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

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

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

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 (PhillyHistory.org)

Frankford Elevated – Site of Bent 16 – 208 North Front Street , April 2, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

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.]

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