September 13, 2011 — Student residents of the University of Virginia's historic Academical Village will likely find their rooms a little less cozy this winter, after University safety officials prohibited them from having fires in their fireplaces.
Cracks have been found in the many flues and chimneys in the student rooms at the center of the University, according to Michael B. Merriam, associate director of maintenance for Facilities Management. These openings could allow a chimney fire to quickly spread into the roofs over the rooms along the Lawn and the Ranges, where there are no firebreaks.
Black Goose Chimneys, a consulting firm that examined the 106 chimneys, found nearly all to be compromised to some degree and recommended they not be used until the chimneys, flues, fireboxes and dampers are repaired, Merriam said.
While the rooms are equipped with fire and smoke detectors, there is no fire suppression system. The University is weighing whether to permanently end the use of the fireplaces or to repair the flues and chimneys and install fire suppression equipment, he said.
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan is seeking input from Lawn and Range residents about how important the fireplaces are before making a decision, while Facilities Management is seeking repair estimates, Merriam said.
"President Sullivan is concerned about the safety of the students and wanting to preserve the Academical Village," University spokeswoman Carol Wood said. "Since there is no fire suppression in the rooms, this is a huge concern."
Fires in the Lawn and Range rooms have remained part of the University tradition, even though central heat was added in the early 20th century. (Undergraduate students live in the Lawn rooms, while graduate students live along the Ranges.)
"It is a long-established custom to have a fire in the fireplace," said Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam, University historian and a former Lawn resident. "In the early days it started when the rooms were heated by fireplaces. In 'Corks & Curls,' the student yearbook, there were several drawings of students reading by the fireplace, and there are many references to Edgar Allan Poe, who lived on the Range, breaking up his furniture and burning it in his fireplace."
Lawn and Range students have put together a working group on the chimneys. "I believe this issue is very important to Lawn residents," said Reedy Swanson, head Lawn resident and a fourth-year College of Arts & Sciences student.
"Though with the installation of radiators over the years the fireplaces are no longer necessary for heat, they remain an integral part of the student experience of living in the Academical Village," Swanson said. "This year's residents are naturally disappointed at the news that the fireplaces will not be useable, at least at first, but seem to be determined to channel that disappointment in productive ways."
Swanson said he has been working with Lawn and Range residents, including Range chair Jack Thorman, a School of Nursing graduate student, "to examine the options available to us and to draw up a report expressing the preferences of the current residents given the various tradeoffs we have to consider, like the cost of temporary repair and the extent of disruption that construction would have on daily life here. Our group basically works as a liaison between the various offices in the administration that are helping out with this issue and the residents themselves."
Merriam said that group is supposed to report to the president soon.
The chimney flues on the Lawn and Range are made of either stainless steel or a cement mixture, according to Merriam, but the last major work on the chimneys was done in the early 1990s. He said the cement mixture flues are cracked, while the stainless steel ones are corroding from the creosote produced by fires.
The chimneys' deteriorating condition was first discovered while crews worked on the gabled roofs over the student rooms between Pavilions VII and Pavilion IX.
"An inspection of the chimneys found damage in the flues as well as some serious damage to the bricks on the chimneys," said Joseph Lahendro, historic preservation architect with Facilities Management. "In some chimneys, the cracks in the brick lined up with the cracks in the sleeves."
He said inspections of some rooms found that fireplace dampers did not fit securely and some rooms had smoke stains on the mantelpiece, indicating the fireplace was not properly drawing smoke up the chimney.
Lahrendro and Merriam said repairing the chimneys while rooms were occupied would be very disruptive to the residents. The rooms would have to be closed up to keep the dust from escaping, the roofs above the rooms must be removed to allow access to the chimneys, and the rooms must be repaired in groups.
"And that says nothing about a fire suppression system," Merriam said. "We are finishing an engineering study we have been doing on that. We don't know how expensive that would be and where the water lines would run."
Lahendro estimated it would take about three days to repair each chimney, plus additional time to allow the cement mixture to cure and harden.
While the Academical Village's student residents have been allowed to have fires – after training – their faculty neighbors in the pavilions have been barred from burning for about 20 years. Lahendro said the flues in the student rooms are much straighter and easier to clean than the chimneys in the pavilions, which are more complicated and take more circuitous routes.