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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Embers of history flicker at old firehouses

Fire stations live on as restaurants, a market or even a movie set. Several have been turned into museums.

November 02, 2008|Steve Harvey

There was the time the kitchen became a bit too smoky in the restaurant Engine Co. No. 28 and an alarm sounded.

One of the diners in the former fire station asked, "Is this part of the show?" a manager recalled.

On other occasions, diners have inquired whether any firefighters would be sliding down the brass pole in the main dining area. And, if not, could a customer have a try? His girlfriend would take off her shoes, one diner promised.

Actually, the pole has not been used since 1971, when the Los Angeles City Fire Department moved out of the Figueroa Street building after 59 years.

Saved from demolition by conservationists, the brick structure with the twin parapets was transformed into an elegant restaurant in 1989, retaining many of its classical features as well as its name. So well known did the establishment become that telephone operators stopped asking, "Is this an emergency?" when callers requested the number of Engine Co. No. 28.

It's one of more than 20 former firehouses in Los Angeles that have been recycled over the last quarter-century after they were deemed unsafe or outmoded or because new stations were needed in the suburbs.

Some of the replacement businesses make for diverting sights.

On Western Avenue, Fire Station 29, built in 1913 for horse-drawn vehicles, displays several signs including one that says "Bridal Salon."

You can do your grocery shopping at the market in what was Station 32 on West 1st Street. A notice of intent to sell alcoholic beverages hangs outside old Station 17 on Santa Fe Avenue, which might lead a passerby to think that the firefighters were going to sell firewater. Actually the new owner, architectural designer Jeffrey Birkmeyer, plans to turn it into a restaurant.

But he's not completely sure what to do with one feature not found at restaurants -- a 2 1/2 -story tower in the back where fire hoses were hung out to dry. It's too big to be a coat rack.

Nearby, on 5th Street in skid row, old Station 23 has fashioned a career as a movie extra, most notably as the headquarters of a brave crew battling slime-hurling creatures in some scenes of the "Ghostbusters" movies. It's 98 years old.

Funny thing about the old fire stations -- they hold up against forces more terrible than slime. Old age and earthquakes, for instance.

"I think more pride went into the construction of municipal buildings in the '20s and '30s," says Melanie Tusquellas, owner of Silver Lake's Edendale Grill, formerly No. 56. Tusquellas, who named the 1924 Mediterranean-style bungalow after the former name of the community, added, "I don't think the attention to detail is there these days" with modern buildings.

One station put together well was old No. 6, which was not demolished when it was replaced. It was jacked up, lifted onto a trailer and moved a few hundred yards up Edgeware Road in Angelino Heights. Made the trip in fine shape. It's now used for storage and for community functions.

Some stations went through embarrassing intervals.

Old No. 1, which opened in 1886 in the Plaza area, closed a few years later and "then housed a lot of businesses," said Jim Finn, a firehouse historian, "including a bordello."

No. 1 has returned to respectability and houses a museum, as do Nos. 30 in South L.A. (honoring African American firefighters) and 36 in San Pedro.

The largest of the local fire museums is old 27 in Hollywood, a beautifully restored building that offers a dazzling array of antique vehicles and equipment; a tribute to firefighters in the form of five life-size bronze statues; and numerous photos of heroes, including Blackie, who retired in 1929 as the city's last fire horse, and Sparky, who served from 1975 to 1983 in Northridge as one of the last fire dogs.

In a sense, all the surviving stations are museums, stirring the memories of those who worked there.

Manager Cynthia Quick of Engine Co. 28 recalls the elderly customer who sat down and placed a helmet with the number "28" on the table. "I went down that many times," he said, gesturing to the restaurant's fire pole.

The vanished firehouses, such as No. 3 on Hill Street, hold stories too. That station was a regular stop for an eccentric newspaperman named Pat Foley in the 1940s on his walk to work down Bunker Hill.

Decked out in homburg, carnation, morning coat and cane, Foley would enter the back door of the station, which was on one of the upper floors since the building overhung a hill.

Then he would descend on a fire pole, "like Zeus from Olympus," and emerge through the front door, according to an old Los Angeles Press Club publication.

Saved time, he said.

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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