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Fascinating Fire Escapes: Part 1

By Jonathan Stevens, Assoc. A.I.A., LEED AP

Fire escapes have always been a fascinating part of architectural history, not only for their number one priority of protecting and saving human life, but also as a beautiful expression of design, functionality, and aesthetics.  In this blog series I will cover fire escape history, design, construction characteristics, and also preservation and conservation.

One of the first fire escapes documented was invented in 18th-century England.  In 1784, Daniel Maseres of England invented a machine called a fire escape that was fastened to the window and would enable anyone to descend to the street without injury.  The first credited person in the U.S. to patent a fire escape was Anna Connelly of Philadelphia in 1887.  She invented the exterior staircase that mounted to the outside of a building, specifically designed for people to use as a means of egress during a fire.  Since her initial invention, thousands of patents were issued for similar fire escape designs.  Many types have been constructed from vertical ladders, to chutes, to what became the most widely used and building code accepted, the wrought iron fire escape.

Fire escapes started being widely built in 1860 after public outcry following two deadly fires in tenant buildings forced New York City’s Building Department to pass a law requiring fire escapes on all newly constructed tenement housing.  Building materials of this time where highly combustible, and combined with overcrowded, poorly-built structures meant fires in tenement buildings where often deadly.  The two fires in early 1860 claimed the lives of 30 people. 

By the mid-1860s city building codes around the country started calling for a “fire safe” means of egress out of buildings.  Unfortunately, such codes where hard to enforce and it was common for landlords to pay-off local government officials so they did not have to add fire escapes to their new buildings or retroactively install them on their existing buildings.

Early fire escapes where poorly constructed and cheaply made with little to no regard to the
intended user.  They could have been made out of anything, and often consisted of a few wooden boards affixed to the building with a wooden ladder or stairs connecting levels.  Some of the earlier designs used a rope and pulley system to lower people to the ground.  Because most landlords did not want to detract from their building’s main façade, early fire escapes where located in the rear of buildings, with most leading to a closed court yard that offered little to no more safety then the fire breathing structure they had just vacated.  With each coming year, as massive fires continued, city building codes gradually grew more stringent and focused more on life safety.

Stay tuned for the next blogs in this series as I dive deeper into the history of the fire escape from where it began, to its highlight years, and where they stand in today’s society.