One Meridian Plaza
|One Meridian Plaza|
One Meridian Plaza in 1972
|Roof||492 ft (150 m)|
|Floor area||756,000 sq ft (70,200 m2)|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Vincent Kling & Associates|
|Developer||Girard Bank |
Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance
One Meridian Plaza was a 38-story high-rise office building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The 492-foot (150-meter) tower was designed by Vincent Kling & Associates and completed in 1972. The building was demolished in 1999, as a result of damage of a fire that began on February 23, 1991. The fire began on the 22nd floor and raged out of control for hours. An investigation of the fire, led by the Office of the Fire Marshal of the City of Philadelphia with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) national investigative response team, determined the blaze started after linseed oil–soaked rags ignited. Philadelphia firefighters fought the blaze, but struggled due to a lack of power in the skyscraper and insufficient water pressure from the building's standpipes. Three firefighters died in the twelve-alarm fire after becoming disoriented by heavy smoke. Firefighting efforts inside One Meridian Plaza eventually were abandoned, due to fears the structure would collapse. The fire was only brought under control once it reached the 30th floor, which was one of the few floors that had automatic sprinklers installed. Ten sprinklers held back the fire until it started burning itself out and was finally brought under control almost a full day after it started. The blaze seriously damaged the building, destroying eight floors and damaging neighboring buildings.
For eight years after the fire, One Meridian Plaza sat vacant and damaged—in the center of Philadelphia's business district. The building was caught in litigation between the owners and the insurance company over how much the insurers would pay the owners and how repairs or demolition would proceed. Businesses near the empty high-rise closed or moved and the city sued the owners to do something with the building. After lawsuits were settled, the building was declared a total loss and began to be dismantled in 1998.
One Meridian Plaza was a 38-story high-rise office building designed by Vincent Kling & Associates. Construction on the 492 feet (150 m) tower began in 1968, was completed in 1972 and approved for occupancy in 1973. Built at the corner of 15th Street and South Penn Square in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the $40 million high-rise was built adjacent to the Girard Trust Building, now the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, and the front faced Philadelphia City Hall across the street. It was formerly named Three Girard Plaza (see below). The rectangular building was 243 feet (74 m) long and 92 feet (28 m) wide and contained 756,000 square feet (70,000 m2). Of the 38 floors, 36 were occupiable and 2 were mechanical floors. The structure also had 3 underground levels. The building's structure was composed of steel and concrete and the facade was a granite curtain wall. There were two helipads on the roof. The building's eastern stairwell connected the building to the adjacent Girard Trust Building, known as Two Girard Plaza. At one point there were plans to build a structure to the south of the building that would share one of the elevator banks in the high-rise, but nothing came of the plans mainly because the two sites had different owners. On the northwest corner of the property is a bronze sculpture called "Triune." Designed by Robert Engman the abstract sculpture was not damaged in the 1991 fire and was still there in 1999. The following year the builders of The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton announced that they were considering demolishing the sculpture. In the end the statue was retained and still stands at the location it was originally installed at as of 2014.
When One Meridian Plaza was built Philadelphia was enforcing a building code from 1949 that made no distinction between high-rises and other buildings. In 1984 Philadelphia adopted new codes that required automatic sprinkler systems in all new buildings. At the time of construction, sprinklers were only built on the service levels below ground. In 1988 plans were put in place to have automatic sprinklers placed throughout the building by November 1993. By 1991 four floors were completely protected by sprinklers and three other floors were partially protected. The sprinklers had been installed during floor renovations at the request of tenants and the building's owners had plans to install more as other floors were renovated.
The high-rise was originally known as the Fidelity Mutual Life Building, named for Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Co. who developed the building in a joint venture with Girard Bank. The high-rise was the tallest building built in Philadelphia since the early 1930s. Girard Bank sold its share of the property, which was also known as Three Girard Plaza, to Fidelity Mutual Life in 1982. Fidelity Mutual Life, which had moved its offices out of the building to Radnor Township, Pennsylvania earlier that year, subsequently sold the building to E/R Partners in 1983. A joint venture of the Rubin Organization and Equitable Life Assurance Company of America, E/R Partners bought the property for $143 million. In 1989 a Dutch pension fund, Algemeen Burgerlijk Pensioenfonds, paid $120 million to enter E/R Partners with a sixty-five percent stake in the building. In 1984 Three Girard Plaza became the Three Mellon Bank Center after Girard Bank was bought by Mellon Bank, and in 1990 was renamed again to One Meridian Plaza after Meridian Bank replaced Mellon Bank as the lead tenant. Another major tenant was Comcast, who made 81,000 square feet (7,500 m2) of One Meridian Plaza its corporate headquarters in 1989.
On February 23, 1991, at about 8:23 PM, a fire began on the 22nd floor of the building. It was a Saturday night and there were only three people in the building at the time, an engineer and two security guards. Workers had been refinishing woodwork in a vacant office earlier in the day and workers left a pile of rags soaked in linseed oil on the floor. The linseed oil oxidized and generated enough heat to ignite the rags, which then set fire to other solvents nearby. Smoke detectors did not cover the entire floor and by the time the fire alarm went off the fire was already well established. After the fire alarm sounded in the building the engineer went up to the 22nd floor to investigate. When the elevator reached the 22nd floor the engineer found heavy smoke and heat that prevented him from reaching the elevator controls he needed to return to the lobby. The engineer escaped after radioing to a security guard in the lobby to recall the elevator using fire safety controls there. The second security guard was on the 30th floor when the alarm went off and used the stairwell to get to the ground floor.
The lobby guard returned a call to the alarm monitoring service, which had called when the alarm initially went off to confirm that there was a fire, but never called the Philadelphia Fire Department. The first call came from someone on the street who saw smoke coming from the building. During the first 911 call, at about 8:27 PM, the alarm company alerted the fire department to the fire. Engine 43 was the first firefighting unit to arrive at the scene and reported seeing heavy smoke and flames in one of the windows. As firefighters started fighting the fire it had grown with flames breaking through windows and lapping up the side of the building.
Firefighters began experiencing problems before they even reached the fire. By the time firefighters reached the 11th floor the building had lost power after the heat from the blaze damaged electrical cables. The emergency generator never began producing electricity, and despite efforts to restore power the building was without electricity for the entirety of the event. This forced firefighters to work in darkness and without the aid of elevators. In addition, the transformers that provided power to the neighboring Girard Trust Building were in the basement of One Meridian Plaza. The transformers were eventually shut down due to water accumulation in the basement and firefighters directing water streams from that building had to do so without the aid of elevators.
Firefighters were again hampered when it was discovered the pressure relief valves on the standpipes were improperly adjusted when installed in the building. The Philadelphia Fire Department nozzles allowed 100 psi (690 kPa) nozzle pressure while One Meridian Plaza's pressure relief valves were giving less than 60 psi (410 kPa) discharge pressure, which was not sufficient to fight the fire. It was several hours into the fire before a technician who could adjust the valves arrived at the scene.
The area around the building was cleared of pedestrians and firefighting personnel because of falling glass and debris. The falling debris was dangerous for firefighters because they often had to cross the perimeter around the building to enter and leave the high-rise. Hose lines stretched into the building were damaged by falling debris and one firefighter was struck by debris and seriously injured while tending to the lines.
|Captain David P. Holcombe, age 52|
|Firefighter Phyllis McAllister, age 43|
|Firefighter James A. Chappell, age 29|
During the second hour of the fire it spread onto the 23rd and 24th floors. Heavy smoke was building up in the stairwells and a captain and two firefighters from Engine 11 were assigned to go to the top level to ventilate the stairwell. The three firefighters went up a center staircase from the 22nd floor and soon radioed that they were disoriented by heavy smoke on the 30th floor. There were attempts to direct the firefighters through the radio, and soon after the captain requested permission to break a window for ventilation, which was followed by a message that the captain was down. Permission to break the window was given and a search and rescue effort was initiated.
Search teams were sent from the lower floors and searched the 30th floor, but did not find the missing firefighters. The teams then moved onto the upper levels where one team got lost on the 38th floor and ran out of air in their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). That team was rescued by a search team that had been placed on the roof by a helicopter. Rescue attempts continued until helicopter operations were suspended due to heavy smoke and thermal drafts caused by the blaze.
Using a searchlight the helicopter crew searched the exterior of the building and at 1:17 AM February 23, the helicopter spotted a broken window on the 28th floor located in an area that could not be seen from the street. At about 2:15 AM a rescue team was sent to the spot and found the three missing firefighters unconscious and out of air in their SCBAs. The firefighters were taken to a medical triage set up on the 20th floor. There were attempts at resuscitation, but they were unsuccessful and the firefighters were pronounced dead.
Fire companies on scene
- 1st/Box Alarm Assignment - Box 495 - 15th & Chestnut Streets
- Squirt 43, Engine 1, Engine 20 (Water Supply-LDH) Engine 11 (3 firefighter line of duty deaths from this company)
- Ladder 9, Snorkel 5
- Medic 7
- Battalion Chief 5, Battalion Chief 4
- 2nd Alarm Assignment:
- Squirt 8, Engine 10, Engine 24, Engine 44, Engine 13 (Lobby Control)
- Ladder 23, Ladder 1
- Medic 13
- Battalion Chief 3 (Lobby Officer), Battalion Chief 11
- Division (Deputy) Chief 1
- Air Unit 2
- 3rd Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 49 (Water Supply-LDH), Engine 40 (Water Supply-LDH), Engine 60
- Battalion Chief 1
- Chemical Unit 1, Chemical Unit 2
- 4th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 5 (Water Supply-LDH), Engine 29, Engine 16, Engine 3 (Water Supply-LDH), Engine 34 (Water Supply-LDH)
- Snorkel 2
- Medic 21B, Medic 25B
- Battalion Chief 8
- Air Unit 1
- 5th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 33, Engine 27, Engine 53, Engine 25
- Ladder 11
- Car 1 (Chief of Department)
- Light Wagon 1
- 6th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 12, Engine 22, Engine 50 (Water Supply-LDH), Engine 59
- Medic 3
- ES-10 (Decontamination Trailer)
- 7th Alarm Assignment:
- Squirt 57, Engine 63, Engine 14, Engine 28 (Water Supply-LDH)
- 8th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 61 (Water Supply-LDH), Squirt 9, Engine 56, Engine 41
- Ladder 13
- Medic 16, Medic 1
- Battalion Chief 2, Battalion Chief 10
- Car 6
- 9th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 38, Engine 66, Engine 45, Engine 68
- Ladder 18, Tower Ladder 6
- Battalion Chief 1102 (Call-Back for Battalion Chief 2)
- 10th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 72, Engine 18, Engine 7, Engine 2
- Ladder 25
- 11th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 71, Engine 35, Engine 103 (Reserve), Engine 119 (Reserve)
- 12th Alarm Assignment:
- Engine 125 (Reserve), Engine 181 (Reserve), Engine 36, Engine 52 (Water Supply-LDH), Engine 180 (ARFF-Reserve-LDH), Engine 19 (Water Supply-LDH)
- Ladder 14
- Rescue 1 (reactivated company for incident)
- Medic 15, Medic 14
- Battalion Chief 13, Battalion Chief 9
- Division (Deputy) Chief 1A
As the fire was going into its sixth hour it had spread up to the 26th floor. With inadequate water pressure coming from the standpipes, firefighters stretched hoses up the building's stairwells to help fight the fire. While hoses were being taken up to the fire a sprinkler technician arrived to fix the water pressure. This improved the hose streams, but the fire had engulfed several floors and could not be contained with just hoses. By 7:00 AM, almost eleven hours into the fire, firefighters were able to get control of the fire on the 22nd through 24th floors, but the fire was still out of control on the 25th and 26th floors and was spreading upwards. Structural damage observed inside the building by firefighters and consultations with a structural engineer led to fears that the damaged floors might collapse. At 7:00 AM an order to evacuate the building was issued by Fire Commissioner Roger Ulshafer, and the building was completely evacuated by 7:30 AM. After the evacuation, the only fire suppression efforts left were water streams being directed to the building from the neighboring Girard Trust Building and One Centre Square.
The fire's spread only stopped when it reached the 30th floor, which was the first fire-affected floor to have automatic sprinklers. Ten sprinklers extinguished the fire on the 30th floor and prevented continued spread. Contained by the automatic sprinklers and running out of fuel, the fire was declared under control at 3:01 PM. The fire lasted over nineteen hours, destroyed eight floors, and killed three firefighters and injured twenty-four. Twelve alarms were called, which brought fifty-one engine companies, fifteen ladder companies, eleven specialized units, and over three hundred firefighters. The fire caused an estimated US$100 million in direct property loss.
After the fire
By February 26 city officials had determined One Meridian Plaza was not in danger of collapse. There was structural damage to horizontal steel beams and floor sections on most of the fire damaged floors. Under extreme fire exposure the beams and girders sagged and twisted and cracks appeared in the concrete floors. However, the overall structure was stable and able to support the weight of the building. Thermal expansion of the steel frame caused some of the granite panels to be dislodged from the building's facade. The streets and buildings around One Meridian Plaza were closed and cordoned off. The 20-story Morris Building and several three-story shops behind One Meridian Plaza on Chestnut Street were damaged by falling debris and sat unused for years until they were demolished in 2000. The neighboring Girard Trust Building, then called Two Mellon Plaza, experienced extensive water damage forcing the closure of the building. A bank in the building reopened a month later but the rest of the tower remained vacant for years. The roads around the building were closed for months after the fire, including a portion of two of Philadelphia's major streets, Broad and Market.
The removal of the uninhabitable One Meridian Plaza from the real estate market and the sudden relocation of the building's tenants to other offices in Philadelphia took 1,500,000 square feet (140,000 m2) of real estate off the market. The city's office vacancy rate was 14.3 percent at the end of 1990; in the two months after the fire, the vacancy rate lowered to 10.7 percent. On December 18 Mayor Wilson Goode signed a law requiring every nonresidential building 75 feet (23 m) tall or taller have sprinklers installed by 1997. An estimated three hundred buildings in the city were affected by the law.
In the years after the fire One Meridian Plaza stood in the middle of Philadelphia vacant. The fate of the building was undecided as the building's owners and its insurer, Aetna, prepared for litigation on how to proceed with repairs, who would control those repairs, and at what cost. E/R Partners proposed deconstructing the building to its 19th floor, then rebuilding from there. Aetna claimed that girders above the 19th level could be repaired and used, cutting $115 million in repair costs from the owner's $250 million estimate. Aetna also proposed taking over the reconstruction. E/R Partners spent $50 million securing One Meridian Plaza and up to $500,000 a month on security guards, utilities, and inspections by engineers while the building stood empty.
Lawsuits on behalf of 16 people and businesses claiming losses as a result of the blaze were filed shortly after the fire, in 1991. In February 1995, a $15 million agreement was reached to reimburse workers and businesses affected by the fire. While not admitting any liability, the $15 million minus legal fees was paid by E/R Partners and was meant for uninsured losses for businesses and workers in One Meridian and the surrounding damaged buildings.
The burned, empty tower was declared "eyesore of the year" and an embarrassment to the city by The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1994; the editorial said the feeling was heightened after One Meridian Plaza could be seen in the background in the film Philadelphia.
The fire left the area a commercial void; most major stores in the area closed and property values fell. Neighboring property owners, such as the owner of the damaged buildings behind One Meridian Plaza, were waiting for a decision on the future of the building before going through with their own development plans. In 1996, the City of Philadelphia sued E/R Partners, asserting that One Meridian Plaza was an environmental hazard and should be demolished or repaired.
In March 1997 E/R Partners settled with Aetna, receiving around $300 million. After the legal issues were settled E/R Partners announced the building would be dismantled. With the announcement of the demolition the city dropped its lawsuit against the owners. Unable to implode the building because of the building density of the area, E/R Partners began an eighteen-month, $23 million process to dismantle the building. Early in the process, which began in 1998, the owners hoped someone would buy the property as is or with the damaged portion of the structure removed, but that hope was soon abandoned. The process was finished in 1999. At the time of the demolition it was the third tallest habitable building ever razed and is currently the seventh, ranking after the World Trade Center's twin towers, the Singer Building, and the original Seven World Trade Center in New York, the Morrison Hotel in Chicago, and 130 Liberty Street in New York.
The site of One Meridian Plaza was bought by the Arden Group in 2000. The site was converted into a parking lot as construction on a new building was held up in a zoning feud with the neighboring site, 1441 Chestnut Street. 1441 Chestnut Street was the site of the Morris Building and other smaller buildings that sat behind One Meridian Plaza. The feud between Arden Group's CEO Craig Spencer and 1441 Chestnut Street developer Mariner Commercial Properties, Inc. CEO Tim Mahoney began in 2003. Spencer and Mahoney settled their dispute in March 2006 and construction on One Meridian's 48-story replacement, the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton began in May. The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton opened in January 2009. A memorial was unveiled on October 21, 2009 at the skyscraper honoring the three firefighters who died in the fire. The memorial features three bronze firefighter helmets atop a marble base with the firefighters' names on it. It sits in an empty area between the condo building and the adjacent hotel along the south side of South Penn Square across from the SW corner of Dilworth Park.
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