An old D.C. firehouse gets taken apart, then lost


Firemen remove at tree that had blown against the meeting hall of the Oldest Inhabitants of Washington Building in Washington, D.C. on March 16, 1955. Winds up to 53 MPH swept through the metropolitan area. (Harry Goodwin/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 6, 2013

A central, if somewhat obvious, tenet of historic preservation is that if something is historic, perhaps it should be preserved. The more interested you are in history, the more likely you are to hold this view.

And so it must have been surprising when a group dedicated to celebrating Washington’s past saw its historic headquarters dismantled and, well, lost. Unpreserved, if you will.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

This is the latest installment in Answer Man’s Catalogue of Lost Things, a list that so far includes Francis Scott Key’s house and the Noyes armillary sphere of Meridian Hill Park. Both were safely removed so they could be put back again. Now nobody knows where either is.

The same is true of the Union Engine Company’s building at the southeast corner of 19th and H streets NW, which between 1911 and 1956 was the meeting place of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. (AOI). Before that, as the name implies, it was a firehouse. It was built in 1837, the culmination of a flurry of spending on firefighting in the District. The Treasury Building had burned down in 1833 and city fathers thought some investment was called for.

The engine house — brick, naturally — was two stories high and had a distinctive cupola-topped tower, useful for sighting fires and drying wet hoses. Two large doors at the front allowed equipment to be pulled in and out. When it ceased being a working fire station, it became a place for retired firefighters to meet. The AOI moved into the second floor, eventually filling it with memorabilia — portraits, daguerreotypes, bricks from demolished structures, patent models, old pumpers and fire bells, a blackened White House fixture from when the British burned Washington.

In 1955, the International Monetary Fund, which owned a building behind the Union Engine House, was desperate to expand its headquarters. The firehouse was actually owned by the U.S. government, so the IMF probably didn’t owe anything to the AOI. But in a spirit of comity, it gave the association $50,000 to rebuild its meeting place somewhere else. In July of 1956, the Union Engine House was dismantled. At the time, it was the city’s oldest firehouse.

Photos from the time show pieces of the firehouse — its bricks neatly stacked, its cupola looking slightly dented — sitting on the storage lot of the Charles H. Tompkins Co. in Northeast.

“We had some old members who remembered seeing it in the construction company’s yard, cupola and everything,” said AOI historian Nelson Rimensnyder. “I was never able to find anybody who knew exactly when it disappeared or how.”

Answer Man thinks it’s likely that the prospect of rebuilding the firehouse eventually struck the AOI’s board as too daunting. There was talk of moving it to the campus of George Washington University, but development was advancing there, too, and no one wanted to see the firehouse dismantled a second time.

In the late 1960s, the District offered to sell the AOI a building at 3214 M St. NW for $13,000, half of its appraised value. But the run-down building had been used as a warehouse for the sanitation department and the association balked. Today, it houses a ritzy BCBG/Max Azria boutique.

“I kick myself every time I walk by there,” said Bill Brown, the AOI’s current president.

As for the D.C. memorabilia that once graced the Union Engine House, it was kept in storage for about a decade. Eventually, the AOI dispersed it, donating it to such groups as the Historical Society of Washington, the Smithsonian, the D.C. Fire and EMS Museum, and the Friendship Firehouse Museum in Alexandria.

The AOI doesn’t have its own building today. It holds its monthly luncheons at the Pier 7 Restaurant on the D.C. waterfront. “Till they tear that down,” Nelson joked. “Then we’ll be wandering again.”

Send a kid to camp

On June 29, members of the LEO Club from Rockville’s Magruder High School set up a charity carwash at the 7-Eleven gas station in Derwood. By the time they had wrung out the last sponge, the students, under the direction of sponsor Karen Buscemi, had raised $310 for Camp Moss Hollow.

That’s a camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. You don’t have to hold a carwash to raise money, but I hope you’ll consider giving.

To make a tax-deductible donation, simply go to washingtonpost.com/camp and click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15251-0045.

Have a question about the Washington area? Write answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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