A city is measured in many ways by its architecture. Its private buildings, as well as the thousands of private homes can be a source of great pride, and occasional horror, and we are fortunate to live in one of the most interesting cities in the world. A municipality is also responsible for its civic and government buildings, including schools, police stations, fire houses, court houses, post offices and other government office buildings. Any city would like to be able to point with pride at these buildings, and back in the old days; a hundred years ago, that was very much in the mind of the planners and architects who gave us a golden age of civic architecture.
Today’s firehouses, police stations and schools seem to be purposefully designed to be as functional as possible, which is great, but also as bland and forgettable as possible, as well. The Brutalist style of police stations and some fire houses, especially those designed in the 1970s and 80s, I find to be especially awful, and intentionally offensive, purposefully creating a forbidding concrete and concertina wire fortress mentality that says “we are not here to protect you, we are here to protect ourselves from you.” But it was not always thus.
One hundred years ago, the best architects in the city were hired to design police stations, fire houses, and the like. They designed these buildings in the most beautiful styles of the day, using the best materials, and thoughtfully designed the buildings as to function, with an eye towards the new materials available, as well as the new equipment being invented to make their jobs more efficient and expedient. This was especially true of fire houses, which at the dawn of the 20th century saw the move from horse drawn fire engines to motorized fire trucks.
New York City’s boroughs had their own fire and police organizations prior to being joined as one city in 1898. In the city’s beginnings, and in the towns and villages that made up all of the boroughs, the fire companies started out as citizen volunteers. By the Civil War, it became apparent that a more professional paid force was needed, and in 1865, the State Legislature instituted the Metropolitan Fire Department, under the jurisdiction of the state, which covered Manhattan below 86th Street and Brooklyn. Over the next 40 years, especially after the 1898 consolidation, that system was expanded to Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and most of Queens. The Rockaways, the outermost part of the borough, was brought into the system in 1905.
Our early professional firefighters did not have an easy life. The job did not pay all that well, and the hours were long. The ideal fireman was single, because the job entailed a work week of six days, during which he was required to be at the fire house 24/7. Dormitory sleeping quarters have long been a requirement for any fire house. The department was organized in a quasi-military fashion, with ranking officers in charge of non-ranking troops. Discipline and specialization were incorporated into the department, and filtered down to each house.
Some fire houses were engine companies, which had the hoses and water pumps to put out fires, while others were hook and ladder companies, who put the fight into firefighting with hooked poles to bring the structures down and ladders to get the men to the fires on upper floors. They also conducted search and rescue. Larger fire houses had both engine and ladder companies. Our Rockaway Park’s house was one of the houses with both.
Rockaway is a peninsula extending out into the Atlantic Ocean with Jamaica Bay on the inland side. Part of it belongs to Nassau County, the rest to Queens. The Atlantic Engine Company, a volunteer force, was organized in 1887. They became part of the Rockaway Beach Fire Department in 1889. The Atlantic Engine Co. was located at Beach 110th Street in Rockaway Park. When the new professional fire department was extended to the Rockaways, in 1905, a new firehouse was commissioned, which was built at 259 Beach 116th Street. This exceptional firehouse is the topic of our story.
The Rockaways were developed as a beachfront resort area. As in the early days of Coney Island and Atlantic City, the beach was initially developed with large hotels, a getaway for wealthy New Yorkers, where they could enjoy the cooling ocean breezes and the seashore, away from the crowded heat and stink of the city in summer. In the beginning of its resort days, only two roads led to the Rockaways, and these were later supplanted by train lines that would eventually join the peninsula to the mainland, enabling summer visitors an easy journey through Brooklyn, and then over the trestle to the Rockaways. By 1897, when the Village of Rockaway Beach was incorporated, electric trolley lines were rolling over that trestle.
By 1910, when the LIRR tunnel under the East River was built, it was possible to get from Manhattan to the Rockaways in half an hour. On the roads, the 1923 Cross Bay and Joseph Addabbo Bridges enabled residents and travelers to cross over from Queens, and the Marine Parkway Bridge of 1937 joined Brooklyn and the Rockaways. In 1925, a nine mile stretch of boardwalk was laid, and with the ease of transportation, the Rockaways had a building boom, as the area became filled with working class families who filled the newly built bungalow colonies on the beach. In 1956, the IND subway was extended to the Rockaways, and it was complete. The Rockaways were home to a sizable permanent population and a large summer influx of people. Fire houses were needed to protect people and property.
In 1912, architect Frank Helmle was commissioned to design this, and two other firehouses for the City of New York. He was quite experienced with working for the city, in 1902 Helmle had been appointed the Superintendent for Public Buildings for Brooklyn, during which time he and his partners in Helmle, Huberty & Hudswell designed the now landmarked Fire Communications Building on the edge of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on Empire Boulevard. He also designed several comfort stations for the several Brooklyn city parks, as well as the Boathouse, Tennis House and Willink Entrance Comfort House, all in Prospect Park.
Helmle was a master of the Classical style, a result of his training at Cooper Union and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences Architectural School, and six years of work at the offices of McKim, Mead & White, one of America’s most famous and influential architectural firms. In 1896, he went out on his own, and enjoyed a long and distinguished career, with a series of partners as well as alone. Most of his buildings are in Brooklyn, and include the Bossert Hotel, on Montague Street, as well as two churches in Brooklyn, the Spanish Baroque St. Barbara’s in Bushwick, and the Early Christian Revival church, St. Gregory the Great, in Crown Heights.
The Rockaway Park firehouse for Engine 268/Ladder 137 was not one of Helmle’s usual Renaissance Revival/Classical style buildings. It’s in the Colonial Revival style, with Arts and Crafts elements. The Colonial Revival Style was becoming the most popular style of the day, and this firehouse has many brick Colonial Revival elements, such as the “symmetrical red brick façade, laid in Flemish double-stretcher bond, original multi-pane double-hung wood windows, and projecting cornice with classical details such as dentils and scroll consoles. The Arts & Crafts style elements include the simplicity of the overall design, multi-color header bond laid in a diamond brick pattern at projecting brick piers, ceramic shields, and stepped parapet wall.” (LPC report)
As cool as that all is, it’s the loggia that makes this firehouse. That’s the arched open area on the third floor. Behind those arches is an open exercise space. In 1912, then Fire Department Commissioner Joseph Johnson decided that all new firehouse would incorporate roof gardens for daily physical exercise. Two different configurations were approved; a covered garden at the front of the fire house, or an uncovered one at the rear. Fifteen of the 45 new firehouses approved during his tenure have roof gardens. Twelve of them have rear uncovered gardens. Only three, all pretty much identical and designed by Helmle, have front covered gardens. The other two houses are Engine 285/Ladder 142 in Queens, and Engine 29/Ladder 48 in the Bronx.
In addition, all of the 45 new firehouses built during Commissioner Johnson’s tenure were modern houses that could accommodate the new firefighting equipment now in use, including new hoses, gear, and most importantly, motor vehicle fire trucks, as stables and horses were fast becoming a thing of the past. In 1913, all of the fire departments in the city were re-numbered, so that none had the same number, which was the case when all of the independent companies were incorporated into a central department. This house became Engine Company 268, and Hook and Ladder Company 137. It still serves the Rockaways today, as well as the rest of the City. They spent months at Ground Zero during the cleanup and recovery after 9-11, and were among the first responders to the crash of American Airlines Flight 857, that same year. Hook and Ladder 137 is a rescue unit, and are often called to rescue boats in distress and swimmers off the beaches when lifeguards are not on duty. It is good that they can come home to such a fine firehouse. GMAP
(Photo: Christopher D. Brazee for Landmarks Preservation Commission)