The city might at times feel like its on fire during the summer, but there have been times in the past when it has actually been. In the 1970s the Bronx was burning and Lower East Side was also suffering from fires and abandoned buildings. Before that, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire became one of the worst workplace tragedies to ever occur. In the late 19th century, the booming population of the city brought with it a great need for fire protection. During that time, some beautiful firehouses were built and served a crucial function for the city, both before and after the creation of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).
Today we’re going to tour some of these beautiful historic buildings in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.
Empire Hose Company No. 40, 70 Barrow Street
One of the oldest firehouses in New York, this structure was built in 1852, before there even was an organized Fire Department of New York. On July 31, 1865, the city created the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD) and opened its first firehouse at 4 Centre Street (demolished), which managed all of the city’s fire responses. Before that, firehouses were operated by volunteers who formed groups and petitioned the city to build them a firehouse and provide them with the materials. Most firehouse members were blue-collar workers, volunteering any extra time they had. At 70 Barrow street, a volunteer group called Empire Hose Company No. 40 had around 30 members until it was disbanded after the act of 1865. The original firehouse doorway has been bricked over partially, but its classic look is still legible.
Our friend Tom Miller at the Daytonian in Manhattan blog noted “The carved, faceted keystones at street level and the third floor were an added touch of sophistication to the handsome four-story structure. Unusually tall windows, deft brickwork, and a deeply-overhanging cornice set the firehouse apart from the norm” (see all of Tom’s fascinating blog posts about buildings within the Greenwich Village Historic District, including this one, on our Greenwich Village Historic District 1969-2019 Map and Tour at www.gvshp.org/GVHD50tour).
Fire Patrol No. 2, 31 Great Jones Street
Built in 1871 and designed by architect W.E. Waring, this firehouse… wasn’t exactly a firehouse. In 1835 the Association of Fire Insurance Companies formed a group called the New York Fire Patrol. This group wasn’t responsible for extinguishing fires, but rather for salvaging valuables and minimizing the damage to the building itself once the fire had been fought. The Patrol existed before the creation of the unified fire department and continued to operate after its formation, so its functions have changed over the years. This became their Fire Patrol House No. 2.
Funnily enough, the property next door at 33 Great Jones was purchased by Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company and their designer, Charles Wright, created an exact replica of the firehouse building next door. Fire Patrol No. 2 left No. 31 in 1907 for a new location (see 84 West 3rd Street, below), and now an upscale restaurant by the name of Vic’s occupies the ground floor.
Engine Co. No. 33, 44 Great Jones
A little further down Great Jones Street sits a truly remarkable firehouse. Since 1898, Engine Co. 33 has occupied this building, designed by famed New York City architects Ernest Flagg and W.B. Chambers. The stunning French Beaux-Arts styled facade immediately grabs the attention of passersby, which still features the classic red doors, central windows, and grand archways characteristic of firehouses. The building’s landmark designation report, written in 1968, says: “This utilitarian building has a flamboyance that is particularly appropriate to the function of the hazardous profession engaged in by its occupants.”
A Village Preservation blog post notes that it could be considered double-landmarked since it was first an individual landmark, then later became a part of the NoHo Historic District Extension (read the NoHo Historic District Designation Report here). With its exceptional beauty, 44 Great Jones clearly deserves double recognition (and preservation).
Fire Patrol No. 2, 84 West 3rd Street
This is the location that the Fire Patrol moved to when it vacated 31 Great Jones Street. This new location is the 5th and last built for the Patrol. Constructed in 1907 and designed by architect Franklin Baylies, it has an immediately recognizable classic-firehouse look. The Patrol stayed in that building for almost a hundred years, saving damaged goods and chugging along as the only insurance supported salvage company. The Fire Patrol was suddenly disbanded in 2006 and the building put up for sale, sparking Village Preservation to seek to landmark it as quickly as possible. In 2010 news anchor Anderson Cooper bought the building, but lucky for us, he kept the character of it intact while renovating it to fit the needs of a private residence (for a peek at what it looked like pre-renovation, check out our collection of images of the building and its interior from our historic image archive). Village Preservation secured landmark status for the building in 2013 as part of the South Village Historic District. See more about this here.
Columbia Hook and Ladder Co., 102 Charles Street
Another pre-Metropolitan Fire Department company, the Columbia Hook and Ladder Company occupied this firehouse and volunteered their time to protect the neighborhood. The Building was originally constructed as a home for accountant Samuel D. Chase in 1854. The city purchased the home just one year later and converted it to the Hook and Ladder Company. When the city switched to its paid, unified system, the Fire Department took over the building. Unusually, the Department moved out of the building in the 1960s when a flea infestation from some stray cats became unmanageable. Fleas can be more powerful than even fires! Now, the building is home to a street-level storefront with residences above.
Engine Company 18, 132 West 10th Street
This quintessential firehouse was designed by the great New York Firehouse architect Napoleon Lebrun. From the time he was made the lead architect in 1879 for the Fire Department, Lebrun designed a total of 42 firehouses as well as some other fire department structures throughout New York City, mostly in Manhattan (which of course was New York City until 1898). Engine Company 18 was built in 1892 when the city’s population rapidly increasing and new firehouses were direly needed. This company on West 10th Street was one of the many that responded to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, and to the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. The firehouse still stands in the heart of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Read on for more information on the architect Napoleon Lebrun.
Former Engine Co. 30, Now the New York City Fire Museum, 278 Spring Street
Just on the edge of Village Preservation’s neighborhoods, this historic firehouse is especially unique because of its size. When it was being built in 1904, the New York Times said it would become “one of the largest fire engine houses in the city.” Designed by architect Edward P. Casey, the iconic large rusticated limestone base supports a beautiful brick facade and elegant windows. In 1987 the city decided the location was no longer needed as an active firehouse. When considering what to do with the building, the Department decided that, because of its size, it would be a perfect home for their museum, then located at 100 Duane Street, which was growing too large for its space. And so they relocated the New York City Fire Museum to Spring Street and opened on July 6th of that year.
Perry Hose Company, 48 Horatio Street
Another old-timer of the collection, the volunteer-based Perry Hose Company fought off fires in the time before the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Department. The company’s name honors Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who commanded several ships in the Mexican-American War and the War of 1812, and whose remains were, for a while at least, interred in the graveyard of St. Mark’s in the Bowery Church. The present building dates to 1856, having replaced the Company’s original firehouse which had been located on the site. The firehouse’s services didn’t continue after the 1865 act, but the colonial character and distinct firetruck archway were preserved in the building’s conversion to a private residence.
Former Engine House No. 28, 604 East 11th Street
This three-story firehouse was built in 1879 and designed by Napoleon LeBrun as Engine House No. 28 — one of LeBrun’s first firehouses after becoming the FDNY’s lead architect. The building utilizes a simple Neo-classical cornice and sandstone trim to ornament the facade. It has projections at the ends, acting like pilasters joining the ornamentation for the ground floor up to the brackets on the cornice. The ground floor still retains its original configuration, however, part of the large center door has been infilled with glass block. The building was converted to three floor-through residences, which in 2012 were asking $22,000/month in rent. More about the building can be found on our East Village Building Blocks website here.
Engine Company No. 5, 340 East 14th Street
Unlike the nearly-identical 604 East 11th Street just a few blocks away, this firehouse still functions as an FDNY fire company. Like its near-twin, it was designed by architect Napoleon LeBrun, completed just a year later in 1880, making it also one of LeBrun’s earliest FDNY creations, in which he first created the template for these firehouse designs. In 1889 a new steel floor was installed and the rear elevation was extended, but other than that, the building looks more or less as it did one hundred forty years ago when it began fighting fires. Read and see more about the building on our East Village Building Blocks website here.
Former Engine 24, 78 Morton Street
Built in 1864 as the ‘Howard Engine Company No. 34,” known affectionately as “Red Rover,” this engine company was first organized in 1807 as a volunteer fire-fighting company. It was eventually absorbed by the FDNY and became Engine No. 24. In 1975 in the middle of the city’s financial crisis it was decommissioned, and lay empty for many years. Much of the facade’s ornament was stripped away, but ealier this decade the elaborate detailing over and around the building’s windows were restored. The building now contains a residence.
Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, 108 East 13th Street
Built in 1928, this is the relative newbie in this list, and along with the 1907 former Engine Company No. 30 at 278 Spring Street, the only entry not from the 19th century. Unlike it’s Spring Street counterpart, however Ladder Co. No. 3 very much still functions out of this building just east of 4th Avenue. And it has a storied history; as the plaques on its exterior attest, it lost most of its men responding to the September 11th attacks, making it one of the hardest-hit firehouses in the entire city. Perhaps somewhat sadly, the company was first organized on September 11, 1865, originally located just west of here on 13th Street. On a less somber note, another plaque on the firehouses facade from its opening in 1929 proudly proclaims that it was commissioned by then-Mayor James J. (“Gentleman Jim”) Walker, one of New York’s most colorful mayors. Read and see more about the building on our East Village Building Blocks website here.
Oceanus Engine Co. No. 11/FDNY Engine Co. 13/Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, 99 Wooster Street
The former Engine Co. 13 at 99 Wooster has had quite an interesting history. Another dating back to the pre-MFD, it was originally the volunteer Oceanus Engine Co. 11. When the Firehouses unified, the previously mentioned Lebrun & Sons made renovations, and in 1881 gave the building its classic Lebrun firehouse look which it retains to today.
Fire response wasn’t the only community service to be offered out of this space, however. From April 1971 until October 1974, the Gay Activist Alliance operated its headquarters here. In 2014, Village Preservation proposed this and three other sites connected to LGBT history for landmark designation, including the Stonewall Inn and the LGBT Community Center, all three of which have now been landmarked. Regarding 99 Wooster’s time in the early 1970s as the GAA Firehouse, a recent Village Preservation blog notes, “During this era SoHo was a lively hub of creative energy and activity. Loft living in former commercial buildings by certified artists was legalized by the Board of Estimate in January 1971 and there were a growing number of commercial art galleries, cooperative galleries, and alternative (non-profit) spaces.” The GAA began looking for a “community center” towards the end of 1970 and leased 99 Wooster Street as their community center. Now, the former firehouse and home of important LGBT cultural history is a storefront and single-family home.
Jefferson Market Fire Lookout
While the Jefferson Market Library is known for its beautiful architecture and history as a courthouse, less well-known is that the clocktower also served as a fire watchtower for many years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Constructed in 1877, it was one of the tallest structures in the city at the time. At 172 feet tall, it was an ideal lookout. The watchman would ring the bells in the tower to alert volunteer firefighters. The tower was used until 1945 when the building became a police academy. It became the library we know today in 1967.
The telltale 19th-century Firehouse architecture – the arches, the red doors, the sets of windows – are easily recognizable, whether the building still functions as an FDNY firehouse, or has become a museum, a home, or a store. The reuse of these buildings highlights the layered uses of protected buildings in the Village, full of histories of literal lifesaving.