If you spend time on Philadelphia’s main streets, you will eventually think you’re seeing double. The same modernist firehouse that occupies the promontory of Point Breeze Avenue and 20th Street pops up again at the intersection of Harbison and Van Kirk in the Lower Northeast. But wait, there it is again at West Oxford and 19th Streets in North Philadelphia.
All three are, in fact, virtually the same building, variations on an architectural theme. In the late 1940s, Philadelphia launched a major campaign to modernize its Fire Department, which is the country’s oldest and was then still operating out of 19th-century firehouses that had been built to handle horse-drawn water tanks. Because funds were tight (what’s new?), the city’s chief architect, George I. Lovatt Jr., established a design template that was simple to construct and could be adjusted to suit the needs of different engine companies and different sites. Between 1950 and 1959, 22 new firehouses were completed, all in the same boxy modernist style.
It’s tempting to dismiss these extremely modest designs as purely functional structures. But once you start to examine the details, you see that they include Midcentury Modern touches that give them a bit of style. I particularly like the way Lovatt, who later formed a private architecture firm with David Supowitz and Israel Demchick, used concrete strips, or stringcourses, on Engine 52 in Wissinoming to emphasize the building’s horizontal lines. The architects often highlighted the bright-red bay doors of their firehouses by outlining them in thick concrete frames. Many of the firehouses built from the period still retain their original aluminum signs, with their company names spelled out in Streamline Moderne typefaces.
Because most of the modernist firehouses were constructed with red brick to fit into the surrounding neighborhoods, they also have a dignified heft, even though they are essentially glorified garages for housing ladder trucks and tankers.
Since efficiency drove the designs, all the firehouses are arranged around a central bay with wide garage doors. Many have side wings that provide space for kitchens, offices, and bunk rooms. These wings step down in height, giving the firehouses a varied roofline that evokes the feeling of a small village. Since the firehouses from this period were still built with brick towers for drying cotton hoses, those structures fill the role of church spire in the composition.
Between 40 and 60 feet high, each tower is decorated with its own distinct motif. The Point Breeze tower is scored with vertical grooves that accentuate its height, while the elaborate cap on Engine 27 in North Philadelphia looks almost art deco in its detailing. That firehouse, which was built in 1951 under the supervision of city architect Joseph A. Roletter, also features grooved concrete lintels over the windows.
Incidentally, these 1950s firehouses were the last to be built with drying towers. With the invention of synthetic fabrics such as Dacron in the ’50s, manufacturers were able to produce hoses that dried quickly and didn’t need to be strung up in towers. You also won’t find any fire poles in these firehouses because nearly all are one-story structures.
The no-frills firehouse designs of the 1950s have largely served the city well. Eighteen of the original 22 are still operating. According to a short history written in 2007 by Sarah Lauren Wade, a student in Penn’s design school, the architects sometimes got carried away with their modernist aesthetic and failed to provide enough space for firefighters to relax and regroup between runs. Because firefighters must work together in life-and-death situations, those bonding sessions are crucial for team-building.
Fortunately, North Philadelphia’s Engine 27 didn’t skimp on those common rooms. Firefighters have a fully equipped kitchen for preparing shared meals, a workout room, and locker area. They might not be as stylish as the exteriors, but they do the job.