Saturday, February 24, 2018

Engine Company No. 1 - 165 West 29th Street

Under a century of soot and grim, much of the beige brick and limestone facade survives.
By the second half of the 19th century, the block of 29th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, had already become commercial.  Around 1856 Frederick William Nitschke opened his piano factory at No. 165.  But within the decade the building would be replaced by the fire house of Fire Patrol No. 3.

The New York Fire Patrol operated much like the volunteer fire companies throughout the city.  It fought fires with similar equipment and its members wore uniforms.  But their purpose was slightly different.  In 1803 a group of volunteers formed the Mutual Assistance and Bag Corporation, the purpose of which was to protect and salvage the contents of structures from water damage.  Thirty-six years later the New York Board of Fire Underwriters was established.  The group added fire fighting to its methods of preventing losses and insuring property.  Funded by the insurance companies, the Fire Patrol was established.

Fire Patrol No. 3 was here as early as 1869.  It responded to blazes in the area, like the one that destroyed four buildings on West 27th Street on January 27, 1870.  Filled mostly with wood-working factories, the structures became an inferno.  The situation was made worse when an exterior wall collapsed, spooking the patrol company's horses.  The New York Herald reported that they "became frightened and started off at a rapid gait, knocking down several persons, who received slight bruises."

The loosely-organized network of volunteer fire companies was disbanded in 1865 when the State Senate established the professional New York City Fire Department.  In 1873 the city took over the firehouse of Fire Patrol No. 3 for use by the newly-reorganized Engine Company No. 1.

The company would face challenges in the industrial neighborhood it served.  Factory workers in the early years after the Civil War endured harsh conditions and long hours.  Shop owners were little concerned with fire safety.

A block away from the fire station was the seven-story brick factory of West, Bradley & Cary, makers of corset and suspenders, at Nos. 227 to 233 West 29th Street.   After a small fire broke out on February 19, 1877 the owners were informed of the danger to its employees.  The New York Times later reported "On the 2d of March, 1878, another slight fire occurred, and the precautions already suggested were again brought to the notice of West, Bradley, & Cary."  Another small fire occurred on October 19, 1878.  The Times said "These fires did not do much damage, but it was a common remark in engine-houses in the neighborhood that if a fire broke out while the hands were at work in the suspender factory, it would be difficult to save them."  The newspaper added the building had "for a long time been looked upon as a death-trap."

And fire did break out again.  At 8:15 on the night of March 21, 1879.   Despite the late hour, there were 110 workers in the building, 95 of whom were women.  The fire broke out below street level, in the boiler room, and rushed upward, trapping many on the upper floors.  When Engine Company No. 1 arrived, firefighters chopped open a locked street door, releasing panicked women inside.   Meanwhile, girls and women on the top floors were jumping from windows onto the roofs of adjoining buildings.

By 10:00 the factory was a smoldering ruins.  One fire fighter, William Birmingham, was killed in a tragic accident when a line of hose became detached and fell four stories, crushing him.  Otherwise, although there were injuries, the quick response and heroic efforts of the men resulted in no other fatalities.

Even after the change to a professional fire department, fire fighters sometimes held on to the rowdy personalities for which the volunteers had been famous.  One was Fireman Henry De Tour.  He was fired from his job with Engine Company No. 1 on January 14, 1880 "on charges of intoxication and absence without leave."

In 1879 architect Napoleon Le Brun had been appointed the official architect for the New York City Fire Department.  His job entailed not only designing new station houses, but updating and improving old ones.  In April 1881 his firm, Napoleon Le Brun & Son,  turned its attention to Engine Company No. 1.  The company moved to No. 118 West 33rd Street while renovations were done.

The plans called for an extension to the rear, "new staircases, new floors and rebuilt walls," which included an updated facade.  The renovations cost the city $10,000, or more than a quarter of a million dollars today.

Le Brun's renovations included a vermiculated stone base with handsome Corinthian pilasters on either side of the truck bay. original source unknown
In 1890 the captain of Engine Company No. 1 was Edward F. Croker, nephew of Tammany Hall leader Richard Croker.   He would go on to become one of the FDNY's most memorable chiefs, famous for his eloquent oratory.  He would say, for example, after four men were killed in February 1908, "Firemen are going to get killed.  When they join the department they face that fact.  When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished.  What he does after that is all in the line or work."

But in June 1890 he was dealing with discipline problems.  He was summoned to the office of Fire Chief Hugh Bronner to explain the multiple charges he had filed against one of his men.  When a reporter from The New York Times tried to get to the bottom of the story, Croker refused to name names.  But he did admit the situation was troubling.   "The trouble he regarded as fairly serious.  It was due to comparatively recent occurrences, but beyond that he would not make any statement," said the newspaper on July 30.

The problematic fire fighter was Fireman 1st Grade James Bohen.  Croker filed several complaints against the seemingly uncontrollable man.   When Croker confronted him for drinking on the job on July 19, Bohen responded "Suppose I was drunk, what is that to you?  You did not see me.  You cannot make a charge against me, as I have every man in the house as a witness."

The next day a fire alarm rang out in the station house.  While the other fire fighters rushed to the apparatus, Bohen remained in his bed upstairs, presumably too drunk or hungover to function.  And just two days later, on July 22, he was "absent from his company without permission from proper authority for 26 minutes, between the hours of 8.34 and 9.00 P.M."

It came to a head on August 2, 1890 when Bohen was tried before the Fire Commissioners for "being so much under the influence of liquor, drug or compound as to be unable to perform his duty in proper manner," was found guilty, and dismissed from the Department.

Bravery, not insubordination, was the hallmark of Engine Company No. 1, however.  When the men responded to a massive factory fire on West 24th Street on December 28, 1894, William Weise emerged a true hero.  Two firemen, including Battalion Chief John J. Bresnan, were killed, 10 were injured, and one owed his life to Weise.

William Hennessy was on an upper floor when he sprained his ankle.  Surrounded by flames and unable to escape, he lost consciousness.  The following day The Evening World reported "Perceiving his plight, William Weise, of Engine Company 1, rushed up a ladder to the third floor and carried the injured fireman down to the street on his back."

Seven months later the men would fight a "fierce blaze," as described by The New York Times, in a most unexpected location.  The newspaper reported on July 16, 1895 that the fire was "in their own quarters at 165 West Twenty-ninth Street."  It started in the cellar around 11:00 that morning and "swept upward through the hose tower, and through the roof.  The firemen were quick to act and worked hard to save their apparatus and horses."  Nevertheless, other fire companies had to come to their assistance to save the fire house.

Heavy fire equipment pulled by galloping steeds were both fast and dangerous.  Newspaper regularly reported on collisions between fire trucks and other vehicles, or of unwary pedestrians being struck.  The men of Engine Company No. 1 narrowly escaped serious injury on August 11, 1903.

The company was responding to a fire at No. 303 Eighth Avenue.  "The tender was following in the wake of the engine and going at a good rate of speed," reported The Times.  "The driver of the tender...made a big turn into Eighth Avenue.  He did not have room to make the swing according to his first calculation, however, and quickly swung his horses to the left when he saw that he would strike the sidewalk."

The six men on the vehicle jumped for their lives an is "careened, and then turned over, sliding along the gutter on its side."   All the men escaped the accident unscathed, and, almost unbelievably, none of the horses was injured.

In 1906 the men of Engine Company No. 1 once again had to temporarily relocate as renovations were done to their station house.  Somewhat ironically, they shared quarters with Fire Patrol No. 3 at No. 104 West 30th Street for a year.

By now Alexander Stevens was the chief architect of the Fire Department.  As Napoleon Le Brun had done in 1881, he made substantial renovations.  The New-York Tribune, on May 15, 1906, reported "The building is to be enlarged, new steel and concrete floors and staircases laid and the interior completely renovated.  A new facade of ornamental brick trimmed with Indiana limestone will be erected.  A bronze tablet over the new entrance will be inscribed with the names of both [Edward F.] Croker and [Hugh] Bonner, the one as department chief and the other as deputy commissioner."

Stevens's $24,000 worth of renovations erased Le Brun's handsome facade; but made the building more functional in light of modern fire fighting equipment and techniques.   The notable ornament of the restrained beige brick front appeared in the tall windows of second floor, framed in limestone and topped with heavy scrolled keystones.  The bronze panel described by the Tribune was flanked by proportionate French-inspired iron guards within the other openings.

Back in their remodeled house, the men of Engine Company No. 1 continued to face death fighting fires nearby.  An especially terrifying incident occured on December 21, 1922 at a fire at No. 450 Sixth Avenue.

Lt. Patrick Wynne and some of his crew were on the sixth floor.  Heavy iron window shutters commonly provided security to factories, but on that night they also caused the hot gases inside to build up.   When one firefighter opened a shutter, a violent back draft resulted.

"The firemen were hurled across the room and down the stairs, many of them rolling and tumbling, with their hair blazing and the flames scorching their bodies and faces, as far as the third floor landing," reported The New York Herald.   Two policemen were on the second floor landing and they grabbed two of the men and carried them to the street, while fire fighters rushed up the stairs.

'They found the firemen lying on the stairs and on the floor of the sixth floor rooms, with the woodwork burning all about them, their clothing and hair on fire, and one, Fireman Peter McCaffrey...with his eyes almost burned out."

On September 10, 1945 the Fire Department announced that Engine Company No. 1 would get a new home.  But this time the 1860s fire house on West 29th Street would not be renovated.  Instead plans were announced for a new building at 142-146 West 31st Street.

The bronze plaque, installed in 1906, survives, as does one of the Beaux Arts window guards.
By now the West 29th Street block sat within Manhattan's Fur District, surrounded by early 20th century loft buildings.  The rest of the century was unkind to the historic structure and today the ground floor of Alexander Stevens's fire house is nearly obliterated.  A layer of dirt has turned the beige brick and white limestone the color of a field mouse; but a certain architecture grace survives.

photographs by the author


  1. I walk by this daily...thanks for the background. LYNNE FUNK ARCHITECT

  2. Unfortunately, torn down in April of 2021 :(