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Heralding Our History: Blistering 1998 fire destroys Ivyland Borough Hall


Two of Ivyland’s biggest fires may have happened on the same spot. In 1893, Edmund Barton’s carpentry shop burned down. This remained Ivyland’s largest fire for over a century. The location of his old shop was on the corner of Wilson and Mason avenues (88 Wilson Ave.). Afterward, Barton constructed a new building which would become known as the Town Hall.

Originally, the building had a shop on the first floor and Town Hall on the second. The property was later turned over to the town for use as a fire company headquarters. In 1936, the borough formally bought the building from the fire company, though ownership has volleyed back and forth many times over the years.

The Hall was outfitted with a large meeting room on the first floor and a stage on the second floor. The stage was occasionally used for plays and performances. Council meetings were typically held on the first floor. As the building’s condition degraded, its use as a meeting place waned. It is recalled that the oil heater on the first floor caused noise issues during council meetings, ending with members having to shout to be heard.

Leading up to the fire in 1998, the building was in a state of disrepair. Two sides emerged in town, one for preserving the building, the other for demolishing it. Thirty-year councilman Bob Severn once said that if the fire had not happened, the building would have most likely been preserved.

The fire at the old borough hall started at 12:12 a.m. on Jan. 5, 1998. At the time, the building was 102 years old. Firemen were not alerted by a 911 call, instead the fire pull box at the station was pulled down. The Ivyland fire station was about a block away from the hall.

According to then-fire Chief Albert DiGideo, he immediately set up a base of operations in a building across the street from the fire. From here he made sure that all of the “70 firefighters from five companies” were organized, and that he was able to acquire the proper amount of water from different mains to fuel each truck.

Trucks from Warminster, Hatboro, Southampton, Willow Grove and Hartsville all came to assist.

The chief’s main priority was containing the fire and preventing as much property damage as possible. The neighboring property owner — James Jordan — had already experienced melted sidings and lost his boat. The borough hall building had been stripped down for inspection, and was highly flammable, acting like a chimney.

The amount of heat it gave off was tremendous and even melted plastic on one of the fire trucks’ lights.

Severn remembered running over to watch the building burn from a safe distance. One resident on Gough Avenue blocks away tells of how the orange glow of the fire came through the bedroom window that night. He then walked down to the scene and described the heat, the chaos and the solemn faces of neighbors as the building blazed to its demise.

It was a night and scene that neighbors in the small community would not forget.

DiGideo was aware of the contention around the building. Instead of conducting an investigation himself (acting as Ivyland Marshal), he let the more-experienced state and county marshals do the job.

The cause of the fire was ultimately undetermined. However, the most likely reason — and the reason given in the report — was an electrical failure. Shortly after, the rest of the building was demolished and the land cleared.

Today it is the site of Ivyland’s Veterans Memorial.

The time following the fire was a trying period for the town. Borough officials had to deal with legal battles with the insurance company over damages. The council changed meeting venues multiple times. Plans to construct a new borough hall in the same place went unfulfilled.

Instead, the borough bought a property behind the fire company and public park that went on sale in 2003. This property had been owned by the Hobensacks, a well-known and well-regarded longtime family of Ivyland. But the town could not afford to properly renovate the building.

The borough came up with a clever solution, striking a deal with a construction company to trade some land Ivyland obtained from the North American Technology Center reuse for a reduced work price.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Dec. 13, 2003 and gave a happy conclusion to the saga of the borough hall fire.

Today Ivyland boasts a Borough Hall that provides the facilities it needs to run the town’s business and government, yet maintains the historic charm that makes Ivyland so unique.

This column was adapted from a 2010 scholarship essay written by Gavin Rapp.

“Heralding Our History” is a new weekly feature. Each month, the Herald will delve into the history of one of its towns.

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