Thursday, October 20, 2011

LeBrun's 1888 Engine Company 54 -- 304 West 47th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Napoleon LeBrun achieved the advantageous position as official architect for the New York City Fire Department in 1879. His firm’s name was changed to LeBrun & Sons as his sons joined him in the business. By the time it had completed its last firehouse in 1895, the firm had designed more than 40 structures for the FDNY.

A century before function mandated the appearance of firehouses which, by the end of the 20th century were little more than barren concrete garages, the LeBruns created a series of Italian palazzi and French chateaux to house the firemen and trucks. A variety of materials and historic periods inspired their attractive additions to the city’s neighborhoods.

An aged fire house was located at 304 West 47th Street for over thirty years when, in 1884, a new station was approved for Engine 54. The cornerstone would not be laid for four years because of delays caused by construction of another firehouse on 67th Street. In 1888 there was a flurry of building for the FDNY and in order to meet the demand LeBrun recycled an existing design.

The building was completed in September of 1888. It was a carbon-copy of the firehouses built for Engine Company 15 on Henry Street and for Engine Company 53 at 175 East 104th Street, both completed in 1884. While Engine Company No. 54 did not possess the splashy carved shells of the Italian Renaissance of LeBrun’s Engine 14 or the Loire Valley feel of his Engine 31, it was a masterful interpretation of current popular trends.

The architect blended Queen Anne and Romanesque styles, using the red brick of the fa├žade to create a rich textured surface between floors. The capitals of the cast iron, street-level columns featured sunflowers, an element ever-important in the Eastlake movement of the late 1880s and 1890s. Terra cotta ornament and stone courses added to the visual interest. LeBrun deftly melded the proportions and materials of the firehouse with the residential buildings surrounding it.

At roll call here on April 7, 1896, Captain William F. Hayes was surprised by the company when the fire fighters presented him with a silver fire trumpet, made by Tiffany & Co. Hayes was celebrating his 30th year with the Fire Department.

Firemen at the turn of the century faced a perilous situation when fighting fires. The buildings were illuminated by gas lamps and the flammable material was piped throughout the buildings. When builders saved money by using lead pipe for the gas in the tenement building at 424 West 47th Street, they created a situation that would cost fireman Frank Featherson his life.

Featherson, with the rest of Engine 54, responded to the fire that had broken out in the cellar of the building. He was among a handful of men who dragged a hose to the cellar where the smoke was the thickest. The heat from the blaze melted the lead pipe, filling the already suffocating space with poisonous gas. Although an explosion never occurred, Frank Featherson succumbed to the mixture of smoke and gas.

Five firefighters were injured when, on June 5, 1906, they responded to a small blaze in a 4-story building two blocks at 503 W 55th Street. The small fire had ignited in a pile of rags at the Boston Steam Scouring and Dyeing Works. As the Engine Company arrived and began unrolling the hose, a powerful explosion blew out the rear and front walls. Sara Bernad, wife of the owner, was blown out of a second story window, her body landing forty feet away from the building. Windows in houses along the street were blown out and the explosion shook buildings as far as four blocks away.

The firefighters suffered mostly burns and cuts from the flying glass; however the explosion tossed John McGinnis cross 55th Street.  He suffered critical injuries.

The handsome firehouse served Engine 54 for almost 90 years. In 1977, after a $2 million renovation of the building, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre opened it as a 194-seat theater with proscenium stage.

The award-winning group introduces new and important Hispanic contributions to mainstream theater. The PRTT’s sympathetic treatment of the exterior and innovative renovation of the interior are commendable—a praiseworthy recycling of an historic and beautiful property.

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