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THEATRES


^^

THEIR S \FETY FROM FIRE AND


PANIC


THEIR COMFORT AND HEALTHFULNESS


WILLIAM PAUL GERHARD, C.


E.





THEATRES

THEIR SAFETY FROM FIRE AND PANIC,
THEIR COMFORT AND HEALTHFULNESS



THEATRES



THEIR SAFETY FROM FIRE AND PANIC,
THEIR COMFORT AND HEALTHFULNESS



BY

WILLIAM PAUL GERHARD, C. E.



cr ror



Consulting Engineer ror Sanitary Works

Member of the American Public Health Association

Corresponding Member of the American Institute of Architects

Honorary Corresponding Member of the British Fire Prevention Committee

Author of" Prevention of Fire," " Theatre Fires and Panics:

Their Causes and Prevention," Etc., Etc.



BOSTON, MASS.
BATES & GUILD COMPANY

1900



COPYRIGHT

BY

BATES & GUILD COMPANY
1900



PRINTED AT

THE EVERETT PRESS

BOSTON



PREFACE.

THE question of safety in the theatre is
one of paramount importance, and though
the subject has been often discussed, there are
good reasons why it seems well to bring it up
from time to time. Next to the question of
safety from fire and panic, the comfort and
healthfulness of theatre buildings require more
attention than is usually bestowed upon them.

The matter forming the first part of this
book was first contributed by the author, by
request, to the publications of the British Fire
Prevention Committee ; a condensed abstract
of the second part was written originally for
Appletons Popular Science Monthly.

The object of the book is to put the matter
into more permanent form, and to thus ren-
der the same accessible to a larger class of
readers.

THE AUTHOR.

36 UNION SQUARE, New York.
March, 1900.



257880



CONTENTS.

I. SAFETY FROM FIRE AND PANIC.

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS.

MEANS TO PERMIT THE AUDIENCE AND THE STAGE
PERSONNEL TO ESCAPE IN CASE OF FIRE OR PANIC.

MEASURES TENDING TO PREVENT AN OUTBREAK, AND
FOR QUICKLY DETECTING AND SIGNALING A FIRE.

MEASURES TO PROTECT THE AUDIENCE FROM FIRE AND
SMOKE.

MEANS FOR THE PROTECTION OF THE STAGE PERSON-
NEL.

MEANS FOR LOCALIZING AND RESTRICTING A FIRE ON
THE STAGE.

MEANS FOR SAVING LIFE.

MEANS FOR FIGHTING OUTBREAKS OF FIRE.

MEANS TO GUARD AGAINST PANIC.

CONCLUSION.

II. COMFORT AND SANITATION.

UNSANITARY CONDITION OF THEATRES.

VENTILATION OF THEATRE BUILDINGS.

MODERN SYSTEMS OF THEATRE VENTILATION.

DETAILS OF VENTILATING SYSTEMS.

METHODS OF HEATING.

LIGHTING.

FLOORS AND FLOOR COVERINGS.

WALLS AND CEILINGS.

FURNITURE.

ACTORS' DRESSING-ROOMS.

DRAINAGE AND PLUMBING.

WATER SUPPLY.

REMOVAL OF REFUSE.

CLEANING, DUSTING, AND SWEEPING.

PERIODICAL SANITARY INSPECTIONS.



THEATRES:

THEIR SAFETY FROM FIRE AND PANIC, THEIR
COMFORT AND HEALTHFULNESS.



i.

SAFETY FROM FIRE AND PANIC*

Man pfercht das Brennlichste zusammen,
Da steht's dann alsobald in Flammcn.

Wolfgang von Goethe, Xenien.

IN the following, I will discuss briefly the
question of personal safety in theatres. I
am well aware of the fact that the ground has
been gone over so thoroughly by competent
writers as to leave hardly a possibility of mak-
ing any new or promising suggestions, yet I
hold that some good must come from agitating
the question over and over again. It is a mat-
ter of common observation that when a serious
fire disaster has occurred whether in a ho-
tel, an asylum, a dwelling, or a theatre the

* This essay was originally prepared as a paper for the Publications of
the British Fire Prevention Committee in London. The editor of the pub-
lications, Mr. Edwin O. Sachs, wrote the following comments upon the
paper, which I quote from the preface to the English edition :

" . . . The paper which the Executive presents in this publication
must rank among the most important so far issued, for not only is the sub-
ject deserving of very serious consideration, but the very name of the
author commands the full attention of all concerned in fire prevention
throughout the world. Mr. Wm. Paul Gerhard is the leading authority



2 THEATRE BUILDINGS.

press for a while takes up the subject and dis-
cusses means and remedies, while the thor-
oughly alarmed and frightened public stays
away from those theatres or hotels the repu-
tation of which from a safety point of view is
doubtful. It is, unfortunately, the rule, how-
ever, that as soon as the first excitement sub-
sides, the general interest ceases, and after a
very short interval things begin to go again
the same way as before, and safety measures
or precautions against the well-known dangers
to life and limb in such structures are either
neglected or forgotten.

In this question history truly repeats itself,
and to quote but a few instances, let me recall
the numerous suggestions for theatre reform,
the flood of plans, pamphlets, newspaper arti-
cles, and the revisions of theatre ordinances,
etc., which came forth immediately after the
calamity of the Ring Theatre fire in Vienna,
in December, 1881; or the sentiment in favor
of better means of safety which was aroused
by the theatre fire at Exeter, in September,

in the United States in matters of theatre safety, and has been fighting an
uphill battle 6f theatre protection for many a long year. His writings are
well known to all concerned, and have not only served as a guide to the
legislators of his own country, but also in the ' Old World.'

"That Mr. Gerhard should now as an honorary corresponding
member of the Committee have contributed so courteously to our pub-
lications is a matter of congratulation, and I need scarcely express the ap-
preciation of the Executive of the value of the assistance given, otherwise
than to indicate that we also look upon Mr. Gerhard as an example to his
fellow corresponding members, in respect to the assistance given in our
work. ..."



GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS. 3

1887, in England ; or the intense public excite-
ment following the deplorable disaster of the
Paris Charity Bazaar fire, in May, 1897; or
finally, the horrors of the recent catastrophe of
the burning of the Windsor Hotel, in New
York, which occurred in the afternoon of St.
Patrick's day, March I7th, 1899, and caused
the loss of many lives. In every instance men-
tioned and these instances might be multi-
plied indefinitely the public excitement
which followed the casualty did not last more
than a few weeks.

Now I hold that the subject is too impor-
tant to be dismissed so soon from our thoughts.
The interest in this grave question should, on
the contrary, be kept up and maintained, and
measures of safety agitated, until all dangerous
public buildings are either made perfectly safe
or are closed up. Owners or managers of the-
atres, in particular, must be given to under-
stand that their highest duty toward the public
lies, not in giving them attractive perform-
ances, but in providing absolute safety to the
public while assembled in their buildings.

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS.

To begin with, let me state that I shall con-
fine my remarks to a consideration of safety
measures for the theatregoers and the per-
formers and stage-hands. I shall leave out of
consideration the question of the safety of the



4 THEATRE BUILDINGS.

building, in other words, the subject of pro-
tection of property from fire, except in so
far as the safety of the building incidentally
helps to increase the safety of the people as-
sembled, during a performance, on both sides
of the curtain. The safe construction of the
building and measures tending to reduce the
immense losses due to the destruction of such
buildings by fire are no doubt desirable, but
compared with the problem of how to avoid
the terrible loss of life due to theatre-fire ca-
lamities, they are of secondary importance only.
Besides, the matter of safe construction has
been well and thoroughly discussed in numer-
ous excellent treatises of which I would only
mention the recent standard work by Mr. Ed-
win O. Sachs, on" Modern Theatres and Opera
Houses." Another reason why stress will not
be laid upon fire-resisting construction, and
which will be brought out in what follows, is
that incombustible or fire-proof construction,
per se, cannot and does not absolutely prevent
theatre-fire disasters. For instance, an ill-
planned theatre, having its exits badly arranged
or insufficient in number, may, in case of a real
or false alarm of fire, prove a veritable death-
trap, though its construction may be thor-
oughly fire-proof; and vice versa, a theatre
which is combustible, which has wooden stair-
cases, and which lacks fire-extinguishing appli-
ances, may yet be so planned and arranged as



GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS. 5

to afford the public perfect means for quick
escape from smoke and fire, and therefore be
the safer of the two. This instance indicates
clearly that there are other safety measures of
much more importance than fire-resisting con-
struction.

A study of the principal causes of theatre
fires and panics and of the dangers which arise
in such cases should form the basis of the sub-
ject of prevention. It also offers the best clues
for the essential requirements to be insisted
on for the protection of theatregoers and per-
formers.

According to the carefully compiled statis-
tics of Mr. Foelsch and Mr. Sachs, 207 fires
out of a total of 401 of which the cause could
definitely be ascertained, or somewhat over fifty
per cent, had their origin either on the stage
or near the stage in the stage part of the build-
ing. The causes of these fires were defects
in the gas installation, unprotected gaslights,
careless or defective arrangements for the light-
ing up of the gas, defects in the heating appa-
ratus, fireworks, lamps, explosions, firing of
guns, and defects in the electric light installa-
tion. Therefore, the stage in a theatre is the
point where the majority of fires break out,
and the stage construction, the scenic appara-
tus and its lighting, require above all to be im-
proved and made safe, if theatre fires are to be
reduced in frequency.



6 THEATRE BUILDINGS.

When Mr. Foelsch 's first paper on "The-
atre Fires " was published, in 1 870, he had col-
lected statistics of 130 fires; when his book
came out in 1878, it contained a record of 523
fires ; the appendix to his book, issued in
1882, increased this number to 631, and in his
last essay on theatre fires, published in 1889,
he enumerated 936 fires. Mr. Edwin O. Sachs,
who continued the work of Mr. Foelsch, pub-
lished in 1897 a list of 1,115 theatre fires (up
to May, 1897).

In his last book, " Reminiscences from the
Life of a Civil Engineer," Mr. Foelsch gave
the following statistics, in intervals of six
years :

From 1841-1846 occurred 32 theatre fires.



1847 1852

1853-1858
1859-1864
1865-1870
1871-1876
1877-1882
1883-1888


4i
4
4 1

82

9 6
< 161 "

< 215 "



The point brought out by these statistics is
that the average number of theatre fires per
year is on the increase. This agrees with the
deductions from statistics as given by Mr.
Sachs. While the average annual number of
fires in the last thirty years is twenty-seven,
the average of the last twenty years is thirty-
three, and that of the last ten years is thirty-



GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS. 7

six. This may be partly due to the increasing
number of theatres erected, and partly, possi-
bly, to the fact that the statistics of the last
decade are more accurately kept. Still, one
would hardly expect such a startling result in
view of the numerous really valuable sugges-
tions made from time to time regarding im-
provements for the safety of theatres.

Occasionally, one finds the subject divided
into measures of safety to be applied to old
buildings, and those that should be carried out
in new buildings. From my point of view,
this division is unimportant, except in so far
as the older buildings are naturally more dan-
gerous, and likewise more difficult to improve,
than theatres of more recent construction,
which, as a rule, are better planned, better con-
structed, and better equipped and maintained.
On the whole, the principal measures of safety
apply to both classes of buildings, and they
can be carried out with only few exceptions
whether the building is old or new. Of course,
those who wish to avoid risks always go safer
by shunning the older buildings and patron-
izing only the recently built theatres, at least
in the larger cities, where special theatre ordi-
nances are enacted. For instance, a very little
reflection ought to teach theatregoers that
theatres in which the electric light is installed,
particularly on the stage, are less dangerous
than those still provided with gas illumination,



THEATRE BUILDIN



GS .



or that theatres necessarily located in a block
are much safer if there are large courts on each
of their sides, giving numerous means of egress
to the open air in case of an alarm or panic.

In my paper I shall have in view constantly
the dangers from fires or panics breaking out
during a performance. Statistics show that dur-
ing the last hundred years (1797-1897) at
least 9,355 persons lost their lives in theatre
fires. This loss of life seems so appallingly
large as to make it certainly worth while to
make continued attempts to minimize the dan-
gers to which people crowded together in a
theatre during a performance are exposed. Mr.
Sachs, in his work on " Fires and Public En-
tertainments," which forms a continuation of
the statistical figures gathered with so much
diligence and labor by the late engineer Aug.
Foelsch, informs us that out of 769 theatre
fires, 103, or about 13.5 per cent, broke out
during the presence of the audience. These fig-
ures certainly point out the graveness of the
dangers to theatre audiences and stage per-
sonnel. Dr. Brouardel, in an interesting arti-
cle on " La mort dans les theatres," explains
wherein these dangers chiefly consist. He tells
us that loss of life in theatre fires or panics is
caused by burning due to the fire and the
flames ; by suffocation due to the heat, the
smoke, or fire gases ; by shock or fright ; and
by the crush or jam of the panic in which peo-



GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS. 9

pie are trampled to death, or have their chests
crushed in and die from hemorrhages, etc.

It follows that in the case of a fire or panic
the chief and essential conditions for the safety
of the human beings are first, fresh air to pre-
vent suffocation by smoke and gases, and ex-
haustion by the heat of the flames ; second,
light, for darkness leads to confusion, frantic
struggles, and crushes ; and third, plenty of un-
obstructed exits leading to outdoors, for the lack
of proper exits, and obstructions in passage-
ways or on stairs, lead to jams and cause many
violent deaths.

In considering the principal measures of
safety for spectators, players, and stage-hands,
I shall not, in this paper, follow the usual
course of describing and discussing the various
parts of a theatre building, their planning, con-
struction, arrangement, and equipment, but I
shall consider the safety measures as nearly as
possible in what appears to me to be their rel-
ative order of importance. Fire protection in
theatres includes the following safety measures,
viz. :

1. Means to permit the audience and the
stage personnel to make their escape safely in
case of either fire or panic.

2. Measures tending to prevent an out-
break of fire, and for quickly detecting and
signaling a fire outbreak.



io THEATRE BUILDINGS.

3. Measures for protecting the playgoers
against fire and smoke.

4. Means for the protection of the stage
personnel.

5. Measures for confining a fire to the stage
and preventing its spreading.

6. Means for saving life.

7. Means for fighting fires in their incip-
iency.

8. Measures to guard against a panic.

I. MEANS To PERMIT THE AUDIENCE AND THE

STAGE PERSONNEL To ESCAPE IN

CASE OF FIRE OR PANIC.

Under this heading will be considered the
question of theatre exits, which safety measure
I place at the head of the list, because it is by
far the most important measure. In this all
leading authorities are agreed. The safety of
the persons assembled in a theatre building
depends more upon properly arranged means
of egress than upon fire- resisting construction
or upon the provision of suitable fire appli-
ances.

Experience teaches that a theatre fire may
become fatal to life within five minutes after
the discovery of the fire. What must be done,
therefore, in every such building, whether old
or new, is to provide such means of egress as
will insure the emptying of the entire house
within three or four minutes. Rightly carried



EXITS. ii

out, this safety measure is entirely sufficient
to save the lives of all people, spectators as
well as performers, even when all other pre-
cautions, be they ever so good, are neglected.

But there is still another reason why the
question of theatre exits is all important. Fre-
quently false alarms of fire occur in a theatre,
or a small stage fire is put out in its incip-
iency, yet sudden terror may seize the audi-
ence, and though their lives are threatened by
neither flames nor smoke, they become panic-
stricken, and a wild stampede towards the
exits occurs. In such a case, the safety of the
audience from the danger of being trampled to
death or crushed in the jam depends entirely
upon a provision of proper and sufficient exits
to afford a possibility of quickly reaching the
open air.

Under " exits " should be understood much
more than merely the exits proper. We must
include under this term the arrangement and
dimensions of the seats, the width of the pas-
sages between the seats, the number of seats
between aisles, the width and number of aisles,
the size of the gangways in the rear of the
seats in the auditorium, the arrangement of
vestibules, foyers, and lobbies ; the dimen-
sions, planning and construction of staircases ;
the fire-escapes and balconies; the arrange-
ment and width of exit-doors ; the door-bolts,
and the lighting of the exits. In other words,



12 THEATRE BUILDINGS.

the term "exit" includes the entire road which
a spectator seated in the audience has to travel
in order to reach the open air.

In Publication No. 4 of the British Fire
Prevention Committee the subject of" Thea-
tre Exits " has been admirably treated by Mr.
Alfred Darbyshire, and Mr. Thos. Blashill
has referred to the same subject in his paper
on " Lessons from Fire and Panic." Mr. Ed-
win O. Sachs, architect, has perhaps struck
the key-note in the following most important
advice, which theatre owners and managers
would do well to take to heart : " Everything
to insure good exits should be done, even if
some of the other requirements of modern
theatre construction have to be given a second
place. As far as the audience is concerned,
suitable exits and straightforward planning
should be given precedence." Equally true is
the statement of Mr. Darbyshire : " Construc-
tion may minimize the risk of a fire outbreak,
equipment may prevent the spread of fire, but
clear exits and good planning will principally
contribute to the safety of an audience."

This problem of how to secure a quick and
safe departure of a theatre audience is largely
a question of its proper and sufficient subdi-
vision. While this is, to some extent, secured
a priori by the division into different tiers, this
in itself would not be sufficient, particularly if
exits from different tiers are made to lead into



EXITS. 13

a common lobby. Each section should be
again divided and made to leave by several
independent outlets. In other words, the au-
dience in the parquet, balcony, and gallery,
should each be decentralized as much as possi-
ble. The exit passages from different sections
should, under no circumstances whatever, cross
each other, meet, or be combined ; each sub-
division should have at least two entirely sep-
arate and independent exits leading to the
open air ; in large buildings a greater number
even may be required. The spectators occu-
pying gallery seats have the farthest to travel,
and should therefore have the best facilities for
exits, whereas actually the reverse is but too
often the case.

It is not at all necessary that all the exits
provided in a theatre should be used as en-
trances before the performance begins ; but it
is essential that all exits should be used
nightly, after the performance, so as to famil-
iarize the public with the different routes of
travel. Nothing, to my mind, is worse in a
theatre than the provision of so-called " emer-
gency" exits, which are supposed to be used
only in case of threatening danger.

The number of exits will depend upon the
number of tiers and the size of the theatre ;
the number of tiers should be limited, and the
gallery should not be located too high above
the street level, nor should the main audito-



14 THEATRE BUILDINGS.

Hum ever be located a story above the street
floor. In general, smaller theatres may be
considered safer than larger houses. The ar-
rangement of a sunk pit, so common in Eng-
lish theatres, is unknown both in the United
States and in Continental theatres. The pit
arrangement is good in so far as it reduces the
height of the upper gallery above the street
level and thereby shortens the exit from the
most dangerous part of a theatre. In the
United States, building regulations call for
the principal floor of the theatre to be not
more than a few steps above the sidewalk.

The arrangement and placing of the exits
will depend upon the plan of the theatre, and
this, in turn, is determined by the available
site. Clear planning is most desirable so that
in the event of danger the audience may clearly
see their way out ; as a rule a symmetrical ar-
rangement of both sides of each tier will con-
duce to the quicker emptying of the theatre.

It would be well to institute in newly com-
pleted theatre buildings actual tests of the
time required to empty them. According to
Foelsch, a theatre in Milan, Italy, having thir-
teen exits opened, was emptied in June, 1887,
in less than four minutes (the size or capacity
of the house is not stated). I am informed by
a person who has frequently visited the Wag-
ner performances that the Bayreuth Theatre,
having a capacity of 1,500 persons, can be



EXITS. 15

emptied in just two minutes. The Fifth Av-
enue Theatre in New York (holding 1,400
persons) can be emptied in two and one-half
minutes; Keith's New Theatre in Boston
(3,000 persons) in four minutes ; the recent
Abbey Theatre in New York (1,450 persons)
in one and one-half minutes. The large Mad-
ison Square Garden in New York, which holds
17,000 people, requires four and a half min-
utes for emptying. All these are examples of
more recent buildings.

The minimum width of an exit and exit-
door for 500 persons or less should be five
feet, and for every additional 100 persons
twenty inches should be added to the width.

Regarding the arrangement of the exit-
doors, it is of the greatest importance that
these should swing outward, for many a dis-
astrous panic and loss of life has been caused by
doors which opened the wrong way, and which
could not be opened during a jam because the
maddened crowd was pressing against them in
their frantic efforts to reach the exits. It is
not sufficient that doors should open outwards,
but they should swing entirely out of the way
in order not to form, when opened, an ob-
struction in a passageway or staircase.

All exit-doors should be plainly designated
as such in large legible letters ; all other doors
may be either marked " No exit," or should
have the name of the room into which they



16 THEATRE BUILDINGS.

open marked, such as " Cloak-room/' "Toilet-
room."

Doors of exits leading to staircases should
never open directly upon the stairs, but there
should always be a wide landing between the
doors and the stairs to prevent people from
stumbling. Under no circumstances should
doors with lock and key be tolerated in a the-
atre ; exit-doors may be provided with bolts
placed on the inside and at shoulder height,
and of such construction as to be easily drawn
or pushed back. Several so-called panic bolts
are now obtainable which fulfil the require-
ments of safety. In the Abbey Theatre of
New York City the exit-doors are controlled
by electric openers, which are operated by
pressing a button, either from the stage or
from the manager's office. The device is, per-
haps, not new, for it was proposed in 1882 by
a clergyman, Don Ravaglia, and tried with
success at the Allighieri Theatre, in Ravenna,


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