Back when firemen used horse-drawn water tankers and Dalmatians rode shotgun, sandstone brick was a popular building material for fire stations in Glendale and northeast Los Angeles.
Today, the old brick stations have become a multimillion-dollar headache because fire departments statewide must either bring the unreinforced masonry buildings up to 1981 earthquake standards or build new stations.
In Glendale and northeast Los Angeles, fire officials have opted to replace the area's seven antiquated stations. Two will be razed to make way for new construction. At least two more may be auctioned off to help pay for the cost of buying larger plots of land on which to build new stations. One has been purchased by the American Red Cross, and the fate of several others remains undecided despite pressure from local homeowner groups and preservationists to convert them to libraries or community centers.
"There's a lot of precedent for converting fire stations to other uses," said Ruthann Lehrer, executive director of Los Angeles Conservancy, a private preservation group. "It's been done in cities all over the country."
She cited the preservation of a 75-year-old fire station on Figueroa Street downtown that once housed Engine Company No. 28. That building has been designated a historical landmark and renovated as an office building and restaurant.
Although conversion is not feasible in every case, Lehrer said she hopes Los Angeles and Glendale can preserve many of their older fire stations.
Whether or not they think the buildings are worth saving, city officials, neighborhood residents and firefighters agree that closing down the picturesque fire stations marks the passing of an era. While the new stations will have modern amenities, striking architectural features will not be among them.
Los Angeles Fire Department Engineer Kurt Fasmer works at Station 6 in the Echo Park / Angelino Heights area, which is expected to close within six months. The station is a two-story brick structure with stone carvings and stamped-tin ceilings. Fasmer's grandfather built one of the first Victorian houses on nearby Carroll Avenue, his father was a firefighter at Station 6 and Fasmer himself grew up in Echo Park, he said.
For Fasmer, working at Station 6 is like stepping back into history. "You feel like you're part of something that's been around for a long time," he said. On the other hand, Fasmer is looking forward to Station 6's new quarters on North Virgil Avenue, which will provide better heating in the winter and the luxury of air conditioning in the summer.
When the company moves, some residents want to see the station converted to a public library.
Station 6 is one of 17 unreinforced brick fire stations built prior to 1933 that have been cited by the Los Angeles building department for failing to meet earthquake standards. Four are in the Silver Lake, Echo Park and Highland Park areas, said Battalion Chief Richard Olsen, who oversees construction of new stations.
Of the 17, 10 will be sold and replaced with modern stations at other sites, 4 will be demolished and rebuilt, 2 will close and will not be replaced and the former Station 27 in Hollywood will be retained as a historical landmark, Olsen said. The city is considering converting Station 27 into a Fire Department museum. The 15 new stations are expected to cost about $20 million, he added.
Glendale faces similar problems in trying to modernize its fire stations and bring them into conformance with state earthquake requirements.
A 1981 study of Glendale's nine stations found the three oldest and busiest stations in need of extensive structural repairs. In addition, the study found those stations too small to properly house men and equipment, and crews took up to seven minutes to respond to alarms--well above the 4 1/2-minute response time mandated by the Fire Department.
The report recommends that the city build three new stations, which could cost about $8 million, said Glendale Fire Department Battalion Chief Joel Markss.
"Those stations were built in the 1920s and 1930s. They're cramped and obsolete," Markss said.
None of the Glendale sites slated for replacement have been designated historic landmarks. Several members of the Glendale Historical Society said the group does not oppose the stations' demolition.