Monday, January 17, 2011

Fire Engine Company 55 -- 363 Broome Street

photo by Robert K. Chin - nycinatown.org
Napoleon LeBrun and his sons had designed approximately 40 firehouses for New York City from 1880 to 1895; many of them highly ornate, lavish structures modeled after French chateaux or Italian palazzi. Therefore, when architect R. H. Robertson was given the commission to design the new house for Engine Company 55 in 1898, he had a difficult act to follow.


photo by Alice Lum

The Italian 14th Ward neighborhood where the new fire station would rise, at 363 Broome Street, was impoverished and tough. Reformer Jacob Riis and travel guide author Frank Moss used words like “foul” and “vice” in describing the area.


Robertson submitted his plans to the Department of Buildings on July 13, 1898, depicting a brick and Indiana limestone fa├žade with a copper-tiled mansard roof. A hose tower was to rise 56 feet from the sidewalk. The ground floor interiors were lined with Guastavino glazed-tile arches which were not only attractive but easily cleaned.



Eight months after construction began the building was completed in March 1899. Like the LeBruns, Robertson produced a sumptuously decorated structure. The three-story fire house is a mix of Romanesque Revival and Beaux Arts styles – both at the height of their popularity at the time. The rusticated limestone first floor is dominated by a central arched doorway, over which a carved-stone ribbon in relief identifies the house: 55 ENGINE 55. On either side, decorative oval windows are framed in heavily-carved stone wreaths. Two large arched windows on the second floor are joined by a connected smaller arch in which a bronze plaque was inset, inscribed with the architect, the fire commissioner, and the chief of department. A terra cotta phoenix roosts above the plaque.


Robertson's design details included a decorative carved stone ribbon and exquisite carved oak leaf and ribbon motif wreaths around the oval windows.  The scrolled wrought iron grill in the entrance arch is original.   Photo by Alice Lum

The windows of the third floor mimic the three arches below, separated by brick Corinthian pilasters. Two lion’s heads stare down to the street from below the cornice. Robertson’s intended mansard roof did not survive the pre-construction revisions.

Prior to World War I the neighborhood had not improved significantly. Around 8:00 pm on December 4, 1909 a hungry fireman, Albert Robinson, called upon a “buff,” gave him a quarter and sent him to a nearby restaurant for a can of coffee and some food. Buffs were hangers-on at the fire stations; young boys who admired the fire fighters as heroes and did errands and favors for them.

The boy had barely left the Engine Company door when Robinson heard his cries and ran out to find several “Italians who were beating him and trying to take the quarter away from him.” When the fireman joined in the fray, followed by other firemen, he was stabbed in the back with a 7-inch stiletto.

Robinson was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital; Vincenzo Curso, the man with the knife, was arrested for felonious assault; and Acting Battalion Chief Jennings rushed to the station to investigate. While the Chief was inside with the firemen and police, his driver Thomas Roe, waited outside in the buggy. Hearing a commotion, the group ran out to find Roe surrounded by “several Italians” who were beating the driver.

photo by Alice Lum
In September 1927, Wesley Williams was a member of Fire Company 55 when he was summoned to the office of Fire Commissioner John J. Dorman. At 2:30 pm on September 15 Williams was promoted to lieutenant – the first African American supervisor in the New York City Fire Department. By the time Williams retired on May 27, 1952, he was a Battalion Chief and the highest ranking African American fireman in the country.

Fire Engine Company 55 still calls the 1899 station house home. The neighborhood, once so heavily Italian, is now part of Chinatown. Bright red paint covers part of the limestone ground floor and the original entrance door has been replaced; however R.H. Robertson’s ornate fire house – the only one he designed for the New York City Fire Department – retains its 19th century architectural integrity.

2 comments:

  1. I like the entire look of this fire station. Great shots by the way.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks a lot!

    ReplyDelete