Ext_Dale Jones Burch

photo by: Max Touhey

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2024

Hot Topic: 6 Adaptively Reused Firehouses Spark Connections in Their Communities

September 11, 2001, was the last time a fire truck occupied the Engine Company No. 15 building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. While the company’s firefighters returned safely from the World Trade Center attacks, its only truck was destroyed. The small 1884 station couldn’t accommodate new, larger trucks, so the New York City Fire Department permanently closed the station and relocated the company.

Henry Street Settlement, the 130-year-old social services nonprofit headquartered next door, stood watch as the four-story firehouse began to deteriorate, says facilities officer Maggie Oldfather. In 2017, the organization bought the station for $1. After a $5.2 million renovation led by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, the Dale Jones Burch Neighborhood Center (shown at top), part of Henry Street Settlement, opened in 2019. The exterior’s cast-iron details, decorative brickwork, and Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival elements have been restored. Inside, an original brass firepole rises from the welcome desk. The ADA-compliant building houses a range of services, such as benefit screenings, a parent center, and referrals for legal and financial services. “We are not firefighters,” says Ashley Young, program director for the center, “but we are putting out little fires every day.”

Exterior_ByrdBarrPlace

photo by: Rafael Soldi

Byrd Barr Place, a Seattle nonprofit, renovated the fire station that has long been its home in 2022.

The nonprofit Byrd Barr Place has operated out of Seattle’s National Register–listed Fire Station No. 23 for more than 50 years. The organization, historically significant in its own right and originally known as Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), developed out of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and has served Seattle with anti-poverty and community action work ever since. In 2020, amid the focus on equity following the murder of George Floyd, the city of Seattle decided to give Byrd Barr Place ownership of the fire station, says CEO Angela Griffin.

SHKS Architects designed an $8.3 million renovation, completed in 2022, that included adding an elevator for accessibility, upgrading the building systems, improving seismic bracing, renovating the organization’s market-style food bank, and adding a new community space. The National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund contributed $50,000 to protect and preserve historic elements of the building. The redbrick west elevation was repointed, several original wood windows were rehabilitated, and the original hose-drying tower, a prominent architectural feature, was restored.

In Chicago, Firehouse Art Studio owns an 1873 fire station, one of the oldest extant stations in the city and among the first built after the Great Fire of 1871. After Engine Co. 18 left the station in 2008, the city looked for a community-oriented buyer, and Firehouse Art Studio was born. Firefighters had long welcomed neighbors and kids in to hang out, says Jay Nowak, owner and creative director of the studio. It offers a wide range of free and low-cost art classes, with a specialty in ceramics and pottery.

Even today, locals tell stories about the station, a constant in a changing neighborhood. The surrounding area was razed during the mid-20th century decades as the city made way for public housing, but the fire station was spared. The city eventually added a community swimming pool behind it. In the 2000s, parts of the neighborhood were razed again when the city shifted its housing strategy. But the station’s interior remained mostly intact after more than 130 years of service, says Nowak, and still contains its original tin ceilings, staircase, hardwood floors, fire poles, and even the space where the station’s horses once drank from water troughs. Firehouse Art Studio has painstakingly worked to preserve the interior and exterior, even landmarking certain features so they’ll be maintained in perpetuity. “It’s moving for us to see how excited people are to see that it exists just as it did,” Nowak says.

Red Door Tampa

photo by: Dominique Martinez

Red Door No. 5, an event space and private residence in Tampa, Florida.

Dominique Martinez, owner of Red Door No. 5 in Tampa, Florida, also takes great pride in the work he did on his 1925 Mediterranean Revival firehouse in the Tampa Heights Historic District. Martinez, an artist who also owns a custom metal fabricating business, purchased the building in 2007. For nearly a decade, he worked as his own general contractor to restore and renovate Firehouse No. 5 into his home (upstairs) and an eclectic event space (downstairs). He collaborated closely with Tampa’s architectural review commission and local preservationists to update the deteriorated building while maintaining its historic features, including a 90-foot tower that serves as a visual anchor for the neighborhood. Inside, Martinez worked to preserve and restore key features, including the firehouse’s windows and doors. He salvaged the original wood ceiling beams and milled them into hardwood flooring for Red Door No. 5.

Bad Dog Brewing Company in Torrington, Connecticut, also repurposed original wood elements from the city’s Old Firehouse—in this case, using them to make bar tops, taps, and tables. The firehouse, built in 1901 and in service until 1980, was slated for demolition when Preservation Torrington stepped in to advocate for saving it. In 1998, real estate investor J-R Laliberte bought the property from the city for $1 and partially renovated it, stabilizing the roof and the brick facade. He held off on further renovations until they could be tailored to a new tenant.

In 2019, the Bad Dog Brewing team saw the long-vacant property. “It was in pretty rough shape … lots of junk and debris, broken windows,” says co-owner Matt Tkac. Working together, Bad Dog and Laliberte undertook a massive renovation, updating all systems, adding mahogany doors in the bays, and installing appropriate windows. The brewery worked to retain historic elements whenever possible, including a 1939 fire truck that had been left in the building. Firefighters and citizens alike bring artifacts to Bad Dog, and Tkac jokes that it’s turning into a “brewseum.”

AAFM

photo by: Andrew Cullen

The African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles in 2018.

In Los Angeles, the 1913 Fire Station No. 30 is home to the African American Firefighter Museum (AAFM). Since 1997, the museum has been dedicated to preserving and sharing the heritage of Black firefighters, including the history of racial segregation. L.A. hired its first Black firefighter, Sam Haskins, in 1892. From 1924 to 1936, Fire Station No. 30 was the city’s only all-Black fire station, and it was not desegregated until the mid-1950s. “The core story that we share is that of the old Stentorians, the men who literally integrated the Los Angeles Fire Department [LAFD],” says Michelle Banks, AAFM co-founder and current board president as well as a 31-year veteran of the LAFD. (The Los Angeles County Stentorians are a membership organization of Black firefighters founded in 1954.)

Fire Station No. 30 deteriorated after it closed around 1980, and eventually one of the Stentorians’ leaders, Arnett Hartsfield Jr., approached the city of Los Angeles about establishing the museum. The city undertook the renovation and restoration, which modernized the Craftsman and Prairie Style building but also preserved historic elements such as holes that once held fire poles, red floor tiles, and an outbuilding that once served as a kitchen. Tangible artifacts and place-based experiences matter, says Banks. “Preservation and sharing of stories in places such as Fire Station 30 really ensure that we have a more comprehensive and diverse American history.”

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Sharon Holbrook is a freelance writer who has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national publications. She lives near Cleveland, Ohio, and is an enthusiastic amateur preservationist.

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