MARBLEHEAD — The fire that hit the Eastern Yacht Club last June 12 might be classified as an accident, but the rescue of all the valuables inside — the paintings, the trophies and model ships — that was no accident.
It was the result of careful planning by the Marblehead Fire Department for a town chockablock with historic and artistic treasures.
Grateful yacht club officials, past commodores Bob McCann and Frank Morse, went before the selectmen last week to present Chief Jason Gilliland with a plaque thanking him for the rescue of so many irreplaceable objects.
“The Marblehead Fire Department saved our building from what might have been total devastation,” Morse said. As the structure burned, fire crews carried numerous valuable paintings outside and, as the conflagration was on upper floors, they covered “beautiful ship models” with waterproof tarps.
It all happened, Gilliland told the News, because his firefighters are keenly aware of Marblehead’s rich heritage.
“We do pre-planning,” he said. Capt. Daniel Rice coordinates, visiting sites, conferring with the occupants, noting where dangers exist as well as where there might be priceless objects.
“He’ll walk the building,” Gilliland said. “They discuss it face-to-face.”
Historic Abbot Hall is a prime example. Rice has met with members of the Historical Commission. He’s learned which paintings are particularly valuable. Removing these becomes the priority. In addition, he knows how to get them out, having established, for example, where a given painting is attached to the wall.
Abbot Hall houses the original Archibald Willard painting “The Spirit of ‘76,” first exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Large, enclosed in a Plexiglas case, it’s an American icon and arguably the town’s most beloved possession.
“Do you pull the whole thing out of the case?” Gilliland asked. “Do you cut it out?” Pre-planning tells responding firefighters the best way to deal with it, as well as numerous surrounding works of art and displayed documents like the town’s 17th century deed.
Abbot Hall is only the beginning. Artifacts can be found in a succession of 18th century buildings: the Old Town House and top-floor Grand Army of the Republic room, and the Hooper Mansion. The hall wallpaper at the Lee Mansion, Gilliland notes, would be protected, as it is original to the 1768 construction and beyond price.
There are also private residences where the department has been alerted to artworks or historic artifacts. Taking care of property is department policy, Gilliland stressed. Windows aren’t broken if they can simply be opened.
Of course, he added, the primary duty is to extinguish the fire. In some instances personnel cannot be spared to rescue objects. Safety is also a factor. The participation of up to 45 firefighters, many from surrounding communities, freed manpower to save the Eastern treasures last June.
For his part, Morse has belonged to the club 60 years. In September, he noted, grateful members invited firefighters and their families to a club cookout. There’s also gratitude for the town departments that have eased the way to restoring the building. The harbor side of the club operated all summer and the rest could reopen by May.
That night, Morse watched flames climb to the top of the building.
“It was clearly a catastrophic fire,” Morse said.
There was relief knowing everyone was out, but he remembered the art, including a cherished work by painter Montaque Dawson, a depiction of ships at sea. Thanks to Marblehead’s firefighters, they continue to sail.