Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Napoleon Le Brun's Fantastic French Firehouse - 87 Lafayette St.

photo NYPL Collection

When you think of a firehouse, you normally don't think of the great Loire Valley chateaux like de Chambord or Chateau de Chaumont.  But Napoleon Le Brun did.

In 1894 the New York Life Insurance Company owned Engine Company 31 at 116 Leonard Street.  Their choice of an architect for a new firehouse for the Engine Company at 87 Lafayette Street was simple.  Napoleon Le Brun had been the only architect for the New York City Fire Department for fifteen years.  As those years progressed, his fire stations became increasingly ornate. 

This one would outdo them all.

Collect Pond in the 18th century - NYPL Collection
The site where the new house was to be built was atop a filled-in body of water called Collect Pond.  In the 18th Century the pond covered 48 acres and, in spots, was up to 60 feet deep.  What had been a popular place for picnics in the summer and ice skating in the winter became polluted and odorous when tanneries, slaughterhouses and other nearby business dumped their waste here.  Derided at the end of the 18th Century as "a very sink and common sewer," it was slowly filled.  By 1813, the entire lake was undetectable.  At least on the surface.

Below ground the water remained.  Le Brun's solution was to drive immense wooden pilings below ground on which the foundation of the firehouse would sit.  He knew, as was proved in Venice, that as long as wooden pilings remain under water they remain stable.

His fantastic chateau-firehouse cost $80,000 and was completed in 1896.  Rising three stories from the sidewalk, its red brick and limestone facade culminates in a steeply-pitched roof of slate shingles.  Bold dormers thrust out of the roofline which is capped with ornate copper cresting.

While it was admittedly beautiful, some contemporary critics found it a bit much.  In Architectural Record, Montgomery Schuyler strongly questioned what elegance had to do "with so grimly practical business as putting out fires."  And the Real Estate Record & Guide called it a "manifestly extravagant absurdity.

Both detractors seemed to be foreshadowing the 20th Century architectural principle of "form follows function" which resulted in firehouses being no more interesting than a suburban garage.

Engine Company 31 called 87 Lafayette Street home until the Fire Department abandoned it in late 1972, just ten months after it was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  It sat neglected and empty for seven years before Downtown Community Television rented space from the city there.  Then, in 1983, DCTV purchased the building along with the Chinese-American Planning Council for $400,000.

The new owners bought an expensive problem.  Over the years Collect Pond had begun drying up.  The water level below the street fell which caused the pilings to dry out and begin rotting.  Le Brun's elegant chateau began settling unevenly as the pilings eroded.  The entire foundation had to be reconstructed at a cost of almost $800,000.

Additional costly restoration has taken place, bringing 87 Lafayette Street back to its former glory.  The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission noted in 1966 "the quality of its detail and in the use of fine materials it is unsurpassed by any building in its category."

Absurdly extravagant or not, I prefer LeBrun's Loire Valley chateau to a suburban garage.

non-credited photographs take by the author

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