When a fire broke out on the second floor of the Nutt House Hotel earlier this month, the under-renovation historic structure was freshly equipped with some modern-day technology: an automatic sprinkler system.
Tragically, since the hotel was not quite ready to reopen, the sprinklers had not yet been connected to a water source and alarm system.
Had it been, the fire that started on the second floor in the early morning hours while most of Granbury was asleep would have been quickly extinguished by one or two sprinkler heads, according to former Granbury Fire Chief and longtime firefighter Homer Robertson. There would have been some water and sheetrock damage, he told the Hood County News on Tuesday, but the harm likely would have been minimal.
Instead, the beloved hotel, whose former owner, Mary Lou Watkins, is depicted in bronze just across the street by the courthouse, sustained major damage. According to Granbury Communications Manager Jeff Newpher, the cause of the fire has not yet been determined.
Robertson said that Granbury firefighters have long predicted catastrophic fire loss on the square. In addition to his own personal history with the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department, Robertson’s father was the city’s fire chief back in the 1960s and some of his ancestors served as volunteer firefighters dating back to when the Granbury VFD was founded in 1907.
“It was a tragedy,” he said of what happened to the Nutt House. “But it was predictable. And if it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”
Robertson fears that the next time a fire breaks out in a building on the square — and it will, he said — the tragedy will be far greater. Unlike other buildings there, the Nutt House doesn’t abut another structure, and that is what saved other buildings on the square’s north side. The gap next to the Nutt House is because the building that was once there burned, according to Robertson, who retired last summer as executive assistant chief for the Fort Worth Fire Department, where he worked for 37 years.
Robertson said he feels the city should take action to make sure that historic buildings on and perhaps around the square are equipped with automatic sprinkler systems. Doing so would not only protect the buildings, he said, but also the city’s tourism industry.
Automatic sprinkler systems are expensive to install, but those that are properly installed and properly maintained “are 97% effective,” Robertson said.
SOUNDING THE ALARM
Several years ago, then-councilman Gary Couch sounded the same alarm that Robertson is sounding now. As a result of a City Council discussion, a group of city representatives visited Grapevine to learn how that city successfully executed a public-private partnership involving automatic sprinkler systems.
The partnership involved the city bearing the cost of the tap and connection to the city water system, the underground piping to buildings, the riser assembly, the monitoring and alarm system, and the branch line that runs through all of the buildings over the entire length of each block. The private building owners were responsible for the cost of the sprinkler grid system within their individual building spaces.
Most building owners supported the project but a few did not. To ensure full participation, the Grapevine City Council adopted an ordinance in November 2007 requiring that sprinklers be installed within six months of the adoption date.
The Granbury City Council hired Jensen Hughes to conduct a feasibility study. The engineering consultant had prior experience in designing fire protection retrofit projects in historic buildings and had designed the Grapevine project as well as one for Plano.
At the City Council’s regular meeting on Dec. 3, 2019, city officials heard a presentation on the feasibility study from Jensen Hughes representative John Wurts. The study estimated that construction costs would run approximately $1,771,350. With “soft costs” including engineering, architectural design, surveying, and a 5% contingency, the “conservative estimate” grand total was a little over $2 million.
Based on Grapevine’s public-private partnership formula, the city would pay 64% of that figure and private business owners would pay 36%. Grapevine paid the total cost of the project at the outset and relieved the burden on building owners by offering a 20-year, fixed-rate payment plan.
Granbury city staff recommended funding Granbury’s project through a certificate of obligation fund issue if the City Council chose to act.
Council member Trish Reiner, now Trish Burwell, made a motion for the city manager to bring back at a future date a financing package for funding that project and several other projects. Council member Greg Corrigan seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.
However, for whatever reason, the sprinkler system project never went forward.
THE PROBLEM WITH OLD BUILDINGS
Robertson said that buildings on the square are what firefighters refer to as “ordinary construction,” which means that they have masonry walls (in this case, built from “Granbury stone” mined from a quarry that was once at the Reunion Grounds) and floor and/or roof systems featuring a lot of wood.
“The inherent danger of that ordinary construction is it creates a lot of void spaces,” he said. “So, between the first and the second floor, and the roof that could be covered with wood or covered with tin, if fire ever gets in those, it’s very difficult to control.”
He added, “This is not a debate about volunteer firefighters versus career firefighters, or the kind of equipment. This is a debate about automatic sprinklers being in place.”
The Nutt House, which has been closed for several years for renovations, was reportedly just weeks away from reopening. Robertson said there were reasons why the sprinkler system had not yet been connected.
For instance, he noted, water is turned on at the street and is loaded into the sprinkler system. However, since the heat at the Nutt House had not been turned on, there was no way to keep the sprinkler system from freezing.
He said that automatic sprinkler systems are tied into an alarm system and that, had the Nutt House’s sprinkler system been in operation, the fire department would have received a water flow alarm within about 30 seconds of the first sprinkler head activating, he stated.
Robertson said that when an automatic sprinkler system is triggered, “it’s not like you see in the movies.” Only one sprinkler head will deploy, or maybe a couple. It’s not every sprinkler head in the building, he said.
Robertson stated what many already know to be true: Granbury’s historic buildings cannot be replaced.
“So, is it better for us to make an investment now and protect them?” he posed. “How attractive is the square going to be for tourists when it’s not a square anymore, it’s a ‘u’ if you have one side that’s gone, which could easily happen?”
Robertson noted the amount of money spent 15 years or so ago when the county, with help from state grant funds, restored the courthouse. The grant partnership involved mandatory sprinklers. He feels that an automatic sprinkler system should be part of any renovation where older structures in Granbury are concerned.
Robertson noted as well the city’s significant investment in the square, which is considered the community’s crown jewel.
“The city has spent a tremendous amount of money on that square, and they’ve done an awesome job,” he said. “But something we’ve got to remember is, it’s not preserved until it’s protected.”