Philadelphia weighs danger of old buildings

Falling facades may pose a risk to pedestrians in Center City

November 01, 2001|By L. Stuart Ditzen | L. Stuart Ditzen,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - For 93 years, the big slab of stone held on, clinging, 10 stories up, to the cornice of the Lafayette Building at Fifth and Chestnut streets.

On June 6, about 4:30 in the morning, it let go. Dropping straight, the stone crashed onto the sidewalk on Fifth Street and punched a platter-size dent in the concrete.

No one was injured. But had the stone fallen a few hours later, when the street would have been crowded with tourists, office workers and shoppers, the result could have been disastrous.

Most of the tall buildings in Center City Philadelphia are 60 to 100 years old, and many, like the Lafayette, are adorned with massive cornices, ledges and balconies that overhang the street. Tens of thousands of people pass by them each day.

And questions cannot help but arise: How well-maintained are Philadelphia's tall buildings? What is the danger that bits and pieces of their heavy ornamental features may fall?

Can pedestrians be reasonably sure they are safe?

Almost anyone - architect, engineer or city inspector - who ventures answers to those questions is largely guessing.

Danger signs hidden

That's because the danger signs of crumbling facades on old buildings are often hidden, according to construction professionals. And Philadelphia does not have an ordinance that requires owners of tall buildings to conduct periodic facade inspections.

New York and Chicago - where aging high-rises occasionally rain brick and stone onto streets - do have such laws.

Building owners in New York are required to hire architects or engineers to conduct close-up, top-to-bottom facade inspections every five years. In Chicago, inspections are required every four years.

Owners must file reports detailing what inspectors have found. When dangerous conditions are discovered, owners must make immediate repairs.

Whether Philadelphia needs a similar ordinance, and whether significant numbers of the city's tall buildings are in need of maintenance, is subject to debate.

Robert D. Solvibile Sr., deputy commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said that while the department is considering a facade-inspection ordinance, he does not believe it is needed. "I think the owners, as a whole, are taking care of these buildings," Solvibile said. "We have a beautiful Center City, and I think we have a safe Center City."

No one among a dozen architects, engineers, city officials and preservationists interviewed said they believed Center City was unsafe - but several expressed concerns about the potential of building parts to fall.

"Is it a major problem? If it hurts one person, it's a major problem," said architect Hyman Myers of the Vitetta Group, a specialist in historic preservation. "Does it happen a lot? It doesn't happen a lot, but it occurs more often than we know."

In August, city inspectors ordered the area around 13th and Chestnut streets closed for several hours after a piece of masonry appeared to have fallen from the Adelphia House apartments there. Later, it was determined that the masonry had not fallen from the building. Where it came from was not clear.

Myers said a facade piece can drop from a building and - if it is relatively small and hits no one - may simply be picked up and thrown away.

"My overview of Center City is that it doesn't happen frequently, but it does happen," Solvibile said. "It's not a major problem."

Gray Smith, a Center City architect, was not so sure. "I think it happens more frequently than you might imagine," he said.

Center City is a patchwork of historic districts, each with hundreds of buildings. City law requires that facades of all buildings within such districts be kept in good condition.

If a building shows signs of deterioration, the inspection department may order an inspection and require the owner to make repairs. But critics say a recalcitrant owner can ignore department citations with relative impunity.

The department takes action when something happens - such as the stone falling from the Lafayette Building.

The manager of that building, Joseph Righter of Independence Realty, said he still does not know what caused the cornice stone to fall. An engineering firm is examining the facade and making necessary repairs. "Public safety was our No. 1 concern," he said. "I think all property owners in the city need to pay closer attention to the problem and do a physical inspection every two years. You've got buildings 80 and 90 years old."

Widely publicized incident

The most widely publicized incident of falling masonry in recent years was a wall collapse at a parking garage at Broad and Pine streets in 1997 that killed Common Pleas Court Judge Berel Caesar. The garage was owned by the estate of real-estate speculator Samuel Rappaport, who was notorious for ignoring city violation notices.

After the collapse, the department cited Rappaport properties for more than 1,300 violations. The estate made required repairs.

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