A Would-Be Disaster Design Solution: The Iron Skeleton Fire Escape

Front Elevations of 102-104 N Water Street, February 14, 1918 (
Front Elevations of 102-104 N. Water Street, February 14, 1918 (

How to safely exit a building on fire? The fire escape, of course.

But what about before law required the familiar “iron skeleton fire escape”? In the greater part of the 19th century, when fire struck in the rising city, urbanites were at the mercy of fate. On more than one occasion, Philadelphia’s garret sweatshops and New York’s tenements went up in flames. Those trapped inside the upper stories perished in “galleries of certain death.”

Inventors heeded the call. In March 1849, the Franklin Institute exhibited for public admiration the model for “a very ingenious contrivance,” a “new fire-escape.” No word as to how it might save lives, or if it ever did. Nor do we know exactly how many such contrivances, either ingenious or ridiculous, promised the trapped and doomed freedom to walk, jump or even fly to safety. But, as we saw in the case of Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire, even after buildings were equipped with exterior iron fire escapes, they sometimes contributed to fatal disasters.

Philadelphia passed an ordinance creating a fire-escape regulatory board in 1876 and endowed it with the authority to order their installation “upon such buildings as they may deem necessary… to secure life and property.” Three years later, Pennsylvania passed a sweeping law declaring that any building “three or more stories in height, shall be provided with a permanent, safe external means of escape therefrom in cases of fire.”

The list of seemed comprehensive: “Every building used as a seminary, college, academy, hospital, asylum, or a hotel for the accommodation of the public, every storehouse, factory, manufactory, workshop of every kind, in which employees or operatives are usually employed at work in the third or higher story, every tenement house or building in which rooms or floors are usually let to lodgers or families, and every public school building.”  But somehow the 1879 list missed theatres. No problem, historian Sara Wermeil tells us, that mistake was corrected in 1885.

Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)
Pasquale Nigro, Fire Escape, U.S. Patent filed, May 15,1908. (GooglePatent)
Benjamin B. Oppenheimer, Fire-Escape. No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)
Benjamin B. Oppenheimer,
Improvement in Fire-Escapes.
No. 221,855. Patented Nov; 18, 1879 (Google Patent)

But to some, a greater mistake lay in the assumption that the exterior iron fire escape would be effective. According to Wermeil, Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan “condemned the ‘iron ladders clamped against the wall’ as ‘worse than useless, because they are deceptive; giving the appearance of an escape without the reality.’” They were, he wrote in 1868, “‘a most stupid contrivance’ because women, children, the aged and the disabled could not use them. With fires lapping out the window, he asked, ‘would not those balconies be turned into gridirons to roast the unhappy victims?’”

Sloan’s preference? Wall off internal stairwells with iron doors—a solution that became standard, but not until the 20th century.

Building owners and landlords took advantage of inadequate compliance and enforcement. A full decade after passage of the 1879 law, “the lives of fully 100,000 children are in danger,” reported the Inquirer. “City Councils have failed to obey the laws plainly lay down by the legislature of Pennsylvania. There are over 113,000 school children in Philadelphia distributed among 262 schoolhouses. Only 17 of these buildings are provided with fire escapes…  The remaining 245 schoolhouses, with over 100,000 pupils, are totally without any means of escape in case of fire.”

Frankford Elevated - Site of Bent 16 - 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (
Frankford Elevated – Site of Bent 16 – 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (

No surprise, really. Compliance failures continued for decades, as we know from the landmark disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 145 New Yorkers in less than half an hour.

Did Philadelphia somehow manage to avoid such a pivotal and devastating event? Hardly. We recently recalled the Market Street fire of 1901, where 22 died. And a full thirty years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Philadelphia endured the tragic and scandalous Randolph Mill fire.

[Sources Include: Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 258-284; “The Model of a New Fire-escape,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1849; “Tenement Traps,” The New York Times, February 4, 1860; “The City’s Safety, Annual Meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners. Report of the Chief,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 1880; “Schools Not Protected,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 7, 1889.]


Philadelphia’s Deadliest Fire

12th and Market Streets - Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (
12th and Market Streets – Hunt-Wilkinson Company, 5-Alarm Fire. 22 Killed. (

Walls of the Hunt, Wilkinson & Company furniture emporium came tumbling down the morning of October 25th, 1901. By lunchtime, firefighters declared the conflagration of the 8-story, 14-year-old building at 1219–1221 Market Street under control.

Twenty-two were dead, ranking this as Philadelphia’s deadliest fire.

Yet it’s missing from the top “25 Most Deadly Building Fires in America,” a list that recalls the 1908 Rhoads Opera House disaster in Boyertown, PA which killed 171. (That ranks #8.) Philadelphia’s 1901 fire had the same number of casualties as the Detroit’s Study Club dance hall disaster of 1929, the 24th worst disaster.

“Never in its history has Philadelphia experienced a fire which spread with such great rapidity,” reported the Inquirer. Never before were so many victims “speeded through gates of eternity,” reported the Atlanta Constitution.

“Rows of charred bodies at the morgue, a score of homes made desolate, a gaunt pile of twisted, steaming ruins on Market street between Twelfth and Thirteenth, are monuments to a fire” that was “swift as a whirlwind, sickening in its horrors.”

First responders were quick, “but the flames were quicker.” The fire rose quickly “from cellar to roof, eating into adjoining buildings and hanging in a seething, spark-dotted canopy over Market street.”

Hell reigned outside and in: “Sixty or more men, women and children were at work on the upper floors of the building. The roaring flames and the suffocating smoke that cut off retreat were their first and only warnings. Madly they groped for windows and the fire escapes, many meeting death where they stood, others reaching the iron railed balconies, only to find themselves and like rats in a trap, confronted with the alternative of being gridironed or the chance of being crushed on the stones below. Most of those killed were at work on the sixth floor, where women were engaged in sewing. It was reported that goods were stored against the windows, which prevented the women from getting out on the fire escapes, but this was positively denied by a member of the firm.”

“Thousands from the streets below witnessed tragedy upon tragedy, powerless to help. They saw women penned in by flame tearing out their hair in their frenzy. They saw men struggle on wires and gratings and burn as they hung between earth and sky. They saw others plunge from the windows or turn and stagger back into the pitiless cauldron. The stones of Commerce street, the narrow highway at the rear of the building, rang the dirge of more than one victim who jumped blindly and missed the net.”

“Squares away the screams of the dying could be heard. Tongues cannot tell the horrors that eyes saw.”

At one point, “all eyes turned to the fire escapes” outside a 7th-story window, where upholsterers “were running down the escape pell-mell.”

“The smoke ascending in their faces was growing blacker and blacker. A man appeared at the window with a woman. He put his arm around her waist. They began to climb down the escape and reached the sixth floor. He seemed to faint. They stopped to rest, and then made another struggle.”

“Cheer after cheer went up from the street at this. But the situation was growing more desperate every second. When the next wave of smoke passed the woman was seen standing alone on the landing. It was impossible for her to get down thought the flames beneath her. She heard the shouts and news the net had been spread below to catch her. She had one chance in a hundred to save her life by a leap. The firemen grabbed their net and looked up. They could not see her. The woman peered down. She could not see them. Persons father away tried to shout directions. It was a guess. It was her only chance. She leaped. Her form came straight through the air, feet foremost. She jumped well and clear. Thousands of eyes watched the flying form. They saw it strike the iron rail of the awning. She dropped a little to one side of the net outstretched to save her and struck the pavement.”

“Such was the death of Susan Gormley, 42 years of age, of 1727 Filbert street.”

A special jury of experts convened by the City Coroner collected evidence, reviewed testimony and found the structure in compliance with what safety codes existed. They couldn’t zero in on what started the fire, suggesting the deceased “could probably explain the direct cause.” And they recommended sweeping changes aimed at prevention, mitigation and “providing proper and sufficient means of escape.”

[Sources include: “Flames starting in basement of Hunt, Wilkinson & Co.’s Furniture Store, 1219–21 Market Street Form Funeral Pyre for Many and Cause Estimated Property Loss of $500,000,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1901; “Eight Story Building Fire,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 26, 1901; “No Cause Found for Fatal Fire,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1901; The 25 most-deadly building fires of all time,]


Saving Souls on Hell’s Half Acre: The Inasmuch Mission

Perspective of NE corner of Warnock and Locust St. In-as-much mission building , January 8, 1917 (
Perspective of NE corner of Warnock and Locust St. Inasmuch Mission building, January 8, 1917 (

“Born and brought up a true son of the tenderloin,” George Long survived as a child pickpocket in Madison Square Park in New York City.

At the age of 14, having “been thoroughly schooled in the ways of the underworld, he launched himself upon his career as a ‘grafter.’” Long became addicted to cocaine and morphine and for the next two decades lived as “a habitué of the dens of vice in the large cities… repellant even to the keepers of the lowest resorts.” He had, “time and time again” been thrown out of even “the filthiest brothels.”

George Long “floated about the country for years” arriving in Philadelphia “on the ‘hobo’s’ common carrier, the freight train.” A “wreck of a man” on Skid Row, Long was “dissipated and disheveled, unshaven, unkempt, and saturated with liquor… a ‘bum’ of the uttermost, guttermost type.”

Then  he found religion. Long “fell upon his knees in the Galilee Mission and gave his heart to God” and dedicated himself to saving the souls of others.

“It takes a ‘down and outer’ to reform a ‘down and outer,’” he claimed. “Social workers try hard, but they can’t realize that feeling the other fellow has.” Long could talk with “them in their own language.” He met them where they lived, “in the heart of the city’s most disreputable and filthy sections” like Philadelphia’s Hell’s Half Acre—a place even more desperate than Skid Row.

“Bounded by Spruce and Walnut Street and Tenth and Eleventh” Hell’s Half Acre “is cut up by many small thorough fares filled with dilapidated houses. No less than 65 were being used for immoral purposes” including three gambling dens, two opium joints, and many pool rooms and speakeasies.”

At the heart of it, on Locust Street east of 11th, George Woodward, owned “20 vacant, ramshackle houses.” “Each was connected with the other by an underground passage, so that if a crime was committed in one, the perpetrator could easily make his way from that house to another, and so on to the street and to safety. One building in this group was known as the ‘get-away house.’”

Long convinced Woodward of his plans and the wealthy developer from Chestnut Hill turned over the houses, rent free. Long and his associates cleaned them up, removing “eleven wagonloads of beer bottles, playing cards, discarded frills and burbelows [furbelows?] of feminine wearing apparel, and other rubbish.” They made the former “getaway house” Long’s headquarters.

The Inasmuch Mission (named for the biblical passage: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) was born.

"Chapel of Inasumch Mission," in "The Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest," Church News, February 1915.
“Chapel of Inasumch Mission,” in The Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest. Church News, February 1915.

Beginning in March, 1911 Inasmuch offered help to “any man in need, providing that the beneficiary showed the desire to help himself.” And in the first six months more than 14,000 attended services, 8,731 meals were served and more than 2,000 took lodging. The mission placed 96 reformed men in paying jobs. At the second anniversary celebration, the first three rows were packed with men whose testimony so inspired Mrs. Woodward, she offered to donate funds for “a suitable building in which Mr. Long might carry out his original dream.”

Inspired by London’s Rowton Houses for working men and New York’s Mills Hotel, Philadelphia architects, Duhring, Okie & Ziegler designed a severe, four-story, fire-proof facility with a chapel for 300, an office, a restaurant, a kitchen, and 400 beds. In March 1914, Long and others dedicated the Inasmuch Mission “as a place where men will be cleansed, both mentally and physically.”

Meanwhile, Long’s evangelistic career grew in scope and scale. With the gift (also from Mrs. Woodward) of a “large touring car,” Long began a “series of automobile meetings” on street corners “throughout the Tenderloin.” Long provided sermons accompanied by musical entertainment.

The popular evangelist soon preached to gatherings of 1,000 in a giant Inasmuch tent pitched at 60th and Locust Streets. In the midst of the World War, Long lumped together local food profiteers, rent gaugers and the Kaiser. “Hell is too good for them,” Long shouted.

Followers cheered.

Long determined to break a preaching record in the summer of 1918. For ten weeks straight he packed tent meetings with as many as 3,000. Long moved indoors to the nearby Imperial Theatre, 219 South 60th Street, while architects drew up plans for a new 5,000-seat evangelistic tabernacle.

More confident than ever, Long pivoted his message from the pulpit to politics: “There are more gamblers, thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes in this city than ever before, and it depends upon our next mayor as to whether they are to remain here.”

He “censured women who wear immodest attire” Long claimed “such women were responsible for much of the widespread immorality” adding: “More men are being sent to hell today owing to women’s immodest dressing than ever before.”

And he critiqued fellow preachers: “The she-man in the pulpit, with his soft voice and ladylike manners, has been driving red-blooded men away from the church.” The headline read: “Evangelist Flays “Sissies” In Pulpit.”

Long, it seemed, was only getting started.

[Sources include: Blair Jaekel, “The Inasmuch Mission,” The World’s Work: A History of Our Time (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913); “Inasmuch Mission: A Work of God Made Manifest,” The Church News of the Diocese of Pennsylvania (1915);  G. Grant Williams, Hells Half Acre and Inasmuch Mission,” The Philadelphia Tribune, May 18, 1912; “Rose From Underworld,” The New York Times, May 12, 1913; and from The Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Inasmuch Mission and Founder Have Done Great Work,” September 1, 1912; “To Conduct Street Missions in Auto,” January 15, 1913; “Inasmuch Mission will Provide Home for Men Desiring Reform,” January 24, 1914; “Inasmuch Mission Now in New Home,” March 24, 1914; “Scores Food Gougers,” July 8, 1918; “Tent Meetings Overflow,” July 27, 1918; “Evangelist Flays ‘Sissies’ In Pulpit,” August 4, 1919.]


Chestnut Hill: Recognizing and Remembering the Real Legacy

"Proposed - Pastorius Circle - at Hartwell and Lincoln Avenue - Chestnut Hill - Philadelphia. "General Plans Division / Bureau of Surveys" Signed and dated lower right: "J. H. Hutchinson May 16, 1913" Looking Northeast on Hartwell Avenue." (
“Proposed – Pastorius Circle – at Hartwell and Lincoln Avenue – Chestnut Hill – Philadelphia.” J. H. Hutchinson, May 16, 1913″ (

Chestnut Hill is celebrating its legacy.

The party’s on for what Henry Howard Houston and his son-in-law, George Woodward, started in the 1870s. Houston spent some of his fortune from the Pennsylvania Railroad on tracts of land for his envisioned community of Wissahickon Heights. Woodward continued the development of Chestnut Hill—that name stuck—designing, defining and carefully expanding, decades into the 20th century. Today, both are being “revered as pioneers in sustainability and pillars of the community…champions for creating, preserving and promoting the well-regarded quality of life in Chestnut Hill.”

But is it a legacy worth celebrating? Or is it more one worth rediscovering—and recognizing for what it really was?

“The real key to that community’s character,” wrote Dan Rottenberg in the Inquirer back in 1986, “is the rare brand of benevolent feudalism practiced there for more than a century by the Houston-Woodward family. Just as feudal lords protected their tenants from barbarian invaders, so the Houstons and Woodwards protected their tenants from the equally frightening forces of economic and social change.”

George Woodward, it turns out, was “something of an eccentric” with very particular, if not peculiar, preferences. He disliked cars with internal combustion engines (“loud and smelly”) so he drove electric models. He didn’t care for light from incandescent bulbs so he read by kerosene lamps. Woodward dressed in golf knickers and woolen stockings. He shared his ideas about life in an autobiography titled Memoirs of A Mediocre Man. And when it came to a vision for expanding and populating Chestnut Hill, Woodward had some very specific preferences as to who would get in—and who would not.

Woodward picked up one principle while a student at Yale, and later shared it in a talk titled Landlord and Tenant. According to Woodward, “we used to say in a college fraternity that one fool member always reproduced another fool member. Working on the reverse of this principle, one social asset reproduces his kind in a real estate venture.”

Implementing his vision of community for the many rental homes he built in Chestnut Hill around two private schools, a country club and the Episcopal Church his father-in-law dedicated in 1889 (St. Martin-in-the-Fields)—Woodward carefully selected tenants. As planned, the well off rented the high-end homes in his version of SimCity. More modest twin houses built by Woodward were intended for the working class. But to his mild dismay (and seeming amusement) the “white collars” were attracted to his sturdy worker twins “and rented every house in sight.” Ah, well.

Map of Existing and Proposed Main Traffic Highways and Parkways Northwestern Section of Philadelphia. December 1, 1915 (PhillyHistory,org)
Detail of “Map of Existing and Proposed Main Traffic Highways and Parkways Northwestern Section of Philadelphia. December 1, 1915” (PhillyHistory,org)

Woodward put to work a second lesson learned at Yale, this one from the lectures of social scientist William Graham Sumner. The professor spoke of a new kind of American citizen, “The Forgotten Man”—“dependable, self-respecting, and quite unexciting.” According to Sumner:

He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all, he pays. He does not want an office; his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies. He keeps production going on. He contributes to the strength of parties. He is flattered before election. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He may grumble some occasionally to his wife and family, but he does not frequent the grocery or talk politics at the tavern. Consequently, he is forgotten. He is a commonplace man. He gives no trouble. He excites no admiration.

Woodward relished his success at having created a community of 180 families where the folks with the lowest incomes turned out to be “exactly the people who pay their bills and seldom complain.”

Plus they were all White. And Protestant.

Woodward never rented to minorities: Italians, African Americans or Jews. In 1920, in “Landlord and Tenant” he proudly said so: “I have consistently refused to rent a house to anyone only because he happened to have the price. I have always inquired into antecedents. I have never taken a Jewish family or allowed one to be taken as a subtenant.” Other ethnics need not apply, either.

The legacy of exclusion in Chestnut Hill became an operating principle that stuck. In 1960, Chestnut Hill insider Barbara Rex broke free and “used fiction to unmask what she saw as inequities and injustices.”  Rex described her community as “all-white, privileged, prejudiced, Protestant, aristocratic Philadelphia society, where exclusion was a beast that struck down the weak, unfit, or unwary.” In her novel Vacancy on India Street, Rex wrote of the deep worry about outsiders moving in:

Connie could not conceive of Joe Setteventi strolling around Flora’s yard, the stump of a cigar in his red face, and Mrs. Setteventi waving from the bay window. The Setteventi children were cat lovers, carried cats around in their arms all day. Now the birds would never come back.

‘Well, at least they are not Jews,’ said Connie’s friend. ‘You’re just as glad as I am we don’t have Jews on India Street! …Look what’s happened on Franklin Street. They’ve got Jews over there, three in a row. … Nobody lives on Franklin Street anymore.’

As for African-Americans, according to Rex, “no negro has ever so much as attempted to violate the special domain” of the neighborhood. “Houses come up for sale in the community, but it simply would not occur to a negro to apply.” Although one of Rex’s characters, Clayton Cruikshank, “had defiled his sisters memory by daring to sell her house to a Negro.” But Cruikshank wasn’t playing straight. He “had been seen drunk on India Street on Christmas morning, wearing a woman’s hat.”

There goes the neighborhood.

Chestnut Hill’s legacy? Attractive, well-built homes in a leafy, planned community built of Wissahickon schist, cemented with bigotry, engineered for consistency, complacency and comfort. And definitely not for everybody.

So, again: recognizing and remembering makes all the sense in the world. But why a celebration?

[Additional Sources Include: David R. Contosta, “George Woodward, Philadelphia Progressive,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 111: 3 (July 1987) and David R. Contosta, A Philadelphia Family, The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).]