fire an “unparalleled disaster.” The agency, to this day, works to try and reconstruct the lost records. And to clean and preserve the millions of records staff members were able to rescue.

Fire has harmed the government many times.  In 1921, a fire in the Commerce Department building destroyed, according to Archives, 99 percent of the 1890 Census records. In the 1980s, the office of the administrator of the General Services Administration suffered a bad fire. The former Interior Secretary’s ornate office had just undergone extensive renovation and was about ready for re-occupation. Contractors left oily rags in the office. They spontaneously combusted and burned out all the renovations. This event has been scrubbed, unfortunately, from the GSA’s official account of its historic headquarters.

That and the St. Louis fires came to mind yesterday while watching the terrible fire in Paris.

In the ensuing 40-some odd years, digitization and the basic concept of storing backups distant from the original records have become standard practices.

Fire has forever been a scourge of that which people want and need to remember. Dolley Madison received credit for rescuing the painting of George Washington when the British set fire to the White House in 1814 ( though later research credits her slave for that bit of heroism).

Firefighters in Paris apparently were able to rush in and retrieve irreplaceable artifacts from Notre Dame, such as the relic Christians believe was Jesus’s crown of thorns. Turns out, the Guardian reported, Notre Dame authorities had a pre-existing plan to rescue art and artifacts in case of a fire. It was a public-private partnership, one might say.

Federal records, perhaps more prosaic, have legal protection girded by some pretty strong rules and procedures. Everything is preserved digitally and backed up. Still, NARA goes to great lengths — sometimes with the help of philanthropic donations — to preserve and protect the originals of the nation’s founding documents.

It’s not as if the texts of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence aren’t written down elsewhere. I keep a copy of the Constitution in my studio here at Federal News Network. But for the millions to visit Washington every year, the dimly lit chamber displaying the real things gives pause. They gaze at an organic connection to the past.

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Just this week, the Archives is displaying the original Emancipation Proclamation. It’s so delicate, Archives only shows it a few days a year and under very low light behind tamper-proof glass. But still, imagine putting your eyeballs so close to Lincoln’s very signature.

Untold millions of copies of the Bible exist in practically every language, yet we’d mourn the loss of a single copy printed by Gutenberg.

Large objects like buildings in some ways are more subject to alteration than documents. Growing up near Boston, I used to love visiting the U.S.S. Constitution,  or Old Ironsides. Only a few shreds of the original wood remain. Everything’s been replaced. It’s like George Washington’s hatchet: First the blade was replaced, then the handle and then the wedge. But otherwise, it’s all original.

The interior of the White House dates not to 1800, when John Adams moved in, but to the  mid-1950s, when Harry Truman and his family had to move out just before the place collapsed. It’s now a reasonably modern steel skeleton building within the older sandstone shell.

For that matter, Thomas Jefferson started planning additions to the White House practically while the original plaster was still damp. But otherwise, it’s all original.

The spire on Notre Dame, falling in a way reminiscent of the World Trade Center, was a 19th-century addition to the 12th century building. Surely the Medieval builders of the cathedral never imagined how continuously their work would be altered for the next 700 years.

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