I have one of the nicest views in town from my office window. I don’t see the Capitol or the Washington Monument. I see the gleaming white cupola atop the red-brick firehouse of Engine Company 16.
The firehouse, on 13th Street between L and K streets NW, is in the midst of an $8.5 million renovation. Over the 12 months The Washington Post has been in our new building, I’ve witnessed its transformation. I watched as workers scraped away the dull, flaking paint on the cupola’s copper top and repainted it.
And all that time, I’ve wondered what it would be like to look back into my office from that cupola. So I called the fire department.
I first toured the firehouse a few months ago with fire department bigwigs and representatives from MCN Build, the contractor doing the work.
Firefighters are big on history, and the Engine 16 firehouse has more than most in this city. The Colonial revival building was designed by Albert L. Harris, the District’s municipal architect. When it was dedicated in 1932, it was Washington’s first four-bay firehouse.
In fact, those bays are one reason the building needed updating. The old bay doors were an inch over 10 feet wide. Firefighting apparatus has gotten bigger in the past 80 years. Leaving and entering the station had become like threading a needle.
Bill Smith, senior site superintendent for MCN Build, groused about what firetrucks had done to the granite piers and brick bays facing 13th Street.
“You should see what stonework does to our firetrucks,” said David M. Foust, assistant fire chief.
The lower portion of the brick facade was removed, and the granite piers were trimmed. Each of the reconstructed bay openings is now 12 feet wide.
MCN Build and the LeMay Erickson Willcox architecture firm have tried to reuse as many of the original materials as possible. Said architect Paul Erickson: “This is like the grandfather of all the firehouses. We’re trying to restore it to its lost dignity.”
The terrazzo floors on the upper stories have been polished, the Douglas fir wooden floors sanded and sealed. The brass slide poles — Model 20s from the McIntire Brass Works in Massachusetts — were repaired. The marble divider from an old toilet stall has been turned horizontally, refinished and repurposed as a bathroom countertop.
Especially handsome is the original yellow-beige glazed brick on the walls of the engine floor. It’s trimmed with tile in a chevron pattern that’s inset with a floral design.
“You cannot replicate these,” Bill said. “Well, you could, but we don’t have a gazillion dollars.”
One thing that was replicated is the cupola’s weather vane. Lost over the years, it was re-created from original drawings.
A firehouse is a most unusual sort of public building. It’s an office where the workers happen to live. And eat. During the renovation, a gas line was plumbed to a narrow courtyard beside the firehouse. It will feed a grill. Firefighters are big on grilling.
Firehouses are sometimes places for ghosts, too. Engine 16 has a memorial to Tommy Turner, a District firefighter killed on June 26, 1971, crushed by a falling wall during a four-alarm blaze in the 400 block of New York Avenue NW. (In the 1970s, Engine 16 was the subject of a local TV documentary by filmmakers Holly and Paul Fine. To watch it, go to vimeo.com and search “We’re No Heroes.”)
Perhaps most unusual of all, Engine 16 once housed the District’s Firemen and Policemen’s Clinic. The third floor boasted a medical facility, complete with operating room, recovery room and laboratory.
Last week, the fire department said I could climb to the cupola. Up we went, past a new workout room, new classrooms, new offices and a new stairway that was constructed in the old hose-drying loft. (New hoses don’t mildew like the old ones did.)
When the stairs ended, we walked across the attic. Then I climbed a steep iron ladder, pushed up a trapdoor and . . . chickened out. My head was eight stories above the street. The ledge around the cupola is about 2 feet wide, no railing. There was no way I was crawling out there.
I leaned over, pointed my camera toward my office and snapped a few photos.
Before heading down, we emerged on a part of the roof that allowed us to gaze at the cupola. Now dwarfed by the surrounding office buildings, it once must have been the tallest thing on the block.
The fire station will reopen in February, when it will again be home to Engine 16, Tower 3, Ambulance 16 and the 6th Battalion fire chief. I’ll be listening for the sirens.
To see more historical photos of the firehouse, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.