The List: Philadelphia’s Worst Fires (and How We’ve Recovered)

Between wildfires in Colorado and the two big blazes in New Jersey—Delanco and Seaside Heights—in the last two weeks, fires have dominated the news cycle. Even when quickly contained, they can leave behind years of devastation. But from the literal ashes, things can spring anew. A look at some of Philadelphia’s worst fires, and how/if we’ve rebounded from them.

1. The MOVE fire

THE FIRE: Over 25 years ago, on May 13, 1985, the fire, commonly known as the MOVE fire, destroyed more than 60 homes on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. The fire occurred in direct connection with MOVE, a controversial Philadelphia-based liberation group. Police infamously dropped a bomb on the group’s rooftop bunker to force them. Unfortunately, the fire caused by the bomb escalated quickly, spreading through the entire block.

TODAY: The tragedy is still close to the hearts and minds of those who remember that tragic day. The city hired a contractor to rebuild all the homes destroyed in the incident. After problems with the newly constructed homes continued for 15 years, the city offered residents of Osage Avenue $150,000 to essentially pick up and leave. Many residents have stayed put since the fire, hoping to put what happened 25 years ago behind them.

2. One Meridian Plaza

THE FIRE: On Feb. 28, 1991, a well-known downtown Philadelphia highrise building burned down. The name of the building was One Meridian Square and with 38 floors, it was one of the tallest buildings in Philadelphia at the time. Not only did the fire cause damage to the building, it also took the lives of three Philadelphia firefighters.

TODAY: For 8 years, One Meridian Plaza stood as a vacant, burnt building until it was fully demolished in 1999. Today, it has been rebuilt into the Ritz Carlton at 1414 South Penn Square. Although the fire was tragic, it did bring new fire regulations to high rises that weren’t previously in place, such as mandatory sprinkler systems on every floor. There is also a firefighters memorial on the ground level.
This is the building now:

3. Philadelphia Zoo’s Primate House

THE FIRE: On Christmas Eve, 1995, a fire spread through the primate house of the Philadelphia Zoo. Twenty-three primates were killed including gorillas, orangutans and other species all listed as endangered. The cause of the fire was said to be accidental.

TODAY: Thanks to financial gifts, a new facility was able to be built. Called the PECO Primate Reserve, this facility allows zoo-goers to watch lemurs hanging from trees, gorillas in their outdoor habitats, as well as a spot for lectures, shows and live theater.

4. The Fretz Building

THE FIRE: The fire that some people call the worst fire Philadelphia has ever seen occurred on Jan. 1, 1963. The building was located on 12th and Susquehanna and was eight stories high. The fire spread, destroying about 50 homes as well as about 11 business properties. Fortunately, no civilians or firefighters were hurt in the incident.

TODAY: The area has been rebuilt but the fire has not been forgotten. Many praise the firefighters on that day for preventing a much larger tragedy.