Damage Reports Begin for Historic Buildings `Moisture Is the Arch Enemy.' Says Official

By Charlene Prost Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 6, 1993 | Go to article overview

Damage Reports Begin for Historic Buildings `Moisture Is the Arch Enemy.' Says Official


Charlene Prost Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The rivers of summer warped wooden floors and ruined refrigeration equipment at Betty Buhr's 100-year-old restaurant building in Bonnots Mill., Mo.

In Alton, water rose nine feet up the first floor of Fred Dirck's pre-Civil War antiques store. Fortunately, he had moved all of his 18th-century furniture to the second and third floors.

In town after town, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers swept through treasured places that document the region's past, back to the French settlement of the 1700s.

Preservation officials in Missouri and Illinois are barely beginning to reckon the damage to more than 100 sites and buildings - including Buhr's and Dirck's - listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That doesn't include untold dozens of unlisted but historically notable houses, churches, monuments and commercial buildings that took on water.

Only when the water drains entirely away will it be possible to assess all the harm to fragile stone foundations and mortar and vulnerable inside walls. Dollar estimates for repair work will come even later.

"I don't think anyone knows yet the extent of the damage," said Claire Blackwell, Missouri's deputy state historic preservation officer, who has been touring flooded historic areas, sometimes by boat.

As the reports come in, Blackwell said, "We are seeing that the damage is more extensive than we thought.

"Any time you have water entering an older building, you have a potential for damage. Moisture is the arch enemy of historic buildings."

Robert Coomer, historic sites supervisor in Illinois, fears that "there will be things showing up for the next couple of years. . . . mortar failures, structural failures."

Still, in its random rampage, the flood spared major pieces of the past. It kept its distance from the wineries in Missouri River's picturesque German towns and left Prairie du Rocher, Illinois' oldest town, alone.

Mark Twain's Hannibal stayed dry, except for one renovated, turn-of-the-century warehouse outside the flood wall.

A sandbag-fortified levee kept the water at bay around all but one of the historic Mormon buildings in Nauvoo, Ill. The exception was the 1840 Nauvoo House, a gem. The basement got flooded only because muskrats burrowed into the levee right behind it, said Roselyn Seaver, site director for the historic center there.

The whole nation seemed to hold its breath while Ste. Genevieve, named one of America's most endangered historic sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, defied the water and, for the most part, won. Water seeped into several of the town's 40 or more French Colonial buildings, most of them private homes.

"Even if two or three of the tour houses are damaged, that would be a major blow to our community," said Bernard Schram, who lives in one of the 18th-century vertical log houses.

Of the casualties, one of the biggest was right across the Mississippi from Ste. Genevieve at Fort de Chartres, seat of French colonial power in the 1700s. Twelve feet of fast-flowing, muddy water swamped all of its 18th-century original and reconstructed stone structures. Structural damage has already shown up in part of the 15-foot-tall stone wall surrounding the fort.

The Mississippi also cut what Mayor Jane Pfeifer called a "tremendous swath of damage" at Elsah. Three feet of floodwater soaked floors, walls and furnishings in 13 of the town's collection of 55 pre-Civil War structures, one of the best in Illinois. Pfeifer worries that their foundations may have been damaged.

In Clarksville, Mo., founded in 1818, half of the nine-block historic area was inundated. Several feet of water rose into the first floor of Landmark House. The Greek Revival-style house, built about 1850, got its name because steamboat captains got their bearings from the white pillars on its front porch. …

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