Black, acrid smoke filled the air on Wednesday that could be seen for miles as the 107-year-old former Northeast Public High School sat engulfed in flames.
According to Capt. Jeffery Thompson of the Philadelphia Fire Department, the fire, initially reported at about 1:30 in the afternoon at the long-vacant school building at Seventh Street and Lehigh Avenue, quickly grew into a four-alarm fire that took the efforts of about 120 firefighters and 22 different pieces of equipment to get under control.
The graffiti-littered structure, which was owned by the Philadelphia School District until it was recently sold to a new developer, has been vacant since 2002.
As of Friday, Aug. 5, firefighters consider the cause of the blaze “undetermined,” said Thompson.
“Right now, with the amount of damage, the location of the fire and witness interviews, we are unable to determine the cause of the fire,” he said.
The fire official said the first firemen on the scene were from Engine 2, housed at Second and York streets. He said the fire, which the department believes began on the top floor of the building, quickly spread, with a second alarm sent out at around 2 p.m. and the fourth alarm sent out at about 2:32 p.m.
The fire was under control by 3:32 p.m.
Also about 25 homes in the area were evacuated to protect residents from any danger in case the building collapsed.
In the days following the fire, Thompson said, investigators have combed through the building “on their hands and knees” looking for a cause of the fire, to no avail.
Fire officials may yet change their stance, if they do indeed determine a cause of the fire, but “they don’t want to say anything citing a specific cause in case they aren’t sure,” he said.
The school has had a long, notable history in the community, as Star historian Ken Milano reported back in May.
The former high school was originally founded in 1904 as a larger school for the rapidly growing Northeast Manual Training School, a school for boys that was founded by Kensington-based manufacturer Isaac Sheppard.
As president of the Philadelphia Board of Education, Milano found, Sheppard personally donated $1,500 to afford scholarships for the first 100 boys to attend the school.
However, this was before the now-burned building was built. When the Northeast Manual Training School first opened its doors in 1890, it was housed in unused space in the W. A. Lee School building on Howard Street near Girard Avenue.
Here the boys would devote their days to academic study for three hours a day while they worked for two hours a day in shops for industrial work, like welding and carving. Another hour would be devoted to drawing.
The first year, the school had 53 students.
In 12 years, the school was already outgrowing its home in the Lee school building and an old shoe store at Second Street and Girard Avenue, Milano wrote, became the school’s first annex for Northeast.
In 1904, construction of the official school building for Northeast Manual Training School began on the former District of Kensington reservoir site and the next year the school opened for classes.
In 1957, the school, now simply known as Northeast Public High School, moved to 1601 Cottman Avenue, where it stands today.
The building served as Edison High School until 1998. It closed in 2002, after it was known as Julia DeBurgos Bilingual Middle School.
Thompson said he knew the building had been sold by the city’s school district to developers recently, but he was not sure of any plans for the site. ••
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org