Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Former FDNY Engine 209, Ladder 102, Battalion 34
Address: 850 Bedford Avenue
Cross Streets: Myrtle and Park avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant on the Williamsburg border
Year Built: 1965
Architectural Style: Modernist
Architect: Pederson & Tilney
Other buildings by architect: Suburban houses in Connecticut; the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History; won competition for FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., that was designed but never built
The story: This is a story of the old meeting the new, an old fire company that was started when Brooklyn was its own city and its firemen were volunteers. In the mid-20th century that old fire house was replaced by a clean modern building, which in time was deemed redundant, even as the city grew around it, and it was closed by budget cuts. This fire company started out as Engine 9 in the Brooklyn Fire Department, back in 1869. That is where our story begins.
The first Engine 9 was at 159 Graham Street, off Myrtle Avenue, and was founded in 1869 as a volunteer company to fight fires across a vast swath of Brooklyn. By 1888, Graham had been renamed Taaffe Place, and the volunteers had been replaced by paid firemen who worked the usual 24-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week shift. Their territory was huge, encompassing most of Bedford almost to Fulton Street, and down to Wallabout, the Navy Yard and all of Clinton Hill — almost a third of the city of Brooklyn, which at that time did not include Flatbush and some of southern Brooklyn.
In 1898, the city of Brooklyn was relegated to a borough, and the Brooklyn Fire Department became a part of the greater Fire Department of New York. Engine 9 became Engine 109, and in 1913, it became Engine Company 209. In 1966, the city moved the company from its old headquarters to this new building at 850 Bedford Avenue. The old building still stands.
This new sleek and modern building was supposed to be a part of the city’s new Modernism. Many of the city’s police and fire stations were built in this style in those days during the 1960s and ‘70s, when no one gave much thought to how those buildings fit into the physical environment of the neighborhood. This is certainly not the worst of them, design-wise.
It was designed by the firm of Pederson and Tilney, whose principals were William Pederson and Paul Tilney. Pederson was the chief architect of the firm. A Harvard man, both for undergrad and architecture school, he was born in 1908 in Connecticut. Pederson set up his practice during the Depression, took time off to enlist during World War II, and returned to the firm of Harrison & Abromowitz, during which period he worked on that firm’s designs for the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh.
From 1952 to 1964, he was in partnership with Paul Tilney, during which time he designed this firehouse. From ’64 onward until his retirement in 1989, the firm was called William Pederson & Associates, and responsible for urban renewal projects in New Haven, suburban homes in Connecticut, the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History, and a plan for a memorial to FDR in Washington that was approved but never funded or built. Pederson died in 1990.
The firehouse was in use until 2003, when it appeared on Mayor Bloomberg’s first list of firehouses he deemed superfluous. The fight to save it was unsuccessful and today it is closed. A friend of mine was a fireman at this house, although he retired before it closed. He said he could never understand how the city could close it, as it served a fast growing Hasidic population that was building like crazy throughout Bed Stuy and Williamsburg, especially along Bedford Avenue and where the two neighborhoods meet. He cited many incidences of fires in apartments with bars on all the windows, which the fire department was unsuccessful in getting removed.
The house was also an active participant at the World Trade center, and lost men to the collapse of the Towers on 9/11. Today, this once busy firehouse is shuttered, its equipment removed. Even Modernism can’t fight budget cuts. GMAP
(Photo: Christopher Bride for PropertyShark, 2012)