The winter morning of Wednesday, February 23, 1994, dawned gray, cold and snowy over the Lehigh Valley. The few pedestrians on Allentown’s Hamilton Mall shivered under its snow-covered canopies, stepping carefully while hoping to avoid the drifts that gathered at each corner. There was little vehicle traffic, but that was not unusual on so icy a morning.
Clearly though something unusual was happening at the corner of 7th and Hamilton. It was only when they got there and looked north that pedestrians had a shock that riveted them to the sidewalk, the brain not believing what the eyes were seeing. There was Corporate Plaza, the city’s newest office building cracked in two like a discarded eggshell and half sunken below the pavement. What was hailed as the city’s redevelopment salvation had become an instant ruin.
Some were saying that it could be saved. But Allentown Mayor William L. Heydt, just 2 ½ months into the job, had few illusions about its future. “The building,” he said in a statement that was videotaped, picked up by CNN and carried across the country, “is history.”
The circumstances that led to the drama of Corporate Plaza’s death had been laid many thousands of years ago in the limestone soil that honeycombs the Lehigh Valley.
In 2000, Percy Dougherty, Kutztown University geography professor, sinkhole expert and Lehigh County commissioner, noted that the Corporate Plaza sinkhole was probably two holes. He also noted that the ingredients for such holes were formed at the time of the Ice Age. “Trying to predict such sinkholes is futile,” Dougherty said.
Frank Moyer, the geological engineer with F&M Associates who did the test borings for Corporate Plaza told the press on March 16, 1994 that his recommendation to set the 7-story building on spread footings, which are placed in the soil at the bottom of support columns to distribute or spread the buildings weight over a bigger area, was flawed. Previous tall buildings like the new Lehigh County Courthouse in 1963 were put on a thick concrete pad. In 1928 PPL skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett sunk his building’s roots deep into bedrock using support columns called caissons, 19 in all. “I made recommendations which were followed and obviously failed,” said Moyer.
Ancient local geology hit the late 20th century on February 23, 1994 at 12:30 a.m. Stunned workers at the city water plant noticed a 2 foot drop in levels at the East Side and Huckleberry Ridge reservoirs. Eight million gallons of city water had disappeared.
Water resources manager Dan Koplish called the mayor who joined a team of fire department and sanitation crews looking for the leak. At 4 a.m. a huge one was found by a city sanitation worker on 7th street just north of Center Square. As it bubbled Heydt turned toward Corporate Plaza and saw it shudder. Shortly thereafter window glass began to break and bricks popped.
Like the “unsinkable” Titanic, Corporate Plaza was living on borrowed time. At 6:30 a.m. when one of the building’s huge support pillars slipped into the sinkhole causing the building to crack into the form of a massive V, no one doubted that Heydt’s instinct was correct.
But Corporate Plaza had no ocean to disappear into. Its failure was visible for almost a month and attracted crowds of the curious. From nearby office buildings and restaurants, downtown workers, shoppers and others gathered.
One favored vantage spot was a second-floor back window at the former Wendy’s restaurant. A man who lived in Easton traveled to Allentown by bus every day to position himself there. To anyone who would listen he offered a running commentary on the slowly sagging building’s fate
Later Corporate Plaza’s tenants traded stories about how odd the building had always seemed. Linda L. Kauffman, then executive director of the Allentown Parking Authority, recalled how she had a picture on the wall that never hung right. “Every morning I would come in, and the picture would be crooked,” she recalled. And the evening before the collapse while working late with another employee, both noticed strange noises and often groans as if the seven-story building was alive.
The morning of the collapse Kauffman and other tenants were allowed back into the building one last time to pick up personal items. She got photos and other small items. Later with city Director of Community Development Donald Bernhard, she used wastepaper baskets to scoop up unpaid ticket receipts.
Another tenant, attorney Tom Anewalt, hoping to save his collection of vintage political memorabilia, was allowed to enter the building. He was able to rescue a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt, but could not save his campaign button collection, some of which had been a gift from his grandfather.
In death Corporate Plaza proved more durable than anyone had suspected. “Headache” balls swung from cranes seemed puny and futile against its solid walls. Even an army of them would have hardly made a dent in the efforts to turn the structure to rubble.
Finally a decision was reached to implode the building. Perhaps, under the theory “when you have a lemon, make lemonade” the city sold 3000 tickets at $5 for the right to pull the switch. It raised $20,000 for the Red Cross and the Allentown Downtown Improvement District.
At 9 a.m. on March 19, 1994, Steve Pukszyn, a 48-year-old warehouse worker, the winner of the contest, flipped the toggle and with a siren’s scream and five huge bangs, Corporate Plaza disintegrated. Its last visible remnant was a windsock on the rooftop helicopter pad that fluttered briefly like a pennant on a castle wall before it too disappeared into the billowing gray dust of the rubble cloud.
Gradually the Corporate Plaza site reverted to a parking lot it had once been. Thus it remained until construction of the new arena got underway in December. Its builders promise a more modern technique and a surer foundation.