The Historic Preservation Board voted last week to add five District firehouses to the city's list of historic landmarks, bringing to 20 the number of fire stations that have received some form of historic protection.
The new landmarks are Engine Company 10, 1342 Florida Ave. NW; Old Engine Company 11, 1336 Park Rd. NW; Engine Company 17, 1227 Monroe St. NE; Engine Company 25, 3203 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SW; and Engine Company 29, 4811 MacArthur Blvd. NW.
They join the vacant Tenleytown firehouse on the list of stations that are considered historic in their own right.
Fourteen other pre-World War II firehouses in the city have historic designation because they are in historic districts or were considered contributing factors to a nearby historic area, said Sally Berk, co-founder of the Capitol Fire Museum.
Landmark status doesn't prevent additions, alterations or some demolition work, but it requires developers to defend any alterations before the Historic Preservation Board before construction can begin.
Even demolition is possible, Berk said, if a proposed project has special merit, or if failure to demolish might impose an unreasonable economic hardship on the owner.
The granting of landmark status to the latest five stations marks a change in the way the board does business with city agencies, said State Historical Preservation Officer Lisa Bercham.
The process follows the procedures laid out in a bill before the D.C. Council, called the Historic Preservation Process for Public Safety Facilities Amendment Act. That bill would require city agencies working on projects involving buildings that are, or could be declared, historic to consult with the preservation office early in the planning process.
The change is designed to prevent situations like that experienced in Tenleytown. The firehouse there was declared a historic landmark in the midst of a construction project that was later halted for more than a year because of contracting problems.
The bill would require city agencies to talk to the historic board before any demolition, addition or other alteration occurs.
When a project comes in from the fire department, Bercham's office can make a determination of whether the property is likely to be declared historic. On that basis, the office will work with agencies on a project plan that meets the need to provide public safety while also maintaining the historic character of the building.
The preservation board staff has worked closely with the fire department staff for several months. The board has developed a method for reviewing each of the properties, starting with the ones that have renovation projects in the works. The Capitol Fire Museum has nominated 17 fire stations for landmark status.
"The desire is to expedite the review," Bercham said.
Looking at the project proposal and the landmark designation proposal together saves time and allows the agencies to move forward more quickly with projects to update these buildings, she said.
Kathryn Friedman, spokeswoman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said the department worked with the Preservation Office to make sure preservation would not have a negative effect on delivering services.
Alma Gates, chairman of the 3D Advisory Neighborhood Commission, representing the area where Engine Company 29 resides, said she was glad the board weighed public safety needs. Her ANC passed a resolution a few months ago saying, "It does not serve the city well to have a number of firehouses unable to function because they stand handicapped by landmark designation."
Gates said communities count on firehouses for public safety and not for museum purposes.
Improvements to Engine Company 29's station will bring much-needed upgrades in the quality of life for the firefighters who work there, as well as the community that depends on them to fight fires, Gates said.
"I'm glad we got what we wanted," Gates said. "No community wants to be left without a firehouse."
"There is plenty of flexibility in the preservation ordinance to make sure the firehouses can be altered and added on to, to make sure they can provide for public safety," said Berk, of the Capitol Fire Museum.