The Freedom Valley Chronicles: Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire – Part One

On January 10, 1970, a light in a storefront display case ignited flames that engulfed a community.

It was so different on October 10, 1966.

Leaders of the Lit Brothers Department Store were at the Plymouth Meeting Mall to open their newest store.  Today, the same building houses the Boscov’s Department Store.  For a period of time, this building housed the Hess’s Department Store.

In 1966, local governmental officials joined in welcoming store officials from Philadelphia representing this division of the City Stores Company.  An Olympics theme was utilized to welcome customers to this location.

As part of the Olympics theme, Mr. J. P. Hansen, President and Chief Executive Officer of Lit Brothers, lit a torch to officially open the Plymouth Meeting Mall store.

The people gathered there that day had no idea that 39 months later to the day, the places where they stood would be consumed by fire.

This is what the Plymouth Meeting Mall looked like on October 10, 1966.  The occasion was the grand opening of the Lit Brothers Department Store.  The fountain in front of the store sprayed jets of water into the air.  Foliage lined walkways in the Mall.  Thirty-nine months later – to the day – this section of the Plymouth Meeting Mall was destroyed in a massive fire.  The building housing the Lit Brothers Department Store survived intact likely because of the way the store was constructed.

During the next few days, you’ll learn how the fire at the Plymouth Meeting Mall impacted people throughout the Freedom Valley.

You’ll read that no human life was lost in this fire – likely because of luck, because some took actions years before to enhance fire safety, and because at least one guy had excellent hearing.  Otherwise, the tragedy would have been far worse.

You’ll read that while no human life was lost during the fire, other lives were lost.

You’ll read how the actions taken by the leadership of the Lit Brothers Department Store during construction of its building were likely critical to stopping the fire from moving into the store itself.  Similar actions had also been taken years earlier by the leaders of the Strawbridge and Clothier Department Store and the F. W. Woolworth Company.

You’ll see photos of young – and not-so-young – men who rushed to save lives and property.  In the bitter cold.  With snow on the ground.  Not much different from what we’re having thus far in the winter of 2017-2018.

You’ll read the words of children – now adults in their 50’s and 60’s – who remember that day.

The Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire.  January 10, 1970.  A date seared into the memory of a community.

The photos displayed here are ones that appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on October 10, 1966.  (Photos are courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographic Collection of Temple University.)

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© 2018 Richard McDonough