By Tom Dalton
SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum "dodged a bullet" last weekend.
The Saturday afternoon fire at the Ropes Mansion, which investigators say was accidentally started by a painter's heat gun, heavily damaged a third-floor attic and apartment, but left most of the 18th-century Georgian Colonial intact.
Although a glass pitcher broke downstairs, virtually all of the valuable objects and furnishings survived.
"We marveled that there was so little damage," said Joshua Basseches, the PEM's deputy director.
Among the salvaged treasures were a 345-piece set of Chinese export porcelain, a collection of cups, saucers and dinner plates, and nearly 300 pieces of Irish cut glass, including fine wine goblets, tumblers and decanters.
"It is the largest surviving set of table glass and of Chinese export dinner service to survive in America from the early 19th century," said Dean Lahikainen, a museum curator who once lived in the house.
Also intact were pieces of furniture made by Mark Pitman, a noted Salem cabinet-maker who lived across the street.
While firefighters battled the two-alarm blaze, which started around noon, the museum went into action.
As part of a disaster plan, the PEM rapidly assembled a team of conservators, curators and collections staff. As soon as they were allowed inside the 318 Essex St. house, they removed all of the China, glassware, portraits, books, furniture and family papers and took them to the museum for safe keeping.
"I feel through some combination of skill, planning and luck we dodged a bullet," Basseches said yesterday as he led a tour of the house.
The Ropes Mansion, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is special even among the museum's collection of historic properties because it is filled with furnishings collected by several generations of one family over more than a century.
"I think that's what makes it unique," Lahikainen said. "All the objects in there belong to the house. ... Everything in there, belonged to the Ropes family."
Built around 1727, the house was purchased in 1768 by Judge Nathaniel Ropes II, a supreme court judge in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The porcelain and glass were wedding gifts belonging to Sally Ropes, who moved back to the family homestead in the early 1800s after the death of her husband.
The house was bequeathed to the public in 1907 following the death of the last two unmarried Ropes sisters, according to the book "Architecture in Salem." It opened for tours a few years later.
"It is the combination of architectural and social history ... that make this house so important," Basseches said.
Although most everything of value was saved, there was considerable damage to ceiling plaster and reproduction carpets and wallpaper on the first two floors, largely from water used to fight the fire. But almost all of that can be fixed or replaced, museum officials said.
Some textiles and bedding also were damaged.
The PEM sent a large basket of fruit to the Fire Department yesterday to thank them.
During the blaze, firefighters covered furniture and glassware with large tarps and moved objects to the center of rooms or inside fireplaces to protect them. They also did relatively little damage on the top floor.
The Fire Department, a PEM official said, did an amazing job.
"Great is probably the understatement of the century," said Bob Monk, the museum's director of facilities and security. "It's more along the lines of miraculous."
Work crews were busy yesterday clearing rubble and drying out the interior. There were fans and humidifiers going throughout the building. Holes were drilled into a few walls and floors to inject hot, dry air.
The PEM did not have an estimate of the damages, or of how long it will be until the building reopens for tours. The fire started just before it was scheduled to open to the public at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The popular Ropes Mansion garden was closed Sunday, but reopened yesterday. "We know how important the garden is to the Salem public," Basseches said.
Saturday's fire was not the first or worst in the mansion's history.
In 1839, Abigail Ropes burned to death in the house when her dress caught fire. An addition was gutted in 1894 in a fire reputedly started by a disgruntled worker.
The home also suffered a few broken windows in 1774 when it was attacked by a mob of patriots. Judge Ropes was a Loyalist.