Queen Village firehouse finds new life in new century

The third version of the fire house on Queen Street near Second Street, which was built in the 1890s. It was closed in the 1960s and sold at auction. It has had three independent owners in its lifespan.

Before it was renamed Queen Village in the 1970s, and before the building boom and the rush of young professionals through the new millennium, it was Philadelphia’s “first suburb.”

The area was originally settled by the Swedish in the 1600s (hence the name, which was in honor of Sweden’s Queen Christina). It was later renamed Southwark after William Penn settled Pennsylvania. The area grew into a working-class suburb and was eventually absorbed into the city limits in the mid-1800s.

After Society Hill was restored in the 1960s and after artists populated South Street in the 1970s, the village — which extends north to Lombard Street, south to Washington Avenue and tucked between Sixth Street and the Delaware River — started repopulating in the 2000s.

And then the home prices began to rise. In the third quarter of 2017, there were 172 sales in the 19147 zip code at a median price of $385,000. That’s up from $360,000 a year before and $279,750 a decade earlier.

Among the neighborhood’s most recognizable changes: a plot of land once occupied by three different firehouses over the course of two centuries. The last remaining firehouse building has been preserved and then remade in recent years to fit into a new century, serving a new purpose.

History

Philadelphia’s tradition of volunteer fire service dates to the 18th century. Among the volunteers was the Weccacoe Fire Company, which opened a firehouse on a lot on Queen Street near Second in the early 1800s. But the building succumbed to an ironic fate, burning down in the late 1840s.

Camera icon Stephen J. Nicastro
The Weccacoe Fire Department was a volunteer outfit that opened its first firehouse on the lot on Queen Street near Second in the 18th century.

“Supposedly,” said Stephen J. Nicastro, the building’s current owner, “it was burned by competitors after Weccacoe stole their spanner [or wrench] for their steam, fire-extinguishing device.”

A new firehouse was built by the volunteer group in the late 1850s.

Camera icon Stephen J. Nicastro
The second version of the firehouse on Queen Street near Second Street was built in the 1850s. It was first home to a volunteer fire department and became a paid unit after the city’s first fire department organized in 1871. It was replaced by a third version, which opened in the 1890s.

The firehouse got its name from the Lenni Lenape Indians from Delaware, who called the area home. They dubbed it Weccacoe, or Wicaco, which translates to “pleasant place,” according to The Clio.

In 1871, a paid Philadelphia Fire Department was organized with 22 engines and five truck companies, replacing the loose confederation of 92 volunteer companies and renaming the firehouses. The Weccacoe Fire House, at 117-119 Queen St., was renamed Engine No. 3.

This iteration of the structure became famous in 1875 after a former fireman shot and killed another fireman outside the firehouse’s front door. The violent episode, which started with allegations of sexual assault of a child, ended in an execution.

Not long afterward, the building was demolished, and the third and final version of the firehouse was built in the 1890s.

Camera icon City of Philadelphia archives
Engine House No. 3, circa 1896, in Queen Village.

This version, which is still standing in Queen Village today, was used by the fire department until the 1960s when Engine No. 3 moved to a new facility at East Moyamensing and Washington Avenues, where it still is.

Other lives

In 1966, the city auctioned off the property for $7,500. It was purchased by an interior decorator, who turned the firehouse into a showroom, as well as his home.

Camera icon Inquirer archive
The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1966.

A smaller commercial building stood on the adjacent plot for many years and saw many tenants. It was a bakery and later a commercial dry cleaner’s.

“I grew up around there, so I’ve been going by it forever,” said Jack Wright, the Philadelphia Fire Department historian. “I remember a commercial dry cleaners. I remember a big sign outside when I was in my teens.”

And then in the late 1980s, David M. LeVan became the building’s second owner.

LeVan, former chairman of Conrail, made extensive renovations to the property. He bought the dry cleaner’s building next door, demolished it, and replaced it with a smaller replica of the original building.

He used the replica as a garage for several cars, while the original firehouse served as his home. The property is considered two separate lots but combine for roughly 10,000 square feet.

“And he’s the one who put the statue outside,” Wright said.

The well-known statue showcases a fireman and a dog and sits outside the original firehouse.

Camera icon Tommy Rowan
The well-known statue, which showcases a fireman and a dog, sits outside the Queen Village firehouse.

In 2004, Nicastro bought 111, 113, 117, 119, and 121 Queen St. for $1.8 million, according to Philadelphia property records.

There are dozens of former fire department outposts still tucked into corners of the city. Much like the churches in Philadelphia, many buildings have been saved by the wrecking ball, used as residential homes or trendy restaurants. But how many can survive?

“I never thought they would take down the old fire department headquarters on Race Street, but they took it down for the Convention Center expansion, so here we are,” Wright said. “Think about it, off-street parking is worth its weight in gold.”

Staff writer Caitlin McCabe contributed to this article.