As befitting a city that established America's first volunteer firefighting company, Philadelphia is full of interesting old firehouses. After the volunteers were converted into a professional department in 1870, the city went on a firehouse-building binge. The stout, H.H. Richardson-inspired firehouse in South Kensington is one of the great survivors from that period.
Once home to Engine 29, the firehouse at 1221 N. Fourth St. was constructed in 1893 in the Romanesque Revival style. Like others from that time, it features a weighty, rusticated stone base, massive arched doors, picturesque turrets, and scrolls of fancy brickwork.
But the most intriguing element may be the vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs embedded between the handsome truck doors and the German-style pattern in the ribbon of flowery tiles just below the cornice.
Why those motifs? Were they an attempt to reflect the heritage of the German immigrants who worked in the neighborhood's breweries and mills? Or was it just the fancy of the architect, whose name is unknown?
Whatever the reason for the hex signs, Engine 29 is graced with a handsome, richly sculpted facade. The central bay is framed by bundles of brick columns that make it stand out from the two flatter side bays. A frieze of twirling vines runs above the truck doors. A red door at the base of the southern turret suggests it once housed the fire pole.
Sadly, the fire department deemed the muscular arched doors too narrow for its trucks in 1979, and it moved down the block to a more bland but functional building on Girard Avenue. Since its closure, the Romanesque Engine 29 has been used by the Department of Public Property to store city records.
Such a noble building clearly deserves better. Given the frenzy of rowhouse construction and appearances of nearby high-end restaurants such as Helm, it's probably only a matter of time before a developer scoops it up for apartments.
Engine 29 is a lively four-block stroll along Girard Avenue from the Girard stop of the Market-Frankford El.
Turn right on Fourth Street.