Historic Kentlands firehouse becoming a single-family home

October 11, 2013

The Kentlands firehouse is one of the few surviving structures from the days when this neo-traditional suburb in Gaithersburg was a gentleman’s farm. Now the long-neglected building at the heart of the community is being renovated.

It won’t be home to trucks, ladders and hoses, but to Alexander and Jackie Krakovsky, both 47, and their daughters Eliana, 14, and Samantha, 10.

“We like that this building has character and history, and located in a community that is mixed-use and walkable,” said Alexander Krakovsky, an executive of an international power company. From the firehouse, located near the Gaithersburg Art Barn and Kentlands Mansion, the family will be able to walk to shops and restaurants.

“We were looking for bigger place and a place where we could make it our own and be creative with it,” added Jackie Krakovsky, a human resources consultant, who started a blog about the renovation. “We tend to like the unusual.”

The Krakovskys bought the firehouse from the city of Gaithersburg in May for $200,000 and estimate they will spend another $700,000 on its transformation into a five-bedroom house.

The homeowners are undertaking the project with the help of architect Craig Moloney of Rockville-based CEM Design and contractor Chris McKee of McKee Construction in Darnestown. The team hopes to complete the renovation in January.

The firehouse was built from 1959 to 1961 by wealthy tax attorney Otis Beall Kent, who owned the farmland on which Kentlands now stands. “He collected fire engines from around the D.C. metro area and built the firehouse to house his collection and protect his farm,” said Matt Bowling, a planner with the city of Gaithersburg.

After Kent died in 1972, his property was sold to developer Joe Alfandre and the firehouse was used as a construction office while Kentlands was being built. The structure was deeded to the city of Gaithersburg in 1992 and two decades later was designated by the city as a local historic resource.

The transfer of ownership to the Krakovskys resulted from a request for proposals for the firehouse from the city in 2012. The Krakovskys’ single-family home scenario was chosen over two other schemes, one to convert the firehouse into three residences and the other to create an arts studio and social hall.

“We liked that the Krakovskys will maintain the historic integrity of the building,” said Bowling. “People passing by their home will know it was once a firehouse.”

On a recent tour of the property, Jackie Krakovsky pointed out where old garage doors, now stacked in the yard and basement, are being replaced with paneling and windows inside the rounded arches on the front facade. Inside, some of the cinder-block walls between the firetruck bays have been demolished to make way for the open living-dining area and kitchen.

One of the bays will house a guest suite with its own bathroom, kitchenette and sitting area.

On the second floor, walls are framed around the master bedroom and bathroom with its steam shower and soaking tub. Two children’s bedrooms, another guest suite, laundry room and exercise space will occupy the rest of this level, where the original pine floors are still evident.

“They like clean, contemporary style, so we are trying to make it look pretty sharp on the inside, but try to keep as much character as possible,” said Moloney. Attached to one side of the firehouse is a greenhouse, its glass now missing, that will be restored for growing herbs and flowers.

Changes to the outside of the building, Moloney notes, were subject to approval by the city’s historic district commission. They include a new deck, reached by French doors, on the back of the firehouse and a two-car garage on the alley. A low wrought-iron fence will surround the property.

McKee says the project’s biggest headache so far has been dealing with the quirks of a building intended for trucks and equipment. “Turning a commercial building into a residence is always a challenge,” said McKee.

On the main level, portions of the living-room floor are unexcavated, requiring a trench to be dug in the dirt for ductwork. A low, narrow archway frames a staircase leading to the basement, where a rabbit warren of rooms includes a bomb shelter.

Since starting the project, Jackie Krakovsky said, her desire for ultra-modern spaces has waned as she has grown to appreciate the structure’s unusual features. “We are bringing the building up to code but trying to keep its old charm,” she said, pointing to the words “Caution: low head clearance” stenciled in the attic staircase. She said the sign will be preserved along with the firehouse siren, exterior light fixtures and cupola with a fire-engine weather vane on the standing-seam metal roof.

In his design, Moloney has added an essential feature lacking in the original building: a brass fire pole for quick trips from the second floor to the foyer.

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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