Demolition begins on Old City buildings gutted by fire

The building was gutted by fire on Feb. 18. Adjacent buildings were damaged.

This building in Old City, Philadelphia was gutted by fire on Feb. 18. Adjacent buildings were damaged. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Demolition work began Tuesday on a pair of historic buildings in Old City that were gutted by a February 18th fire.

It took five weeks after the fire to stabilize the fire-weakened walls of 239 Chestnut Street enough to begin demo work, said Department of Licenses and Inspections spokesperson, Karen Guss. “It’s a really difficult situation,” Guss said.

Neither Guss nor the demo crews working the site were able to provide a precise estimate of how long the deconstruction of the 1852-constructed building would last. Guss said, “several weeks,” while some of the worker on-site said they expected the demolition to last at least a month.

The demolition crews started at the top, using a pair of cranes holding matching baskets — one for a demo crew, one for the debris they clear.

“The guys in the man basket are sawing pieces of the roof off right now, to make it safe for them to work up there,” said Rocco DiSalvo, a project manager for Thackray Crane Rental. “They are throwing it in the other crane[‘s basket], and then we’re bringing it on the ground, emptying out, then we have a machine on the ground putting it in the dumpster.”

The crews will work their way from the top down, said DiSalvo. “You have to make sure everything is secure up there before we start taking the rest down in pieces.”

Almost all of 239 Chestnut Street was destroyed in the fire, and will be removed. Only the first floor facade, made of cast iron, will be salvaged. Neighboring 237 Chestnut Street will see its roof and part of the wall it shared with the burnt-out husk also removed. The buildings were both protected as part of the Old City historic district, which has seen five destructive fires in the 15 years since its creation. The cause of the fire remains under a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigation.

The fire and the lengthy stabilization and demolition process, which has closed the 200 block of Chestnut to automobile traffic and the area directly in front to foot traffic, have wreaked havoc on local businesses, said Old City District Executive Director Job Itzkowitz.

“We think about 20 or 25 businesses were directly impacted, meaning they had to close, they may have suffered some sort of smoke damage, or contents damage,” said Itzkowitz. “Of course, many more businesses were impacted further down each block in each direction and even the businesses a block or two away are feeling the loss of foot traffic stemming from the street closure.”

Itzkowitz noted that many nearby restaurants and shops on the block remain open, and urged residents to stop by during this difficult period. The Museum of the American Revolution also remains open.

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