Preserving the history of America’s fire service one brick at a time

Former fire stations are no longer doomed to the wrecking ball as historic preservation gains momentum


Not long ago, many American cities and towns seemed apathetic about preserving their history. Landmarks, including fire stations, were frequently torn down to make way for shiny new buildings that would house modern necessities, such as condos and apartments, hotels, parking garages, and coffee shops and cafes.

Community members and historic preservation groups often had to intervene in plans for demolition of old buildings, and hire legal representation to help in litigation efforts. Sometimes, the only thing that saved these historic relics was appealing to a sympathetic judge or applying for and receiving National Historic Register status.

Today, it’s no longer novel for old buildings to be converted into usable space rather than destroyed. Former fire stations, for example, are frequently transformed into luxury condos or high-end apartments, and real estate developers demand top dollar by promoting their historic charm.

“As it happens, firehouses are one of the easier types of buildings to repurpose,” Attorney Richard Duncan said. Duncan represented preservation groups in the fight to save the former Hope Engine Company No. 3 firehouse (highlighted below) in St. Paul, Minnesota, from the wrecking ball.

Let’s continue by exploring some of the unique and interesting ways America’s forgotten firehouses have been repurposed.

Hotels and Lodging

Engine 24 French Quarter Firehouse, 2711 Dauphine St., New Orleans, LA

Situated in the heart of the Faubourg Marigny, this firehouse was originally the home of Crescent Fire Company No. 24. The structure was built in 1906 to replace the company’s first station at the same location. The Engine 24 crew remained here until they were moved to another location in 1942.

From 1946 to 1949, the firehouse served as headquarters of the Dennis Sheen Hook and Ladder Volunteer Fire Company. Subsequent uses included a City Health Department Clinic, a warehouse for the New Orleans Recreation Department, and a precinct polling place.

In September 2000, the city decided to auction off the then 140-year-old structure. The building was purchased local architect William Sonner and converted into a short-term rental.

The three-story, 3,500-square-foot firehouse now operates as a guest house with seven bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and shared living space. The property’s historic significance and proximity to the French Quarter make it a popular vacation property.

Engine 24 French Quarter Firehouse, 2711 Dauphine St., New Orleans, LA
Engine 24 French Quarter Firehouse, 2711 Dauphine St., New Orleans, LA

Detroit Foundation Hotel, 250 W. Larned St. Detroit, MI

The city of Detroit’s former Fire Department Headquarters is now an exclusive 100-room boutique hotel and restaurant, the latter aptly named The Apparatus Room.

The five-story Neoclassical building was originally constructed in 1929 and served as the home of Michigan’s oldest fire department until 2013. The site itself was occupied by fire department facilities since around 1840.

The renovation of the building stayed true to its original elements and purpose as much as possible. The original tile and brickwork remain, and several original firehouse scrapbooks are displayed under glass. The hotel opened its red doors – also original – in May 2017.

The Arts

Grayson Gallery and Art Center, 301 E. 3rd St., Grayson, KY

In May 2011, the former Grayson Fire Station in central Appalachia was given new life by local residents Dan and Mindy Click. The 1970s-era building was set to be demolished when the couple requested permission from the Grayson Tourism and Convention Commission to use it as a temporary art gallery during one of the city’s festivals.

What was slated to be a weekend of art turned into a year. The Grayson Gallery and Art Center became the town’s first dedicated space for artists and musicians to showcase their work.

To pay tribute to the building’s fire service past, the Clicks display the original red siren and a vintage firefighter’s jacket inside the center. Outside, the community siren still sits atop a power pole in the rear of the property. They plan to restore the siren as part of their “Paint the Pole” project, painting the siren red and the pole a spectrum of rainbow colors, with a black section near the ground.

The center continues to operate as a hub for community activities, hosting art shows, school field days, music jams, poetry slams and even the occasional dance exhibit.

Studio Arts Boulder, 1010 Aurora St., Boulder, CO

The Station No. 2 firehouse, located in a residential area of west Boulder, was built in 1908 to serve the Boulder Fire Department. At the time, the building was also known as the Mt. St. Gertrude Fire Station due to its proximity to a school for children with tuberculosis.

The two-story, 3,800-square-foot building was converted into the Boulder Pottery Lab in 1963. The lab was operated by the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department for approximately 50 years.

In 2014, Studio Arts Boulder took over operations of the pottery studio; however, the much-loved firehouse continues to make up a large part of the organization’s identity.

Studio Arts Boulder, 1010 Aurora St., Boulder, CO
Studio Arts Boulder, 1010 Aurora St., Boulder, CO

Andy Warhol’s Studio, 159 E. 87th St., New York, NY

The crew of FDNY Hook and Ladder 13 probably never imagined that their former station would someday become a famous artist’s studio.

Located on the Upper East Side, Andy Warhol rented the two-story, 5,000-square-foot building from 1962 to 1963. Warhol chose the building because it was near where he was living at the time. It is said to be the artist’s first studio outside his home. He supposedly created his “Disaster” series and other early works in this location.

Warhol paid $150 per month for the space and used the second floor as his workspace.

Museums

Denver Firefighters Museum, 1326 Tremont Pl., Denver, CO

The Denver Firefighters Museum was established in a former fire station. The two-story building, complete with horse stalls, was once home to Engine Company 1 and its horse-drawn carriages.

Built in 1909, the station was in service until 1975 and continued to be used as headquarters until 1976. It was one of the largest and oldest fire stations when it was decommissioned.

A fire buff group called the Denver Fire Reserves was the first organization to take on the job of transforming the station into an operating museum. The museum’s mission was to preserve the history of the Denver Fire Department and educate the public about fire safety and the history of firefighting in Denver.

The museum was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1979 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It opened to the public May 27, 1980.

Health and Wellness

United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Center for Health and Wellness, 14123 Nordhoff St., Arleta, CA

What was previously Arleta Fire Station 7 has been converted into a behavioral health and wellness center for fire crews and their families. The Center for Health and Wellness, which officially opened in September 2020, was established as part of a joint effort between United Firefighters of Los Angeles City and the Fire Department of Los Angeles.

The center is the first in California to offer counseling, stress management, resiliency training, and alcohol and drug addiction services to firefighters and their families. Suicide prevention among firefighters is its main focus. The center hopes to change the stigma attached to mental health and promote help-seeking among firefighters. Mental health specialists are available around the clock.

Breweries

 

Firehouse Brewing Co., 610 Main St., Rapid City, SD
Firehouse Brewing Co., 610 Main St., Rapid City, SD

Firehouse Brewing Co., 610 Main St., Rapid City, SD

Serving libations such as Bell Tower Lager, Smoke Jumper Stout, and Firehouse Red, the restaurant and brewery was founded in a former firehouse that served as the Rapid City Fire Department Central Headquarters for 60 years until the department outgrew the space.

Built in 1915, the two-story structure is constructed of brick and Fall River sandstone. The building exemplifies the Chicago School style of architecture and holds a place on the National Historic Register. Based on this designation, the owners restored the interior of the building to reflect its former glory.

The brewery displays authentic South Dakota firefighting memorabilia, including the original fire pole, ladders and patches, from the city’s first fire brigades. When the owner purchased the building, he also found a pair of bronze plaques remembering two fallen firefighters that are also displayed.

Known locally as “The Firehouse,” the brewery opened in December 1991 as South Dakota’s first brewpub.

Hold Fast Brewing, 235 N. Kimbrough Ave., Springfield, MO

Built in 1962, this building served as the headquarters of the Springfield Fire Department and the home of Fire Station No. 1 for 50 years before being decommissioned in 2002. The space was later used for SWAT training by the Springfield Police Department, then as storage for Public Works.

When the McLeod sisters, founders and owners of Hold Fast, heard the former fire station was on the auction block, they immediately toured the location and chose it as the future home of their new brewery.

To provide character to the space, the sisters kept the old parking lines from the fire trucks on the floors. They also display old firefighter gear, including a brass fire pole, turnout gear, boots and a helmet, in the taproom so patrons could further appreciate the building’s history.

Opened in 2019, the brewery is often visited by current and past firefighters who started their careers at Fire Station No. 1.  

Residential

Anderson Cooper’s Manhattan Townhome, 84 W. 3rd St., New York, NY

Perhaps one of the more famous fire station dwellings belongs to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. In 2010, Cooper bought Fire Patrol Building No. 2 with the intent of transforming it into his full-time residence.

The four-story, 8,240-square-foot building was originally one of three Fire Patrol stations that served New York before a municipal fire department was established. The Greenwich Village station was used by the FDNY from 1906 to 2006.

Cooper was passionate about staying true to the building’s history during renovation. To that end, the original brass fire poles and spiral staircases were retained. The home also features exposed brick and the ceiling beams where firefighters once dried their hoses. The exterior façade was also carefully restored, preserving the 20th-century Beaux Arts ornamentation and 9/11 memorial plaques.

Privately Owned Home, 3816 22nd St., San Francisco, CA

A privately owned firehouse-turned-luxury residence was once the home of San Francisco Fire Department’s Engine Company No. 44. Nicknamed the Hill Company, the station served the areas of the city known as Noe Valley and The Castro.

The stucco Mission Revival building was constructed in 1910 and served the department until 1959. The station housed a horse-drawn fire wagon until receiving its first motorized truck in 1916.

After being sold at auction to Mark and Beth Adams, the two-story, 6,045-square-foot firehouse was converted into a living space with four bedrooms and five bathrooms. Although the interior underwent an extensive remodel in 2007, the new owners maintained the historic integrity of the exterior. The couple used the property as a private residence and artist’s studio for 40 years.

Emergency Shelters

Stewart B. McKinney Men’s Emergency Shelter, 34 Huyshope Ave., Hartford, CT

A former firehouse owned by the city of Hartford served as a men’s emergency shelter until the COVID-19 pandemic caused the owner, Community Renewal Team, to relocate residents in the spring of 2020.

The 78-bed facility housed men in large, open rooms filled with bunkbeds until concerns over the spread of the coronavirus resulted in the residents’ relocation. For safety reasons, they transitioned from communal-style living to more separate quarters in a nearby hotel.

Because the firehouse is in desperate need of renovations due to age and lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Community Renewal Team has decided to make the move permanent. After 34 years as a shelter, the building has once again become abandoned. This opens up McKinney for redevelopment, but the building is so deteriorated that its fate is unknown.

Restaurants

Jimmie’s Ladder 11, 936 Brown St., Dayton, OH

Jimmie’s Ladder 11 is an American-style restaurant located in a former firehouse that served Ladder Company No. 11. In continuous use by the Dayton Fire Department from 1892 to 1987, the building is believed to be one of the last Dayton firehouses to use a horse-drawn apparatus.

During restoration, the owners of the two-story restaurant and bar made every effort to respect the original building and its period. One example is their reuse of the original steam radiator pipes and brass firepole as the upstairs railing.

Hope Breakfast Bar, 1 S. Leech St., St. Paul, MN

What was once the home of Hope Engine Company No. 3 has been the site of Hope Breakfast Bar since 2019. Slated for demolition in 2016, neighborhood residents and historic preservationists rallied to save the Italianate-style building due to its storied past.

The building, constructed in 1872 by the City of St. Paul, served as the first volunteer fire station in the city and operated until 1877. At that point, the city transitioned to a paid department, and the building became home to St. Paul Fire Department Engine Company No. 3.

In 1923, the St. Paul Fire Department moved from horse-drawn apparatus to automotive apparatus. However, limited funds prevented the city’s older stations from being expanded to accommodate the larger vehicles until 1939 and 1940. After renovations, Engine Company No. 3 was able to use the station until 1965.

The two-story firehouse is reported to be the oldest former municipal building that still stands in St. Paul, although it was never officially designated a historic building.

Engine Company 3, 217 W. National Ave. Milwaukee, WI

This restaurant in Milwaukee’s historic Walker’s Point neighborhood is located in one of the oldest firehouses around. Built in 1901, the station was originally home to Engine Company 3 of the Milwaukee Fire Department.

During renovations, the restaurant’s owner worked hard to reuse original materials and maintain the charm of the old firehouse. These efforts paid off as patrons can appreciate many of the original features, including the wood details and brass fire pole.

Starbucks Pickup Store and 203 Café, 203 Commerce St., Fort Worth, TX

The former Fire Station No. 1 building in historic downtown Fort Worth will soon be the location of a new-concept Starbucks store. The Victorian-style fire station, built in 1907, served the northern area of downtown until 1980.

The Starbucks Pickup store will be located on the first floor. Customers will order and pay ahead using the Starbucks app and grab their items on-the-go. The second floor of the building is currently home to the 203 Café, a fast-casual breakfast and lunch café that also has a to-go theme. Both establishments cater to workers in downtown Fort Worth.

The two-story building was also home to the original City Hall, with the Mayor’s office located on the second floor, and a Fort Worth area history museum.

The new Starbucks is set to open in the fall.

The benefits of repurposing

Giving former fire stations new life serves two purposes: It saves these neglected but treasured buildings from being demolished, and it preserves the history of the fire service in America.

According to a blog post on Architizer, “When architecture is successfully repurposed, it does not hide its history, but instead becomes a relic, projecting its identity into a new age, and embodying the contradictory qualities of tradition and innovation, of preservation and progress.”

Fortunately, the idea of preservation in our society is becoming more commonplace.

Prospective homebuyers in today’s frenzied residential real estate market are thinking outside the box. Neighborhoods that were never before on the radar are being renovated and revitalized at record speed, and with this trend, once-forgotten buildings are gaining new life and purpose.

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