Old Christ Church in Philadelphia gets sprinklered

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

PHILADELPHIA--Old Christ Church closes this month and next while Oliver Sprinkler Company completes phase one of a fire safety project.
A fine example of Georgian architecture and the tallest building in America until 1856, the 250-year-old church is abutted by a burial ground is where Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried.
A December 2004 fire in the tower room brought fire safety to church administrators' attention, and a preservation study of the church confirmed their concerns.
"A specialist did a 20-year plan," said Don Smith, head of the Old Christ Church Preservation Trust. "It quickly became very obvious that the number one concern is fire safety."
At close to $1 million, the price tag to update all fire systems was daunting, so it was decided to do the improvements in two parts.
Initial improvements will take two months and will cost $480,000. The church received a $100,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places. The remainder will come from church fund-raising efforts, Smith said.
Oliver Sprinkler Company, of King of Prussia, Penn., will replace and upgrade the sprinkler system in the tower room and basement and update the electrical system.
They also will run a new water line into the building. "We had to coordinate with the city to remove the historic cobblestone street in front of the church, remove and store each stone, install pipe and then put it all back together, stone by stone," said Brian Dixon, sales representative for Oliver Sprinkler Company. "We are expected to restore the street to the exact condition or better than we found it."
To replace the nearly 80-year-old fire pump from the 20-by-25-foot dirt-floored church basement, Oliver will remove a small portion of the floor and erect a small interior crane to lift out the old equipment and lower in the new.
"What makes this job so very difficult is that they have this phenomenal organ built into the church; all of the work has to be done around the organ," Dixon said.
Because water cannot be used near the organ, the second phase will include the installation of a chemical fire suppression system.
The main body of the church will be sprinklered between January and March of 2008.