The Restored Romanesque Splendor of Brooklyn’s Fire Headquarters

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2014 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

A great city has great civic buildings, and Brooklyn, near the end of the 19th century, was well on its way to making its mark with a collection of them. The Fire Headquarters at 365 Jay Street was one, along with fine schools, courthouses, houses of worship and clubs, a monument to the power and pride of a great city.

broooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown fire headquarters

The Fire Headquarters was designed by the great Brooklyn architect Frank Freeman, who was responsible for many of the borough’s most important late 19th century buildings. The beautiful Behr mansion on Pierrepont and Henry Street is his design, as is the massive Eagle Warehouse in Dumbo. He also designed banks and other commercial and civic buildings in the Downtown and Brooklyn Heights area, but unfortunately, most of them did not survive.

brooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown brooklyn

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.

broooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown fire headquarters

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.

broooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown fire headquarters

Early 20th century postcard view. Image via Andrew Porter

The building opened with great ceremony in 1892. The sight of fire vehicles and men rushing out of that magnificent archway was inspiring to all. Little did they know that only six years later, there would be no Brooklyn Fire Department.

In 1898, the consolidation of New York City made the BFD redundant, and it was absorbed into FDNY. All of the Brooklyn fire houses were renumbered, and this headquarters was no longer needed. It remained an active firehouse, however, and thereby was one of the largest and finest in the city.

broooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown fire headquarters

In 1929, the firehouse became home to the newly created Rescue 2 unit. These are the fire fighters called in to rescue the rescuers. The Rescue units remain the elite units in the fire department, taking on the most dangerous jobs.

They stayed here until 1946, before moving over to Carlton Street, and in 1985, to Bergen Street in Crown Heights, where they are today. In the 1930s, Rescue 2 shared the house with Searchlight 2, another special unit for emergency rescues.

The searchlight vehicle was a Packard equipped with powerful searchlights. It wasn’t until much later that fire trucks themselves were equipped with powerful searchlights.

365 Jay Street remained an active fire house until the 1970s. It had been designated an individual landmark by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966.

The agency was only a year old at the time, indicating how important this building is to Brooklyn’s architectural and cultural history. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. After the city shut down the firehouse, it was leased to Brooklyn Polytechnic as classrooms for a while, but was eventually sealed up and remained empty for years.

broooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown fire headquarters

In 1987, the city agreed to turn the building into affordable housing units. Bruce Ratner was building MetroTech, and the construction of that project had displaced many low-income people living in its footprint.

Eighteen units of housing were created in the building, but funds for maintaining the building were in short supply. By the turn of the next century, this 100-plus-year-old building had serious roof issues, as well as other problems.

brooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown brooklyn scaffolding

Scaffolding around the tower in 2014. Photo via a Brownstoner reader

The Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) was selected as the developer by the City of New York, which owns the building. They planned a massive renovation of the building and the apartments, and planned to bring the roof, windows and other exterior elements back into code, as per LPC standards. But the necessary funding in the form of construction loans did not come through until 2013.

brooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown brooklyn

Restored interior in 2015. Photo by Elise Shin via NYC HPD

Financing came from the City of New York (HPD), the Community Preservation Corp (CPC), and LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation). The project also received funding though Historic Preservation Tax Credits, and a grant through the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Nomad Architecture was the project architect with Thomas A. Fenniman, Architect as the Historic Preservation Consultant. MDG Design & Construction was the development partner and the contractor.

brooklyn architecture fire headquarters 365 jay street downtown brooklyn

Ribbon cutting on May 14, 2015. Photo by Elise Shin via NYC HPD

Work was finished and the official ribbon cutting held in May 2015. Some of the tenants from the 1980s were able to return to the building. This proud Brooklyn landmark is postcard worthy once again.

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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