Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Great Philadelphia Confligration

There is a parking lot at 713 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia at an address which has been the home of two grand Masonic temples as well as the home of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.  The second of those buildings was built from the shell of the first after it burned and eventually served as storefronts and a location for civic events.

Legendary architect William Strickland designed the first building, an ornate structure with a marble and stone exterior and a distinctive three-story steeple-shaped tower rising from its center.  Construction began in 1809 and took two years  when it became the home of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania as well as serving as a Masonic Lodge.

A magnificent building for its time, the Philadelphia Masonic Hall was one of that city's landmarks until March 9, 1819.  On that evening, as Washington Lodge 59 was meeting there, a chimney fire swept through the building, completely destroying it.  No one was hurt, and Lodge members saved some property by carrying it out of the building, but much was lost as the fire erupted into what was described as "a great conflagration."  Reports say the inferno became so intense it was visible in New Castle, Delaware, 32 miles away.  A letter from Rebecca Gratz, a well-known 38-year old Philadelphia socialite who lived next door, describes the incident in detail.  In it, she makes it clear the building might have been saved but for the fact that the volunteer firemen who came to fight the fire were drunk!  As the evening progressed and it became clear the Masonic Hall was lost and Ms. Gratz' house was safe, the event became almost festive as Ms. Gratz added fuel to the fire — pun intended — by serving alcoholic beverages to the fire fighters.

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