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Close look at a door hinge in the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, patented Nov. 22, 1887.

Fire Egress at the Library of Congress

We all recently watched in horrified silence as the famed Notre Dame cathedral fire sent dark gray smoke billowing into an otherwise beautiful Paris day. I couldn't help but think of our own famous buildings and their significance to our country. That's the reason many Architect of the Capitol (AOC) employees show up to work every day — to maintain, preserve, clean, polish and restore these historic treasures. Those key roles are often visible to the public, but the AOC also employs experts dedicated to improving fire protection throughout the Capitol campus, ensuring these buildings continue standing for generations to come.

The AOC Construction Division with the support of the AOC Library Buildings and Grounds jurisdiction worked together to complete the Fire Door Improvements project in the Thomas Jefferson Building, improving fire safety within this historic building.

The project required heavy coordination between day shift employees with Library Buildings and Grounds and the Construction Division teams completing the work at night. Teams worked behind the scenes to ensure the least amount of impact to Library of Congress (LOC) operations. Woodcrafters, machinists, painters, refinishers and insulators began their work at 9 p.m. long after visitors and staff had left for the day and diligently worked through the night until 5:30 a.m.

The project included replacing 77 ornate, historically significant stair doors with fire-rated replicas. Additionally, the project improved egress from rooms with high-occupant loads by re-swinging 20 historic doors to open in the direction of egress travel. Many of the re-swung historic doors were 14 feet tall, weighing 275 pounds, and at least 120 years old.

While the stair doors could be replaced with fire-rated replicas, the same could not be said for the original historic frames. A solution to keep the existing frames was finalized during design; it called for filling the voids behind the frames with grout. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the grout would damage the surrounding decorative wall finishes. Construction Division and Library Buildings and Grounds employees worked together to identify an alternative material approved by the fire marshal and LOC collection preservation staff. A substantial cost savings was realized because the alternative approach was easier to install. The project was recently completed on time and under budget — a major accomplishment when working within historic structures.

AOC employees often have two things in common — an appreciation for the historic items they care for and a desire to preserve them for future generations. AOC Fire Protection Engineer Matt Harrison is no different.

Harrison managed the project for the Library Buildings and Grounds and echoes that sentiment, "It's a privilege to work in these historic buildings. There are unique challenges when integrating security, life safety and historic preservation requirements into historic buildings, but I find the work is much more rewarding than identifying common solutions to conventional office buildings."

His fellow Project Manager Bob Bunce from the Construction Division considers himself just as privileged, "This is an amazing place to work. It's easy to lose sight of that when you focus on the day-to-day tasks, but while working on this project, I would leave the Library in the early morning and would look up at the sunrise and see the Capitol, Supreme Court and Library of Congress buildings. It gave me goosebumps to know I'm part of something much larger than myself."

The Process

The entire process for one door from removing to re-installing and applying hardware was about two weeks.

Phase 1 — Removing

Woodcrafters Bob Sheya, Nelson Samuels and Martin Jones carefully remove one of the 120-year-old historic doors, weighing upwards of 275 pounds.

Phase 2 — Retro Fitting

Woodcrafters Bob Sheya and Jose Martinez were tasked with refitting new door hinge locations on existing door frames. The hinge locations on the doors were altered, and the existing locations were filled with wood shims.

Phase 3 — Staining

Painter/Re-finisher Darnell Johnson is shown prepping the door surface for stain after the old hinge locations were filled and sanded.

Phase 4 — Re-installing

Martin Jones and Nelson Samuels maneuver a door through occupied space on its way to being reinstalled. The pathways to and from the door locations had to be carefully planned to allow for the doors to be moved without damaging them or other items along the route.

Bob Sheya installs new hardware as the finishing touch on a finished door.

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