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This Was Doylestown, 1973

A special edition looking back at the fire that destroyed the former Doylestown Public School, 40 years ago this week.

Introduction - 

The Doylestown Public School was built for $28,000 in 1889-90 at Broad and Court streets, the site of the former private Union Academy, Doylestown's first school. The three-story stone school, designed in the style of a chateau, could accommodate approximately 500 pupils in the primary and secondary grades.

As student enrollment grew, a three-story brick annex was built in 1912 behind the main school, which faced Broad Street down from the corner of Court Street. Another brick addition was constructed in 1925. While the stone building often is identified as Doylestown High School, the junior and senior high school grades actually were housed in the annexes.

Run by the borough school board, Doylestown High School accepted pupils from area communities without their own high school. The sending districts paid tuition to the Doylestown board. By 1945, nearly two-thirds of the students came from outside the borough. After years of effort, Doylestown and eight other towns joined together and built the Central Bucks Joint High School, which opened in September 1952 for grades seven through twelve.

The old public school continued as an elementary until August 1966, just before Doyle Elementary School opened. In February of that year, the county agreed to buy the borough school property for $80,000. Called the Bucks County Administration Annex, the main building housed several public and private agencies, and the 1912 addition was used for storage of old county records.

At 2:15 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, 1973, a fire broke out on the unoccupied third floor of the main building. When the fierce flames were finally extinguished, the stone structure was reduced to a smoldering ruin, and the brick annex sustained heavy smoke and water damage.

The Daily Intelligencer carried extensive coverage of the fire in Saturday's edition. What follows are excerpts from the main article and three related stories.

 

Spectacular fire destroys former Doylestown Public School -

The Bucks County Administration Annex complex was ruined Friday afternoon by a spectacular fire. Flames burst through the roof of the castle-like structure and leaped 50 feet in the air at the height of the blaze.

Some 60 persons, including a YMCA preschool class, were routed from the historic buildings at East Court and Broad streets, catercorner from the Bucks County Courthouse.

Bucks County Fire Marshal Walter M. Carwithen said the cause of the fire is unknown at this time and under investigation. The ruins were still smoldering as of Saturday morning. Damage to the building, furnishings and equipment could go as high as $150,000.

The three-building complex, topped by a 19th century bell cupola, formerly served as the Doylestown Public School.

The fire, which was reported at 2:15 p.m. Friday, apparently started in the abandoned third floor of the main grey stone building and spread to the second floor. The roof later collapsed in flames. The red brick annex adjacent to the main building was heavily damaged by smoke, water and falling debris.

A torch 50 feet high, five stories above the top of the hill around which Doylestown is built, was visible for at least four miles. It consumed the building's cupola in a sunny, cold setting of rainbows from the spray of firemen's hoses.

Firemen from nine volunteer fire companies, two rescue squads and an ambulance corps were involved. Fire companies fought the flames for more than three hours before getting the fire under control. Four provided auxiliary service.

Close to 1,000 persons ringed the site. As spectators left, more arrived on the scene.

Since 1966, when the county bought the complex for $80,000, the main building housed offices of the Bucks County Public Schools Intermediate Unit 22, the Central Bucks YMCA, the Bucks Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Bucks District Soil Conservation Service and the U.S. Navy recruiting office.

The brick addition, built in 1912, was used as a major storage facility for priceless county records, including deeds, wills and marriage licenses, some dating to the 1680s. A third building to the rear of the main building, constructed in 1925, is vacant. It escaped serious damage.

Dr. Albert Neiman, assistant executive director of the Intermediate Unit, whose office was on the second floor of the main building, discovered the flames in a former science laboratory on the dusty third floor.

"I smelled the smoke and ran upstairs. There were flames shooting up. Everybody started to yell to get out," he said.

Neighborhood children and county officials formed chain lines to pass on cartons and files of documents. Pulled from the smoldering complex were about 300 hardbound marriage license dockets and more than 600 metal files of wills.

In addition, thousands of other records of the prothonotary and district attorney were safely left in wire-mesh pens in the annex after the flames were repulsed. Also saved was a collection of 75 stuffed big game animal trophies, valued at $100,000, donated to the county for educational purposes.

County building supervisor John Hofman coordinated the effort to save the records. He said a county truck took the material to the county-owned Roads and Bridges Building on Route 413 in Buckingham Township.

John T. "Tommy" Welsh Jr., deputy chief clerk to the county commissioners, estimated that the damage to the Intermediate Unit's renovated offices and equipment on the second floor totaled $25,000. In addition, gymnasium equipment of the YMCA and office materials of the youth corps, soil conservation office and Navy recruiting officer were damaged.

Several aerial trucks towered above the complex pouring cascades of water on the building while firemen directed jets of water from pump trucks surrounding the site.

Commissioner Joseph F. Catania, who aided firemen in scouting the complex, said he was unsure where the Intermediate Unit offices and personnel would be relocated.

"I have no idea where we'll put them but some provisions have to be made," he said, his trench coat soaked from the spray of water.

 

Workers in building flee to safety -

Unlike in the days when Donald R. McClintock, borough councilman, was principal of the elementary school the building once housed--and could get it vacated of 350 to 400 kids in less than a minute-and-a-half--the workers in the building Friday were poorly organized when they fled.

Many in the Bucks County Intermediate Unit offices on the second floor got the alarm from Gene Mariani, a regional director of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, also located on the second floor.

"I was working at my desk," he said, "when I saw shadows on the glass partition. I thought at first, maybe it was a flock of birds. I looked out the window and saw smoke blowing down past it.

"I told my secretary I thought we were on fire and to get her coat and get out. Then I went next door to tell the other people."

Mrs. Evelyn Holbert, an employee of the Intermediate Unit, said, "I was working on a calculator when a man from higher education [Mariani] came in and said, 'I don't want to be an alarmist, but I think the place is on fire.'

"Then we saw the smoke coming past the window," she said. "With that, I grabbed my coat and just ran, because we knew it would be a tinderbox,"

The flight was not pell-mell, however. Mrs. Dondi Miller, secretary to H. James Ross, assistant executive director of the Intermediate Unit, stopped to pick up a cash box. It contained some checks and a small amount of cash.

And Mrs. Joan Day, secretary to L. Garth Burns, Intermediate Unit math curriculum consultant, was the epitome of order. "I turned off the air conditioner, locked the filing cabinet, locked the desk and closed the office door," she said. But she left the picture of her children on her desk.

Many of the office workers joined the crowds along East Court and North Broad streets, near where tumbling gables spread charred junk and sent black ashes wafting down through stream and smoke.

Among the watchers was McClintock, the last principal to preside over students in the stone structure, which was built as a school in 1889 and remained in that use until August 1966.

McClintock, now principal of Doyle Elementary School, three months ago asked an artist to paint the building "because I was afraid we would lose it. I've got a lot of memories in there. It's real sad."

After a moment's thought, he added, "It's a landmark to literally thousands of people. A lot of people hated it while they were there, but they have lots of memories of it. Almost any place I go, I find someone who went to school in it."

 

Human chain saves irreplaceable county records -

Approximately 200 Bucks County officials, employees and other volunteers formed a human chain Friday afternoon to help haul reams of records out of the red brick addition of the Bucks County Administration Annex. The section, known as Annex II, is connected to the main building in which the blaze was centered.

The volunteers were recruited from the crowd, most of whom had gathered out of curiosity to watch the blaze. Some were teenagers. Salvaged from the annex were over 300 marriage docket books, public defender records, wills and a collection of animal trophies valued at $100,000.

The mounted animal heads, which were donated to the county by William W. Conrad, a former big game hunter, were being stored in the annex until a use could be found for them. The collection was valued at $100,000 and included 75 pieces, among them a leopard and a bear.

"Anyone who was standing around pitched in and helped get the documents out," said Register of Wills Thomas E. Welsh.

Welsh said that while there were no flames in the annex, there was smoke. "I didn't really notice the smoke," he said. "I was too busy perspiring too much."

Ronald Morris, chief engineer at the courthouse, said, "We had no trouble soliciting help. It was nice to see so many kids pitch in and help."

One of those who pitched in and helped was Roger Mock, 12, son of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Mock, of Homestead Drive.

"I came down to watch and to see just how bad the fire was," the youth explained. Roger, who is a student at Linden Elementary School, helped with about a dozen classmates.

As the documents were taken out of the annex, they were stored on the porch of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Poole, of East Court Street, whose home is directly across the street from the annex.

"I was a little afraid my wooden porch might cave in from having so much added weight on it," Poole said. "I saw people carrying the books over so I helped them," said Poole, who is in his early 70s.

It took over two hours before all the documents were removed from the building. In the middle of it all was Commissioner Joseph F. Catania, directing people and pitching in where help was needed.

 

Doylestown Public School was educational landmark -

Editor's note - This article was written by W. Lester Trauch, who graduated from Doylestown High School in 1925 and was a lifelong friend of classmate James A. Michener. Trauch (1906-2001) was a reporter and later an editor for the Intelligencer from 1930 to 1981.

The square, ornate Venetian-looking cupola on the 84-year-old former stone schoolhouse plunged into the roaring inferno.

The cupola stood defiantly in the flames, with its wooden roof railing and exterior walls untouched by fire for minutes, glimpsed between showers of ominous smoke and streams of water from the high-pressure hoses.

The bell that tolled the opening of school as well as the termination of recesses, fortunately was no longer in the cupola. The bell is now in a cupola on the fieldhouse at War Memorial Field.

The high school's two most famed celebrities, Dr. Margaret Mead, noted anthropologist and writer, and author James A. Michener, often hurried to beat that black mark, so as not to be tardy when they heard the school bell while walking to school.

The three-story stone building, with its institution-like exterior, was one of the most individualistic and historic in the county. When it was dedicated on April 8, 1890, the governor of Pennsylvania attended the all-day ceremonies.

It was heralded as the most modern, architecturally progressive and best-equipped schoolhouse in the state. The classrooms had individual sinks with sliding doors to hide them from the view of the pupils. A newfangled ventilating system had been installed in the walls with chutes leading to registers in the walls.

The stairways, made of wood with landings and sweeping curves, had richly carved banisters, elaborate newel posts and railings. The building was also unusual because it was one of the first schools to have a gymnasium, which was located on the third floor. That floor had a wide corridor lined with glass cases for exhibits of birds, small animals and other objects for nature study.

In 1912, a brick structure was built adjacent to it and housed the junior and senior high school. In 1925, the third unit, a brick structure, was added to the complex.

The three-building complex ceased to be a high school in 1952, when Central Bucks High School opened [for grades seven through twelve]. It ceased to be an elementary school in 1966, when Doyle Elementary School was finished.

 

Aftermath -

In the days after the fire, the county commissioners reviewed the damage and announced they intended to demolish the ruins of the former school and the surviving additions. They later made a formal decision awarding the demolition contract. Just before a wrecking crew tore down the buildings in July 1973, a 50-foot-long Mercer tile frieze was removed from the auditorium and taken to the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works for storage (it's still there).

The site became a parking lot for high-ranking county employees (nicknamed the "Lot of Lords"), and remains so today.

 

Annex to be demolished, replaced with parking lot -

The Bucks County Administration Annex, reduced to a burning shell Friday by fire, likely will be demolished.

Bucks Commissioner Chairman Joseph F. Catania said Tuesday that emergency weekend meetings held in the aftermath of the fire "all pointed to demolition of the building."

All three floors of the main building, which was built in 1889, collapsed from the flames. The red brick annex to it, built in 1912, received heavy smoke and water damage.

Although no decision has been made, Catania said, "it is very unlikely that both (buildings) will remain up."

Instead of replacing the annex with a new building at Broad and Court streets, any new construction will be lodged at Neshaminy Manor, in keeping with a county policy to avoid scattering county office buildings, the commissioners said. The former schoolhouse likely will be replaced with a parking lot.

The annex was used as a major storage facility for county records, including some deeds and prothonotary documents that date to the 1680s. Hundreds of records were transferred to the county's Road and Bridges Building on Route 413 in Buckingham.

Bucks County Fire Marshal Walter M. Carwithen said a complete investigation has not been made yet. "We have some ideas," Carwithen said of the fire's origin, but would not elaborate.

Edwin Hirsch, director of the county's real estate office, said the cost of the fire has not been estimated. He said insurance adjusters would inspect the building.

 

Postscript -

In 2002, the Doylestown Historical Society and Doylestown Borough Council co-sponsored a freestanding plaque at the corner of Broad and Court streets.

Under the heading "Doylestown High School," the text reads, in part: "This plaque is dedicated to the long procession of devoted administrators, teachers, and students who constituted the School. The School consisted of first through twelfth grade and an opportunity class now called special education."

During Doylestown's County Seat Bicentennial in 2012, the original datestone from the Broad Street facade of the school was attached to the Millennium Wall on the same corner.

The plaque, approximately 5 feet high by 4 feet wide, has raised letters reading "Doylestown Public School. Erected A.D. 1889." It had been removed during the 1973 demolition and stored for decades in the principal's closet at Central Bucks West High School.

The Doylestown Historical Society, the Central Bucks School District, the county government and private donors sponsored the restoration and placement of the original plaque.

 

Did you witness or help fight the fire at the former Doylestown Public School? Please share your recollections in the "comments" box.

 

From The Daily Intelligencer, Week of Feb. 18-24, 1973

Jeff Lugar February 18, 2013 at 11:50 AM
Now I'll never walk by that parking lot without thinking "Lot of the Lords". Anyway, this is getting close to what I'd like to see some of; being born in 1971, I'd love to see some 'regular editions' of 70s and early 80s stuff that I may have long forgotten.
Chuck Hall February 18, 2013 at 11:57 AM
My father, Carl Hall was the Doylestown fire chief at the time. I was a student at Doyle Elementary School. The School principal, Mr. McClintock, came and got me from my classroom so he could show me the smoke and tell me about the fire. He told me my father was doing a great job and that I should be proud of him. I certainly was. One of the great things our community experienced then, as now, is the wonderful generosity of our volunteer firefighters and the cooperation among the fire companies in our area.
Carol Norwood February 18, 2013 at 06:34 PM
I was a young secretary at Central Bucks High School West that day. Word of the fire came quickly and everyone was abuzz about how tragic it was. That building was a beautiful landmark in our town. I simply cannot believe it's been 40 years ago though!
Lois Venarchick February 19, 2013 at 06:12 AM
I was an 11th grade student when this fire happened. My grandparents lived down Court Street and since we were visiting them along with my mother, we walked down to the fire. My mom had graduated in 1947 from Doylestown High School and stood in shocked silence, watching the fire. I think she even cried a little. I remember that the old building seemed to be alive and had decided to go out in a blaze of glory rather than be torn down at some future date. It was a very sad day for my mom and her family.
Claire Williams February 20, 2013 at 02:22 PM
Do we know what started the fire. Thanks for the stories...

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