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On a Mission to Save a Historic Old Firehouse

October 06, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

It all started one day late in 1983 when Rudy Brown was riding on a Central Avenue bus, looking out the window. There it was.

The dilapidated, scarred old building, still pretty in its abandonment, had to be the firehouse he had been reading about--Engine Co. 30, the city's first all-black-staffed fire station. Then he noticed the sign over the doors: "Engine No. 30 L.A.F.D. Truck No. 30." He had not dreamed it was still standing.

At the time, Brown was studying for a master's degree in planning at UCLA and working as an intern with the city's Planning Department. About three months earlier, he recalled recently, "I was having a slow day at the planning office and one of the staff handed me a book he thought I'd be interested in."

"The Old Stentorians" by Arnett Hartsfield Jr. told the history of the city's black firefighters, starting from the hiring of George Bright in 1897, through the period of segregated crews, on through segregated facilities, of which No. 30 at 1401 Central Ave. became the first in 1924, up until the order went out to integrate all fire stations in 1955. Hartsfield, who teaches black studies at Cal State Long Beach, had been a firefighter at No. 30 from 1940 to 1956, and is a member of the Stentorians, the black firemen's organization.

Brown did find the book interesting. And once he found the building, that interest became a consuming one. He is on a mission now, gathering converts along the way. Even the severe setback his mission received last spring, when an arson-caused fire severely damaged the building's interior, did not deter him. In fact, he became more dedicated than ever. He is not alone.

The mission: to preserve and restore the old building and put it to new use as a permanent home for the Los Angeles Community Design Center and other nonprofit community organizations, with a public area that will celebrate the building's history and be available for exhibits and meetings.

The Community Design Center, founded in the late '60s, is a nonprofit design, planning and financial consulting firm that works with neighborhoods and community organizations, usually on a fee basis, in designing, renovating or converting existing structures for low-cost housing, day-care centers, clinics, residential facilities and mobile home parks.

Since 1972, its current executive director, planner Anita Landecker, said recently, the center has moved four times, always searching for adequate space and affordable rents in the downtown area.

"The benefit of having a permanent home for the design center would be that we could provide more services and do so more easily," she said.

When Brown got off the bus last year, he researched the building and found it was owned by the city. The Fire Department moved out six years ago. Its last tenant, the Department Recreation and Parks, which used the building for storage, had vacated it three years ago. By some kind of minor coincidence, its fate was scheduled to be reviewed in the near future by the City Council's Public Works Committee.

He took the information to his teacher at UCLA, Dolores Hayden, a professor of urban planning. Hayden was engaged in her "Power of Place" project, identifying places in downtown Los Angeles where history had occurred, especially history pertaining to labor and minorities. By developing an itinerary of such places, the project would be creating what Hayden has called a "museum without walls."

Brown and Hayden researched the building further, he said, and brought its significance to the attention of the Public Works Committee, halting the proposed sale of it. Eventually, they applied for designation as a historical monument to the Cultural Heritage Board. It was approved earlier this year.

Then the Fire Came

They were moving right along when the fire came on April 22: Hayden had approached the Design Center, which expressed interest in using the building for offices and public uses. Councilman Gilbert Lindsay had helped gain city approval of a 15-year, $1-a-year lease. Restoration and seismic code costs had been estimated at $175,000. The Atlantic Richfield Foundation sent the Design Center a check for $15,000 for restoration. The Los Angeles Conservancy and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency agreed to help find the least costly way to comply with the seismic code. . . .

They had planned to move in last June.

And then the fire. Damages to the second floor were assessed at $40,000. And since last April, vandals have been at work in the unsecured building, breaking windows, ripping out fixtures, leaving graffiti. Renovation costs are now estimated at $200,000 as Engine Co. 30 continues to deteriorate.

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