Historic Kennett Square building damaged in Nov. 19 fire
11/21/2014 12:57PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
The Chalfant House was damaged by fire on Wednesday afternoon.
By Richard L. Gaw
The historic Chalfant House in Kennett Square, constructed in 1884 and one of the town's most long-standing and recognizable structures, was severely damaged by fire on Nov. 19.
The incident was caused by an oven fire that occurred in the main floor kitchen sometime after 3:30 p.m. When fire extinguishers could not put out the blaze, fire companies were called to the scene, and arrived minutes later.
Led by the Kennett Square Fire Company, an estimated ten separate fire companies arrived at the house's location on 220 North Union Street, and the blaze was eventually put out by 6:30 p.m., and firefighters left the scene by 8:30 p.m.
No firefighters were hurt in fighting the blaze, but one tenant of the house sustained minor injuries.
The home served as the residence for four tenants.
Built in 1884, the home was originally owned by William Chalfant, and was designed by renowned architect Frank Furness (1839-1912). Throughout his 45-year career, Furness designed more than 600 buildings, most of them in the Philadelphia area. His architecture was known for its eclectic, muscular and idiosyncratic style, seen not only in homes like the Chalfant House, but in banks, office buildings, libraries, churches and synagogues. Although many of the buildings he designed have since been demolished, several remain, including the Main Reading Room of the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the now-restored Wilmington Train Station.
Kennett Square resident Meredith Langer, who lives behind the house, said the building was divided into four apartments and occupied by four residents. As the home was being boarded up by workers at about 9 p.m., she spoke about her admiration for Furness' architecture.
"Furness has been in the news a lot recently because six of his homes are on the market in the Philadelphia vicinity," Langer said. "When you look at the listings for those houses, they've all been changed inside of them, but everything about this house was all original, from the chandeliers in the living room on."
"We all recognize it as one of the more iconic buildings in Kennett Square, and were devastated by what may look like a loss," said Lynn Sinclair, member of the Kennett Borough Council and Kennett Square historian. "It is the most unusual and one of the largest homes in Kennett Square, and certainly up there in terms of importance and visibility."
In providing an historical backdrop of the home, Sinclair said that Chalfant was a banker with the National Bank of West Chester. After his death, the home was occupied by his six children, including his daughter, Jenny, and son, John. Neither married, and subsequently, two streets in Kennett Square are named in memory of them: Bachelor Alley and Maiden Lane.
Scudder Stevens, the Chairman of the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors, was leaving his office late Wednesday afternoon just up the street from the Chalfant House on Union Street, when he saw several fire companies battling the blaze during rush hour.
"We spend a lot of time as township officials looking at emergency services," Stevens said at the start of the board meeting later that evening. "We're talking about establishing a regional police force. We have contractual obligations with fire companies. We spend a lot of time talking with the chiefs of the Longwood and Kennett fire companies, trying to find out what is a reasonable and fair price we should be paying for their service. And then there is a fire at a very special building, and there they were, doing what they needed to do, as rush hour traffic was beginning to pile up, and [firefighters] were having to move things along, to make sure that things were under control.
"When push comes to shove, they're the glue that holds it all together," Stevens added. "They're there, and they're doing the job. It's really important to recognize that. It happens all the time and we hear about it most of the time after the fact. It's important to bear in mind how important they are, because they make our lives possible, at great risk to themselves."
David B. Myers, president of the Historic Kennett Square Board of Directors, said buildings like the Chalfant House have helped contribute to the economic vitality of Kennett Square, and often add "curb appeal" to potential companies considering opening businesses there.
"In terms of economics, that's what we sell about Kennett -- the blend of old and new," said Myers, who lives across the street from the historic home. "Just where that house is situated is where tons of economic opportunities have arisen, such as the Genesis Building on State Street.
"We may have lost part of the old that makes Kennett Square so valuable, but the great thing about Kennett Square is that organizations, borough council and committees all have a collective footprint here, and will bring both resources and ideas in order to bring the building back," he added. "An unfortunate event like this will only bring us closer together."
Already, an effort is underway to raise $40,000 -- $10,000 for each tenant -- to help each with moving and transition costs. Within one day of the fire, 50 individuals had contributed $4,285 to the 220 N. Union Street Fire Relief Fund, through the website, gofundme. In addition, Sovana Bistro donated food to the displaced tenants in the direct aftermath of the fire.
"Two of the four tenants are uninsured, and these funds will go toward clothing, first month's rent/security deposit, gas and food," the sit read. "Each and every dollar is useful and will make this difficult transition easier. We thank you all deeply and send our love."
To learn more about how to make an online contribution to the fund, visit www.gofundme.com and type "220 North Union Street, Kennett Square, Pa." in order to be connected with the fund request page.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.