Eddie Fuchs stood in the lobby of the Bush House Hotel, amid the cloying smell of burnt wood and the drone of industrial fans, and laid the truth out plainly.
“My friend directed me here, and it’s been a godsend,” Fuchs said recently inside the Quakertown landmark, scarred two weeks ago by a devastating fire. “Here I am, starting to put my life back together.”
A traffic stop nine months ago resulted in a litany of charges when Fuchs found out the hard way that his passengers were carrying drugs and weapons. First went his job, then his house.
Now, he’s working again as a maintenance technician. He’s been given a second chance, like his 100 or so neighbors at the sprawling boarding house.
Over the years, the Bush House Hotel has been featured reluctantly in news articles, usually as addresses listed in crime blotters. The free publicity began to influence locals’ perception: One business owner said his mother used sending him there as a tongue-in-cheek threat if he misbehaved.
It gained renewed attention April 26 when a fire tore through the 200-year-old building, claiming the life of Marcella Heitz, whose apartment is where authorities say the blaze started.
But salvaged from the ashes of that disaster is a new understanding of the Bush House. Community members sprang into action, stitching together a network of aid for the 25 residents temporarily displaced by the blaze. They came to see what the boarding house’s tenants have long known — that in a town toeing the line between suburban and rural, it exists as a rare, vital foundation for those looking to claw their way out of misfortune.
“This isn’t like Philly, where there are shelters and public transportation,” said Lois Wisler, a member of Quakertown Community Outreach, a volunteer group that helps homeless people in the area. “Those resources aren’t available. For a lot of these people, this is the last stop before the street.”
The Bush House Hotel started its life in the late 1800s, a stately venue for passengers from the Reading Railroad station across the street to eat and lay their heads. Vestiges of that former life remain in the lobby’s ornate fireplace and other fixtures. They contrast sharply with the current clientele: the elderly, the disabled, the destitute.
“The truth is that everyone is just a few steps away from homelessness,” Wisler said. “We know that, because we work with these folks. In a way, this fire was a blessing in disguise, because it highlighted to everyone what the needs of the residents here are.”
Tom Skiffington, the current owner, didn’t return a request for comment. But staffers at the hotel who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment said he’s made major improvements to the Bush House, including mandatory background checks for tenants.
After the fire, Skiffington paid out of pocket to have the residents displaced by the fire stay in nearby hotels, and all were able to return to the Bush House by April 30.
In the days after the fire, Wisler and her colleagues couldn’t keep up with the response from concerned neighbors looking to help.
Local businesses donated or cooked food. Mike Agostino, the namesake of nearby Auto Repair by Mike, paid for Uber rides for a displaced resident to get to and from work.
Vickie Kempe, the front-office assistant at Miracle Ear, a two-minute walk down Broad Street from the boarding house, recruited other families to donate clothes.
“You don’t know what people there have gone through. You don’t know the whole story of their lives,” she said. “To judge someone like that, just on stories you may have heard about a building, is just foolish.”
The April 26 fire was the first ever at the property, built before sprinkler systems were a mandatory part of any building code. It does have a fire-alarm system, installed last year, that alerted first responders.
The cause of the deadly blaze was listed as “undetermined,” Bucks County Chief Fire Marshal Mark Kramer said last week. However, Kramer said there was “significant evidence” indicating it was due to an electrical malfunction in Heitz’s apartment.
Scott McElree, Quakertown’s police chief and borough manager, said investigators traced the malfunction to a surge protector Heitz was using. There was nothing “inherently wrong” with the Bush House’s wiring, he stressed. And while the building had been issued minor housing code violations in the past, its owners have been quick to remedy them.
“Nothing egregious has been brought to our attention about the Bush House, to the point where we’d lobby to close it,” he added.
Heitz, 82, died of smoke inhalation, according to her family. She went to the Bush House two years ago, carried there, like so many others, by personal loss and financial ruin.
“I remember Marcella as a very kind, gracious woman that loved to be around people,” said her sister Grace Smith. “Really, I think she should’ve been in a nursing home, but she was very stubborn. And when people gave her good advice, sometimes she didn’t follow it.”
Heitz married late in life. Her husband, Clarence, died four years ago, Smith said. For a time, she shared her house in nearby Perkasie with her other sister, Miriam. Two years later, Miriam died.
“After Miriam passed, Marcella went downhill fast,” Raymond Shaver, Heitz’s brother-in-law, said. “She became a hoarder, let the house go and got behind with her mortgage and taxes. Eventually, the township, county, and state stepped in.”
The Bush House was the last resort for Heitz. Initially, Shaver explained, it was to be a temporary stay, but she got bumped further down the list for a vacancy at a nearby assisted-living facility.
And she decided to stay, her family said, in large part because it was an environment that wouldn’t cost her much money or independence.
“This place helps some of us older people get ahead, or get out of a bad situation,” said Rick Gragg, who went to the Bush House after fleeing more than one bad situation in his personal life.
For the last year, he’s been working with the Bucks County Housing Authority to find a permanent placement. Even after waking up in a panic April 26, the fire hasn’t upset his search.
“It was traumatic, definitely,” he said. “But I’ve got people helping me, and I’m going to do what I have to do.”
This story has been updated to clarify information in a quote.