Past and Present: Brooklyn Fire Headquarters

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

In our cynical age now, it’s difficult to imagine the civic pride that many of Brooklyn’s citizenry felt when looking at their city in the last twenty years of the 19th century. For the movers and shakers whose money and influence made most of it happen, the way Brooklyn looked must have burst their waistcoat buttons with pride. Brooklyn was shaping up just beautifully, and that was due in no small measure to the talents of Brooklyn’s own fine architects, who were busy creating some of the best civic buildings around. The new Fire Headquarters building was one of those great civic buildings.

Without a doubt, Frank Freeman was one of Brooklyn’s finest architects. He embraced the Romanesque Revival concepts of Henry Hobson Richardson, and added his own vivid imagination, and created some of Brooklyn’s most impressive buildings. Who can pass the Eagle Warehouse building in DUMBO, or the Herman Behr mansion in the Heights and not think “Woah!” It’s too bad so few of his buildings are still here today; their prime locations made them perfect for future teardowns, mostly replaced by works of far lesser talent. We’ve lost quite a lot of our architectural heritage that way. At any rate, he won the commission to create a large new headquarters for Brooklyn’s Fire Department.

Fire fighting in Brooklyn had become a professional affair, and a large headquarters was needed to consolidate the various offices and divisions, as well as to provide this part of Downtown with a firehouse. But what a headquarters! The Romanesque Revival style of architecture was considered to be the highest form of architecture, especially for civic buildings at the time, and so it’s no wonder some of the best civic buildings were built in that style. The massing of shapes, with bays, turrets, dormers, varying rooflines, the voluminous arches, the use of florid terra-cotta ornament, and the contrasting use of texture in building materials, all of those elements of the style are here, and all make for an impressive building.

The Fire HQ was finished in 1892, to be joined by Brooklyn’s other great Romanesque Revival public buildings such as the nearby Post Office, and farther away, Boys High School, in Bedford. The Brooklyn Fire Department’s executive offices moved in with great fanfare, only to move out in six years. When Brooklyn became part of Greater New York City, in 1898, the fire departments all came under one central control, and that, of course, was in Manhattan. All of Brooklyn’s fire houses were re-numbered, and this building was demoted to became the finest local fire house in the city.

Rescue 2 is one of FDNY’s most elite units. The rescue companies were created in 1926 to aid the regular fire crews with specialized equipment and skills. It is their job to rescue the rescuers, and to get people out of burning buildings. Today, they are considered the firemen’s firemen, and it is a great honor, as well as a great accomplishment, to be a part of one of these units. Rescue 2 called the Jay Street firehouse home in 1929, when this photograph was taken. They had just moved in that year. They stayed there until 1946, when they moved back to their original station on Carlton Avenue. In 1985, they moved to their present headquarters on Bergen Street, in Crown Heights North.

Rescue 2 shared the HQ with Searchlight 2, another special unit of the fire department, which operated a tricked-out Packard sedan, equipped with powerful searchlights. This was before the fire trucks themselves were so equipped, and was invaluable to fighting fires and rescuing people in heavy smoke and darkness. The old Fire HQ remained an active firehouse, home to various units, until the 1970’s. Meanwhile, it had been landmarked in 1966, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The building was leased for a time to Polytechnic University, and then was sealed up and empty.

In 1987, the city approved a plan to convert the building into 18 units of housing for elderly and low income tenants. It was hoped that this would preserve the building, which was in much need of repair. Today, that plan does not seem to have been well thought out, or funded. The building is still in need of repair, especially the roof. There have been no new permits issued since a 2009 permit for the scaffolding, so it doesn’t look like anything good is going to be happening anytime soon.The building is also home to several religious organizations, one of which, at least, has a mission to feed and care for the homeless and down and out. Worthy goals, so why can’t some dollars be allocated to assure that the building’s roof doesn’t come down on them? GMAP

Rescue 2, Searchlight 2, 1929. Photo: Municipal Archives

Photo: Google maps, 2011

1910 Photo:Brooklyn Public Library

7 Comment

  • I noticed that the bronze marker denoting that it was on the National Registry of Historic Places recently disappeared. Hopefully it is in safekeeping somewhere and hasn’t been stolen. I remember that in the 1990′s there was a printing shop on the ground floor that never seemed to get much business. I can hardly remember a day when this building hasn’t had scaffolding on it.

  • This is one of the coolest buildings in downtown Brooklyn…

  • I really love this building! I thought it was getting restored by Nomad Architecture? Anyone know anything..?

  • I really love this building! I thought it was getting restored by Nomad Architecture? Anyone know anything..?

  • The not-for-profit that took ownership of the former Brooklyn Fire Headquarters in the ’80s, for residential re-use as part of the negotiated development of MetroTech, went bankrupt and the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development took over jurisdiction of the property.

    As part of an Urban Development Area Action Program (UDAAP) project, the City plans to sell the building to the Pratt Area Community Council. Like many things in government, the property transfer has been painfully slow.

  • Richardson Romanesque is not my favorite architectural style but this one is truly fabulous. The counterpoint between the stouter piece and the taller more slender element is so successful. It’s almost anthropomorphic – the tall man and his shorter round woman or the reverse – Olive Oyl and Popeye. I want to see this building shine again.