Saturday, June 23, 2012

The 1843 Empire Hose Company No. 40 -- No. 70 Barrow Street

Before the end of the Civil War, New York City’s fire fighting relied on a relatively disorganized assortment of volunteer companies.   Young men, most of whom had other, paying, occupations, joined their neighborhood fire companies, becoming “laddies.”  When a fire broke out, the alarm sent the men scrambling to the fire houses and companies would vie with one another to arrive at the blaze first, or become the most skilled at putting fires out.

The fire houses doubled as social clubs for the men who were often boisterous and rowdy.  But the services of the companies were invaluable to the merchants and residents of the neighborhood.

By the 1840s Greenwich Village had burgeoned from a sleepy hamlet north of the city to a thriving community.  Rowhouses in the Federal style of a generation earlier were being upstaged by wide Greek Revival or Anglo-Italianate homes.    The need for a fire house was clear.

At the gentle curve of Barrow Street just west of Bedford Street a new building was constructed around 1843 for Empire Hose Company No. 40.   While many of the fire houses of this period were vernacular, no-nonsense brick structures, this one went a step further.   The red brick building with brownstone trim smacked of the newly-popular Anglo-Italianate style.  The centered, arched carriage entrance beneath a stone cornice was framed in brownstone.  The carved, faceted keystones at street level and at the third floor were an added touch of sophistication to the handsome four-story structure.  Unusually tall windows, deft brickwork and a deeply-overhanging cornice set the fire house apart from the norm.

The brownstone of the cornice and other trim gently contrasted with the red brick structure.
Two of the fire fighters lived full-time in the station.  In 1857 they were John H. Read, a gasfitter by profession, and Alexander Kimburgh, a “cartman” or deliveryman.    The Company had an enviable fire “carriage” built just two years earlier by the respected carriage and fire equipment makers, Pine & Hartshorn.

At the time there were 30 members of Empire Hose Company No. 40.  But an inspection that year by the Board of Aldermen called the house “in bad condition and too small.”  The inspector did note, however, that the company had 1000 feet of hose, “all of which is good.”

Year after year the city sent inspectors and despite the attractive architecture of the fire station, the evaluation was always the same.  In 1862 the inspector wrote down again “House in bad order.”  The fire fighters maintained their fire truck well, however; for just as the station was always found lacking, the carriage was always listed “in good condition.”  Nevertheless that year the company acquired a new carriage “built by Charles E. Hartshorn," according to the inspection papers.

Blind recesses in the brickwork create spandrels and visual interest--an extra touch by the architect.
In 1865 the two volunteers who lived upstairs were T. F. West, a painter, and J. Dealy, another cartman.   The Company was down to 23 men and, happily for them, the inspector rated the house as “in good condition.”  Not that it would long matter.

That year reformers pressed the State Assembly to organize a professional, unified fire department.  A highly-publicized fire destroyed Barnum’s Museum later that year added to the pressure and the Act of 1865 was enacted.  It established the “Metropolitan District” fire department—a paid force that merged Brooklyn’s and New York’s firefighting efforts and eliminated the scattered volunteer groups.

The second half of the 19th century saw a distinct change in Greenwich Village.   Several sections were now lined with squalid tenements filled with desperately impoverished immigrants.   While most streets remained respectable and safe, some harbored “vile dens” where crime and degraded women could be found.

Religious reformers attacked sin with gusto and the fire house at No. 70 Barrow became the Gospel Mission.  It was here on September 29, 1878 that the energetic Dr. D. J. Lyster preached on the subject of “The Angelic Study of the Gospel.”

The building was purchased by brothers Adolph and Aaron Weiss in 1926 and for half a century it would be home to various small manufacturers and businesses.  Then in 1971 it was converted to residential apartments.

The large double carriage doors are long gone and the carriage entrance has been bricked half-way up to create a window; but overall the handsome brick building that was home to fire laddies and missionaries survives handsomely intact.

photographs taken by the author

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