Thursday, May 17, 2001

UK hopes historic 1882 building can be repaired




By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — University of Kentucky officials expressed hope Wednesday that the school's 119-year-old administration building, a school landmark gutted by fire, can be restored to its original state.

        The three-story building, constructed in 1882 and the oldest on campus, was ravaged by a two-alarm fire Tuesday afternoon that claimed most of the roof and the third floor.

        “We do not yet have a complete assessment of what has been burned,” President Charles T. Wethington said Wednesday afternoon. “Obviously, the further up you go, the more damage occurred.

[photo] The top floor and roof took the brunt of fire damage at UK's administration building Tuesday.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “But my first and only thought is to ensure that we are able to rebuild and restore this building.”

        The building was undergoing a $1.3 million exterior renovation that started last fall and was to be completed later this month. It contained administrative offices — including Mr. Wethington's — and records as well as original paintings and other historical items.

        The records inside the building included financial and budgetary records, most of which had been archived elsewhere. No student records were housed there.

        Officials planned to begin document recovery and a damage assessment.

        “Until we have the experts go through and identify damage to computers and records, as well as structural damage, there's no way to put a dollar figure on this,” said George DeBin, the school's vice president for fiscal affairs.

        Firefighters stayed on site overnight to extinguish hot spots. By midday, yellow police tape remained wrapped around the property and the aroma of a day-old bonfire still hung over most of the campus.

        “The top few floors are a total loss and there's smoke and water damage throughout the building,” said Major Mike Bossert of the Lexington Fire Department.

        According to fire officials, a worker was using a propane torch to solder copper eaves on the roof when the fire started. The work apparently ignited old, dry wood rafters in the attic and the fire quickly spread through the attic and into the third story.

        The worker, whose name was not released, suffered first-degree burns but refused hospital treatment, Lexington Fire Chief Bill Holleran said.

        Mr. Wethington, who entered the smoldering structure with fire officials about 8 p.m. Tuesday to retrieve several items from his first-floor office, said the building looked like a “disaster area.”

        “It was an absolute soggy mess,” said Mr. Wethington, who noted that more than 18 inches of water had to be pumped from the university's legal offices in the building's basement. “Everything was soaked and water was pouring down from the ceiling on top of everything.”

        Although documents and equipment were destroyed, several paintings of past university presidents were saved and can be restored, Mr. Wethington said.

        The building did not have a sprinkler system but was scheduled to have one installed during later phases of renovation.

        “The building was on a list to be sprinkled but it was not of the same priority as other buildings, including the residence halls,” university fire marshal Garry Beach said.

        Mr. DeBin said university officials are working with the project's contractor, Midland Engineering of South Bend, Ind., on insurance and liability issues. Engineers are expected to complete an assessment within the next several days on whether the building should be reconstructed or razed and replaced.

        “The good news is that the structural damage we've seen so far is not significant enough to make us feel we've lost the entire building,” said Dall Clark, director of capital project management.

        Messrs. Wethington, DeBin and others whose offices were in the administration building were relocated in temporary offices on Thursday.

        The administration building sits on a small hill, at the top of a long, arcing drive. It was the dominant structure of the university's original campus, which includes an adjacent armory.

        A small plaza on one side of the administration building contains a statue of the university's first president, James Kennedy Patterson.

        At the time of its construction, the building was valued at $81,000. Originally called the Main Building, it provided space for all university functions including chapel, armory, academy, literary societies and geological survey.

        “It's sickening and unbelievable,” said Brenda Rice, who has worked in the building for 22 years. “I'm still in shock. It feels like a part of me is gone.”

       



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