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City plans demolition, hopes to save historic facade after Old City fire

They will need to demolish the rest of the ravaged building

The cast-iron facade of 239 Chestnut Street
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Demolition is set to begin next week on one of several buildings ravaged in a massive, nine-hour fire that tore through the 200 block of Chestnut Street last month.

Despite the destruction, one thing the city hopes to save is the building’s historic, first floor cast-iron facade, which was designed over a century ago.

The decision to demolish comes after the February 18 fire, which started around 3 a.m. and tore through 239 Chestnut Street before it was declared under control until just after noon, according to BillyPenn. Over 150 people were evacuated from the fire, which also burned parts of 237 and 235 Chestnut, said Karen Guss, spokesperson for the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Now, 239 Chestnut is not only uninhabitable, it’s also dangerous. The six-story building, which was erected in the late 1800’s, will be torn down starting on Monday, Guss said. She added that crews started work on taking down ruined elements of 237 Chestnut Street—like the roof and a sidewall—earlier this week, but that building won’t need to be fully demolished like its neighbor.

The loss of the historic building is a loss for the city but, Guss said, hopefully not a complete one. The city is insistent on saving the building’s first floor cast-iron facade, which was designed by renowned Philly architect Stephen Decatur Button in 1852. Button—who designed multiple buildings around Philadelphia, including the Arch Street Presbyterian Church—was one of the organizers of the Pennsylvania Institute of Architects and was known for his use of Italianate design and metal-frame structures.

The demolition process at 239 Chestnut will take some time, Guss said. Workers need to remove debris from the inside of the structure. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is still investigating the fire, meaning crews will also need to work around investigators.

In addition to those difficulties, traffic poses another issue. The 200 block of Chestnut has been closed since the fire broke out and, as the weather warms up, many people are coming through the historical area. Guss said the block of the street remains closed, but the city is trying to find a way to open up some space so tour busses can pass through, or at least drop visitors off at the Museum of the American Revolution, which sits across the street from the burned building.

Guss lamented the loss of the building, but also the strain that the demolition process will likely put on local businesses, many of which haven’t been able to reopen since the fire. That block—as well as 3rd Street, which sits adjacent—are home to hotels, bars, restaurants and other businesses that have felt the hit since the fire struck and the street was shut down.

“Hopefully we can get out quickly,” Guss said. “This (fire) has hurt a lot of people.”

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