Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

Firehouses are among the most easily recognizable and popular public buildings across the nation. Beginning with the construction of the first permanent homes for volunteer companies in the early nineteenth cen­tury, fire station design has been influ­enced by functional requirements. Be­yond serving as a place to store fire­fighting equipment, however, the fire­house was also a public building, often at the center of activity. At the same time, it was home for some of those re­sponsible for protecting their commu­nities from fire. It is this link that fire stations have with the popular image of firemen and firefighting that sets them apart from other buildings and evokes a sense of fantasy, or even humor.

Firehouses, like most structures, were subject to the effects of ever-changing architectural trends and popular tastes, but they were also influenced by other factors unique to this building type. The administrative systems established in communities to provide fire protection, for example, had an impact on their de­sign. Similarly, firehouses have, over the years, evolved as a result of chang­ing technology. The earliest sheds may have been adequate to house buckets, ladders and small pumps, but could not accommodate nineteenth-century steam equipment and horses or twentieth­-century diesel or gasoline-powered fire engines.

A final element influencing their de­sign, although far more difficult to de­fine, is the sentiment instilled in and inspired by firefighters themselves. Public perceptions of the fireman as hero or rowdy were frequently reflected in the architecture. Early nineteenth-century firemen-heroes commissioned some of the most elegant stations ever, but when the companies were more and more seen as rambunctious mobs and paid depart­ments began to be established, simpler storefront stations became more preva­lent.

Fire protection in its earliest form was the responsibility of all citizens, who were expected to turn out at the sound of the alarm and man the bucket brig­ade. The minimal equipment at their disposal was stored in simple, utilitarian sheds at convenient public locations; none of these early firehouses are known to have survived in Pennsylva­nia. Because the protection offered through this early eighteenth-century system was rather unreliable, public­-minded and prominent citizens of the earliest cities organized societies or com­panies to provide mutual aid to fight the fires which frequently threatened their properties. Such a society, the Union Fire Company, was founded by Ben­jamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1736. Into the early nineteenth century, these companies continued to store their equipment in sheds and held their meetings in taverns or private homes.

During the first several decades of the nineteenth century, however, significant changes in firefighting technology simultaneously occurred with changes in the role of these mutual aid societies. This eventually led to a new generation of firehouses. With the establishment of new municipal water systems, fire­men had access to reliable water sup­plies for the first time. To take advan­tage of the available water, new and more efficient pumps and hoses were developed and the use of large, wheel­-mounted pumpers became widespread. About the same time, what had up until then been seen as a secondary function of the early fire companies, that of pro­moting social activities, was rapidly growing in importance. For many, it was becoming the primary purpose of the association.

Starting around 1830, in recognition of the improved protection provided by these organized volunteer companies and in response to their changing equip­ment storage needs, more permanent buildings were constructed by commu­nities or the volunteers themselves. These buildings not only provided room for firefighting equipment but also a meeting place for the firefighters’ organization.

Concurrent with the increased public recognition of their services and their growing effectiveness, the fire com­panies began to assume the character­istics of exclusive clubs or fraternal organizations. Membership was often restricted to persons of certain social classes or ethnic groups. In many com­panies, a large number of prominent citizens and professionals were honor­ary members. This being the case, the actual firefighting was often left to a small contingent of active members who often competed with members of other companies for the honor (and frequent­ly the cash bonus) earned by reaching a fire first. Fire companies also extended their influence in their communities by sponsoring ceremonial and social func­tions such as parades and, of course, the Firemen’s Ball. As strong community organizations, the fire companies usual­ly developed considerable political in­fluence, often managing to gain large subsidies and numerous perks from the coffers of the local government.

With these extensions of their pro­grams, companies began to use the fire­house as a clubhouse. The second floor, originally intended as the site for regu­larly scheduled meetings, became a lounge for members to use between fires. Bunk rooms were added for fire­men who often spent the night. Firemen invested more money in the buildings and sought to make the houses not only more comfortable but also more elab­orate, thus reflecting pride in their com­pany. Competition, then, extended to the design of the firehouse, both inside and out, resulting in some of the most elaborate and individualistic buildings possible.

The emphasis on manliness and the importance of competition among the companies, combined with the com­panies’ conservatism, eventually led to a dramatic change in firefighting adminis­tration, particularly in the larger urban areas. Although steam pumps and the use of horse power to reach the fire scene were demonstrated possibilities by the 1820s. use of such contrivances was ridiculed by the volunteers as “un­manly.” The resulting inefficiency, coupled with the public’s deteriorating opinion (volunteer companies were in­creasingly perceived as rowdy gangs), prompted the establishment of the first professional fire department in Cincin­nati in 1851. During the decades follow­ing the Civil War, this concept was adopted by almost every large city in the country, and the new municipal depart­ments employed the most modern steam-powered and horse-drawn equip­ment available. However, because of the political strength and extent of the volunteer system, the municipal ap­proach was not incorporated in Phila­delphia until 1871.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with their integrity and respectability re­stored through this new system, firemen began pressing for more comfortable accommodations. As a result, turn-of­-the-century firehouses and headquarters buildings, designed in a wide range of then popular revival styles, provided the most up-to-date facilities and equip­ment, including comfortable accommo­dations for live-in firemen. Many of these firehouses combined several hose and ladder companies in one building, resulting in quicker response times.

The era of these grand firehouses was short-lived, however, lasting only until World War I when shortages of labor and materials kept new construction to a minimum. After the war, firehouses were smaller and less complex, provid­ing only enough room to accommodate the new motorized fire engines and their crews. The newer facilities were de­signed in accordance with the simpler styles of architecture popular in the twentieth century and reflected the in­fluence of such designers as Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School. In keeping with the times, these later build­ings blended well with the semi-urban and suburban residential areas which were then being developed.

Fortunately, although the grand era of firehouse architecture may be a thing of the past, the heritage of that, and previous eras, is being preserved in the many historic firehouses which remain across the state.

 

Perseverance Hose Company, Philadelphia

Early structures housed firefighting equipment and pro­vided space for the social activities which were becoming an essential pan of the volunteer firefighters’ routine. The amateur architect who designed the building (ca. 1830) was in­fluenced by the popular Greek Revival style – which was sweeping the young nation – and sought to convey civic re­spectability by using the columns and classical cornice charac­teristic of the style.

Franklin Hose Company, Philadelphia

This firehouse was built in 1849 and remodeled in 1868, shortly after the Franklin Hose Company purchased the char­ter and adopted the name Harmony, after an older and more prestigious group. The men did not have much time 10 enjoy their renovated quarters, however, as the city supplanted the volunteers with a municipal fire department in 1871. Over the years the building was used for various business purposes, but today stands vacant.

Hope Hose Company, Philadelphia

As members of the exuberant nineteenth-century firefight­ing institution, firemen wanted their quarters to clearly illus­trate their importance and personality. In this case, a huge cast-iron hydrant dispelled any doubt about the building’s function.

Washington Hose and Steam Fire Company Number 1, Conshohocken

In the heyday of the volunteer, the second-floor clubroom became the focal point of company activity. Off limits to the general public, these rooms rivaled the fanciest hotels’ public rooms in elegance. The Washington Company’s clubroom in­cluded ornate chandeliers, trophy cases, paintings and cus­tom-made mahogany mirror frames decorated with fire hy­drants. Nothing, including the upholstery on the overstuffed furniture, has changed since the room’s completion in 1878.

Hope Fire Station, Harrisburg

The design of this station, built in 1871, conveys a no­-nonsense message. It draws upon the commercial style of the period which remained standard for downtown locations into the twentieth century.

Royal Engine 6, York

A group of prosperous businessmen formed and built the Royal Engine Company Number 6, York, one of the last of the grand volunteer stations, in 1902. The rich detail still reflects the firemen’s pride in their organization. Matched, black horses lived in stalls with their names inscribed in marble plaques above the doors, an expression of the affec­tion volunteers had for their horses. Even in combination with the then modern electric gadgetry, horses were still main­tained as pan of a well-oiled firefighting machine.

Laurel/Rex, York

Preferring style to function, the architect, Beaton Smith, moved the hose tower from the back of the station to the front, purely for effect. A street-front tower, in addition to a utilitarian hose tower, was common in firehouses built from 1875 to the turn of the century and was originally intended to enhance their image of importance.

Engine 46, Philadelphia

Engine 28, Pittsburgh

While the earliest public firehouses were simple and restrained, by the turn of the century political and architectural style changes were reflected by public fire­houses which resembled anything from medieval castles to Italian palaces and Swiss chalets. Public sentiment had re-established firemen as life-saving heroes, and taxpayers as well as city administrators were willing to pay for elegant and comfortable firehouses. These sta­tions from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh show the popu­larity or revival styles, executed with richness and atten­tion to detail typical of the period between 1890 and 1915.

Engine 61, Pittsburgh

The opulent, eclectic era ended with World War I and simpler buildings such as this one became the standard in new firehouse design. These were not only cheaper to build but more compatible with the new residential neighborhoods in which they were located.

 

This article is based on research done for The American Firehouse, An Architectural and Social History by Rebecca Zurier with photographs by A. Pierce Bounds (Abbeville Press. NYC, $29.95). Research for the book was made possible by a Youth grant from the National Endowment for the Humani­ties. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts funded the photography and final manuscript preparation.

 

A. Pierce Bounds has worked as a freelance photographer since 1974, and his stock photographs have appeared in periodicals across the country. The American Firehouse, the research for which pro­vided the background for this article, marks his first involvement with a book-length publication.