Volumes of water, not damage

Relics rescued after pipe burst at famed library

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 26, 2011

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In the hush of the Boston Athenaeum’s stately main floor, amid marble sculptures and bound volumes, overlooking a 17th-century graveyard, winter’s cold seems to melt away.

But on Monday afternoon, the extreme temperatures made a rude entrance into the serene Beacon Hill library, becoming the likely culprit behind a major water break that deluged relics and forced the historic institution’s temporary closure.

Around 3 p.m., water burst from the ceiling just off the main hall, causing ankle-high flooding that soaked books and several large Oriental rugs, and damaged antique wooden furniture.

“It was like Niagara Falls,’’ Athenaeum director Paula Matthews said yesterday morning, as she oversaw the second day of cleanup efforts.

Water splashed a number of paintings and seeped through the floor to the book stacks below, damaging more than 1,000 volumes. Specialists were called in to freeze-dry the books, many of which date back centuries, to minimize the damage.

The five-floor building was quickly evacuated, and firefighters arrived within minutes to shut off the water. Cleanup crews and library staff then worked well past midnight to remove artwork and books from the flooded areas, and protect books in the basement from further damage.

The private, members-only institution, founded in 1807, holds 600,000 volumes, most of which are in circulation. Chief conservator James Reid-Cunning ham said he believed the damaged books, which range from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, would be salvaged.

“I don’t expect any volumes to be ruined,’’ Reid-Cunningham said. “They were gotten to very quickly.’’

The Beacon Street library has a popular reading room and children’s collection on its main floor, which features portraits, sculptures, and displays of historic documents, and regularly holds poetry readings, films, and other social events.

Library officials said they are not certain about what caused the leak, but were told by fire officials it was probably a burst pipe brought on by the unusual cold. Matthews said the damage would cost “tens of thousands of dollars.’’

“It was like a fire hose,’’ Reid-Cunningham said. “It was running down in dozens of places.’’

Officials canceled this week’s events and hope to reopen early next week.

Updates will be available at the library’s website,

Matthews and Reid-Cunningham said they were grateful the break happened when the library was open, which allowed a quick response, and relieved it didn’t affect the most valuable volumes in the library’s collection on the upper floors.

Those books, which number around 100,000, are rare and considered a trove for scholars and researchers.

Its collection is particularly strong in Boston and New England history, and English and American literature.

“This could have been spectacularly worse,’’ Reid-Cunningham said. “We really dodged a bullet.’’

The library has had leaks in the past, but they were far less serious, officials said. The library is insured.

Yesterday, as crews continued their cleanup efforts and staff surveyed the damage, Paul Sullivan read in a chair near the front desk. A regular visitor to the library’s periodical section, the 85-year-old was disappointed to hear about the flooding, but impressed by the pace of the cleanup.

“Remarkable job,’’ he told Matthews.

With crews bustling around him, he quietly read “The Axe and The Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages.’’

“It’s pretty good,’’ he remarked.

Peter Schworm can be reached at