When your office is located in an old firehouse, chances are you’re going to get a lot of questions about the fire pole.
Sadly, Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston, Inc., must inform those curious about her nonprofit organization’s new office that the original fire pole in the 1859 Eustis Street Fire House is long gone.
But pole or no pole, the firehouse -- the oldest remaining firehouse in Boston -- is today a vibrant 21st-century office space, thanks to the efforts of Historic Boston, Inc., a preservation group that fully restored the structure back in 2011.
It was a monumental undertaking, but one that Kottaridis says demonstrates the organization’s mission and its commitment to preserving the city’s historic buildings.
And this historic building was in particular need of saving.
The small, single-bay firehouse was built for the town of Roxbury less than a decade before the town was annexed into Boston. For years, the station housed hand-pulled fire apparatus, until a stable was added in the back for horses that pulled hook and ladder equipment. The city continued to use the brick building as a firefighting facility up until the 1920s, when a new firehouse was built nearby. It then became the meetinghouse for the local chapter of Spanish American War veterans until abandoned in 1950, when it sat largely unused for the next few decades.
The city of Boston put out a request for proposals for development in 2008, as well as a long-term lease on the structure, which, by then, was boarded up and dangerously leaning to one side. Historic Boston, Inc., jumped at the chance to take over the space and secured a 99-year lease.
“We were the only crazy bidder at that juncture,” Kottaridis says.
The staff at Historic Boston, Inc., had long been eyeing the firehouse. In the early 1990s, the nonprofit attempted to create a development plan for the site, designing a bracing system to help keep the building upright.
And the group, which since the 1960s had been located in the Old Corner Bookstore in downtown Boston (the organization formed in 1960 to save the building), was no longer working on many structures in the downtown district, but instead in the smaller neighborhoods.
“We figured why not use this [firehouse] as a demonstration of what we do and how we work, and what we can do in urban neighborhoods where the market isn’t as strong [as downtown],” Kottaridis says.
Making use of state and federal historic tax credits, the group began a full restoration of the structure, which included tasks like repairing its foundation; recreating the doors; restoring and, when necessary, recreating the eaves and the brackets underneath; and restoring and re-glazing the windows with the help of students in the preservation carpentry program at nearby North Bennet Street School. Many of the exterior’s ornate original Italian features were preserved, and the wooden addition in the back of the firehouse, built originally for use as the stables, was rebuilt, as well.
A number of environmentally-friendly features -- efficient mechanical systems, new bicycle racks, and a newly surfaced parking lot using recycled materials, for starters -- earned the structure LEED Silver certification last year.
The biggest challenge in the rehabilitation, Kottaridis says, came from the building’s location, next to a centuries-old burying ground. Because the cemetery’s property line extended right up to the building’s foundation, extensive archaeological research had to be done before making many repairs, in order to ensure no graves were disturbed.
“In the process of [excavating], we uncovered the grave shafts of, what I call, four permanent residents,” Kottaridis says. “So we had to change the design of the footings and the substructures, in order to accommodate the burials that were already there.”
Historic Boston, Inc., now operates out of the firehouse’s second floor, under original skylights, in what used to be the sleeping quarters for the firefighters as well as the office space of the fire chief.
“Working here, in this old firehouse, has been terrific on many, many levels,” Kottaridis says, citing the space’s open floor plan and generous amounts of sunlight provided by the large windows.
And working in a new neighborhood, she says, has given Historic Boston, Inc., an opportunity to reach a new audience and spark positive changes in a historically underserved area.
“It’s been really interesting to watch how people have been intrigued by the building,” Kottaridis says. “They ring the doorbell, and they come up and ask us questions. And the local firefighting community brings us [artifacts] they collect. And others are just curious about the building and want to see what we’ve done with the place.
“It’s interesting,” she continues, “to see what a project like this can do to trigger people’s imaginations and curiosity.”
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