Philadelphia’s historic Christ Church tests its fire sprinkler system ahead of renovations

In reaction to concerns about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, the historic Old City church tests its “deluge” suppression system.

The spire of Christ Church in Od City fades behind a cascade of water, part of a fire protection system installed to prevent the kind of calamity that occured at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The spire of Christ Church in Od City fades behind a cascade of water, part of a fire protection system installed to prevent the kind of calamity that occured at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Should a fire ever spark on the roof of the historic Christ Church in Philadelphia’s Old City, it is prepared to mimic the Old Testament’s account of Noah’s Ark, when “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”

The building is equipped with an “open headed deluge” sprinkler system, which when triggered creates an artificial rainstorm on the outside of the building.

The wooden steeple, built in 1754, has about 30 sprinkler heads installed on its surface. In the event of a fire, a dedicated water pump in the basement ramps up, sending potentially thousands of gallons of water up 200 feet, shooting out each nozzle at about 100 psi.

“Deluge” is no understatement. Water rains down hard and fast.  Similar sprinkler systems are often used on industrial buildings.

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“You see it a lot in chemical [buildings], like Ashland Chemical on Columbus Avenue,” said Mike McGovern, of Oliver Fire Protection, which installed this system. “Things where they want full protection right away.”

The system was tested on Wednesday morning after the church rector, Timothy Safford, was himself deluged with phone calls from people asking if what happened on Monday at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris could happen here. He felt a demonstration was in order.

“The other day when we saw the spire fall on Notre Dame, we had that same gut-wrenching reaction. That’s why we work so hard to protect this particular steeple,” said McGovern. “It’s iconic. It’s so meaningful, and it’s always been Philadelphia’s beacon. So we got to keep it.”

It was also time to test the system. Christ Church is about to undergo a $3 million renovation to its steeple, which has started to lean slightly. Also, the original timbers from more than 250 years ago are deteriorating.

“As we learned at Notre Dame, when you have old, dry, rotted wood it’s extremely flammable,” said McGovern. “There will be a large process of taking our old wood and putting in new timbers.”

The renovation will also update the sprinkler nozzles that produce the rainstorm.

The steeple caught fire once, in 1908, from a lightning strike but did not cause extensive damage. A few decades ago this kind of exterior sprinkler system was installed, then updated in 2007. McGovern said it’s time to update it again.

Christ Church was established in Philadelphia in 1695 as an Anglican church and later was instrumental in the creation of the Episcopal Church of America. Its congregants included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, 13 other signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Betsy Ross (who had been kicked out of her Quaker meeting for marrying an Anglican).

Construction of the church began in 1695 and went on for 60 years. One of the last additions was the steeple, at the time the tallest structure in America.

“The keeping of historic buildings is very, very complicated and very, very expensive,” said Safford. “We’re all moved that $900 million has been committed to Notre Dame for their rebuilding. At Christ Church, we use the philosophy of one of our best-known members: ‘A penny of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’”

The interior of the church is protected by its own sprinkler system. While the building is not nearly as large, old, or culturally significant as Notre Dame, Christ Church contains some priceless objects, like the font at which William Penn was baptized. Most of its collection is held across the cobblestone way at Christ Church Neighborhood House.

Safford said an evacuation plan has been created to move any objects into the Neighborhood House should a catastrophe occur in the church.

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