Blog – Catastrophe Response, Disaster Recovery, Document Recovery

Restoring Historic Properties to their Former Glory after a Natural Disaster

Historic properties are just as vulnerable to natural disasters as homes and commercial buildings. In addition to detailed artisanship, historic properties often store invaluable documents and art with cultural significances that may be irreplaceable if the building experiences a flood, fire or structural failure. By having a disaster plan and working with a General Services Administration-, or GSA-, certified contractor, you can salvage damaged items and minimize cultural and financial losses.

Steps to Take Immediately Following Disaster

The first steps that you take after a natural disaster are crucial. As these situations are undoubtedly stressful, knowing the salvage priorities in advance will help you stabilize wet and damaged documents in a timely manner.

After a disaster, turn off the gas, water and electricity before entering the building. Then consult with an engineer to make sure the structure is safe to enter. As you plan to inventory the damage, work with a partner to create a suitable area to hold documents and art that need drying or restoration. This area will need items such as drying stations for air-drying documents and pallets for stacking items that you’ll freeze off-site.

When inventorying the damage, begin with the highest priority items. These items include those that are:

  • Most damaged
  • Most valuable
  • In immediate danger of becoming damaged
  • The most vulnerable to damage that may occur
  • Least damaged, but in a compromising setting
  • In the closest proximity or most accessible

Maintain Preservation Standards

In historic properties, restoration and repairs are generally better than replacements because of the historical significance of items and the cost or ability to find matching replacements. A GSA-certified contractor will work with you to:

  • Leave damaged ornamental materials in place, if possible
  • Salvage ornamental metals from damaged ceilings, walls, floors, doors and windows
  • Salvage as many pieces of art as possible after consulting with the Regional GSA Fine Arts Officer

Salvaging Historical Documents

The best way to salvage wet documents depends on the material type. A GSA-certified contractor may recommend that you do the following to minimize damage until restoration specialists arrive:

Papers and Manuscripts

  • Stable media: Interleave between folders using paper towels. Place the materials in milk crates and freeze- or air-dry them within 48 hours.
  • Media with soluble inks or friable media (chalks or pastels): Interleave the documents between folders, but do not blot. Place the media in milk crates and immediately freeze- or air-dry it.
  • Parchment and vellum manuscripts: Interleave the document between folders and immediately freeze- or air-dry it. However, do not freeze-dry illuminated or gilded manuscripts.

Plans and Maps

  • Stable media: Place maps in map drawers or flat boxes. Freeze- or air-dry the maps within 48 hours.
  • Soluble media: Pack it as if it were stable media, but do not blot the documents. Immediately freeze- or air-dry the maps.
  • Drafting linens and maps on coated papers: Pack the materials in plastic-lined containers, interleaving between folders. Immediately air- or freeze-dry wet drafting linens. Freeze-dry maps on coated papers.


  • Pamphlets and general books: Pack books one layer deep with the spine down in milk crates, using freezer paper between each book. Avoid opening or closing the books, or separating book covers. Vacuum-, freeze-, or air-dry the books within 48 hours.
  • Books with leather or vellum bindings: Pack the books into milk crates as you would general books. If you only have a few books, immediately air-dry them. Otherwise, freeze-dry the books.
  • Periodicals and books with coated papers: Pack the media in milk crates lines with garbage bags. Immediately freeze-dry the documents.

Art on Paper

  • Stable media: Avoid separating single sheets if the papers are wet and stuck together. Interleave the art and pack it into milk crates. Use map drawers or large boxes for oversized pieces. Vacuum-, freeze-, or air-dry within 48 hours. With oversized prints, it’s best to freeze-dry wet pieces.
  • Framed drawings and prints: Remove the frame and mat if possible. Pack the art as you would stable media and freeze- or air-dry it within 48 hours.
  • Soluble media (i.e., watercolors, hand-colored prints or soluble inks): Pack the art as you would stable media, but do not blot it. Immediately air- or freeze-dry.
  • Coated papers (i.e., posters): Immediately freeze-dry coated papers in containers lined with garbage bags. If air-drying the art, separate and interleave the pages.

Plan, Prepare, Preserve

When you work with a GSA-certified contractor, like the Polygon, the technicians will evaluate the damaged documents and art before beginning the drying and salvaging process. Drying techniques include air drying, dehumidification and vacuum freeze-drying. The specialized techniques not only dry wet media, but also help prevent further damage. If necessary, the technicians may also clean documents using gentle methods that ensure the preservation of the works.

The best recovery efforts are backed by a comprehensive preparedness plan. Such plans help identify risks and detail action steps to complete after a disaster, which will save an organization time, stress and money. To learn more about creating a disaster plan or salvaging your historic property after a disaster, get in touch with Polygon today.


Photos by Leeann Cafferata and Alexandre Dulaunoy via CC license.

Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy

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