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Architecture + Branding: Modern fire stations devaluing hallmarks of Vintage firehouses

1-Purpose built

As one of the purest examples of “Form follows function”, an architectural credo espoused by Walter Gropius, firehouses were principally purpose built to accommodate equipment and crew, and to fulfill a narrow and explicit mandate. From the earliest days, the form and aesthetic generated from real needs with few characteristics that could be construed as applied aesthetic.

In the early 1900s, horse-drawn steam engines were the norm making multi-storey firehouses necessary. Keeping horses was a large part of firefighting life, whereby fire fighters and horses would cohabitate in close quarters. Equipment and horses would be kept on the main floor, sleeping quarters and hay storage on the second floor. The sliding pole made for rapid access to below, while the spiral stairs were space efficient and served as a deterrent to the horses ascending to the upper storeys.

Fire Station, Hiawatha Blvd, Syracuse, New York

A single, or in some cases, a multiplicity of doors facing directly onto the street, established a look that is both unmistakable, and completely genuine. In the event of a call, quick access to the street equated to reduced response times. Additionally, being centrally located allowed for virtually equidistant response times to the assigned coverage area. Tall doors, some with archways, allowed for horse-drawn engines, or narrow yet tall trucks, to circulate with a degree of ease and expediency.

Fire Station, St-Laurent and Fairmont, Montreal, Quebec

The lookout tower, which in many cases served double-duty for hose drying, punctuated the roof line, allowed fire fighters to pinpoint the location of fires prior to the introduction of more sophisticated locating devices. The height of the tower was derivative of the area of coverage and the adjacent construction, with the aim to provide as unobstructed a view to the widest extent possible.

Signage indicating Fire Station in the vicinity, Ottawa, Ontario

2-Exponential evolution

As populations grew, cities expanded, and building stock became denser, demands on firehouses became evidently strained. The need for larger and more functionally responsive firehouses developed in tandem with advancements in equipment, vehicles, training and techniques.

Fire Hydrant, Red

Due to a litany of evolving realities ranging from budget cuts, new technologies, updated equipment, improved response times, consolidation, hiring freezes, staffing compressions, real estate speculation, development encroachment, urban sprawl, out-migration and gentrification, a significant number of older firehouses have been decommissioned, or simply left to flame out. Some sit for several years, languishing, falling into disrepair, only to eventually be found listed for sale and disposal to be removed from the public accounts.

Fire Hydrant, Yellow

3-Requisite re-interpretation

Though not as exquisite in detailing, modern-day fire stations pick up many of the themes laid by their predecessors, and amplify them. Perhaps lacking in some of the more revered qualities ascribed to vintage, especially Victorian era firehouses, the primacy of the branded characteristics is nonetheless evident.

Fire Station, between Pitt Street and Sydney, Cornwall, Ontario

Although contextual, location specific and artistic variations can be noted, the general theme remains. Street facing doors for rapid street access, central locations, lookout towers, many of these integral, established and branded elements are evident to one degree or another in numerous modern fire stations.


Fire Station, near Oakland Park Blvd, Lauderdale, Florida

Fire Station, Industrial Road near St-Laurent Blvd, Ottawa, Ontario

The tall yet narrow doors have been replaced by wider ones, making it easier to accommodate modern equipment. As before, priority is given to locations that allow for quick access to multiple nodes within the assigned coverage area by way of main thoroughfares or highways. As newer information technologies emerged, the need to pinpoint fire locations visually became less common. Nonetheless, lookout towers carry forward as part of the aesthetic, serving as a crucial brand marker, having found a new use in training procedures involving high-buildings which require different techniques and fire mitigation strategies.

Fire Station, St-Joseph near Mont Bleu, Gatineau, Quebec

Functionally more efficient, modern fire stations nonetheless almost universally lack the more ethereal qualities, size and scale that make Vintage firehouses desirable.

Fire Station, Boundary Street/County Road 34, Lancaster, Ontario

Fire Station, St Andrews West, Ontario

4-Romanticism for Vintage firehouses

Centrally located by design, these historic stately structures still tend to command prime locations. Some, having stood for over a century, became part of the social fabric and the location of civic and community gatherings. Hence, for a myriad of reasons ranging from civic pride, nostalgia, childhood memories, or even a sense of public duty, some of these heritage firehouses find buyers who eventually repurpose these for unintended and unconventional uses.

FORMER Firehouse (Current use: Arts centre), St-Dominique near Rachel East, Montreal, Quebec

Firehouses have been converted to serve various uses such as offices, places of worship, community spaces, performance theatres, restaurants, dance studios, hotels, and residences. Former firehouses converted to residences served as backdrops for several television shows such as “Spencer for Hire”, “Jonas” and “Real World Boston”, as well as feature film “Princess Diaries”. Feature film “Ghostbusters” also made use of a converted Fire House, recast as the improbable paranormal central.

 FORMER Firehouse (Current use: residence), near Des Allumetieres and de Maisonneuve, Hull, Quebec

In no small measure, part of the charm of these structures is the lineage, history, location and distinct aesthetic, if not the unique aura that emanates from classic firehouses. Even though they have found new uses, they still retain the vestiges of their previous life, effectively branded as such, and these undeniable markings enhance the value.

5-Incessant integration

As a rather instructive display, some of the same harsh realities that pushed classic firehouses into redundancy and disuse are also working vis-à-vis their modern replacements. Some newer fire stations are staring down the similar culprits of financial realities, population displacement and emerging technologies.

Although current fire stations retained elements of their forerunners, newer streamlined stations bear a lesser resemblance, forging a blended aesthetic influenced heavily by cost controlled function trumping form.

Fire Station, Salina Street, Syracuse, New York

Adopting a look that is more related to multi-bay auto repair service and storage garages, these “service centres” could be easily mistaken for anything other than a fire station. This trend is ever more complicated by the trend revolving around the all-encompassing service centres, which combine all first responders, Fire, Police and Ambulance, into one single nondescript building.

Active Green+Ross, Oxford Street West, London, Ontario

Fire Station, Old Liverpool Road near NYS thruway, Liverpool, New York

Midas, Saint-Charles Boulevard near Highway 40, Kirkland, Quebec

As modern fire stations were already declining in conserving a semblance of the charms of the past, some of the cost imperative service centres  have obliterated them almost entirely.

Fire Station, Route 43, Avonmore, Ontario

Fire Station, NYS Route 11 at NYS Route 37 West, Fort Drum, New York

Inheriting a recognizable aesthetic, coerced into quasi-perpetual decline through emerging financial realities, it is difficult to visualize, how a century from now, nostalgia could make one yearn to convert a 21st century service centre with the same red-hot fervour that early 20th century firehouses elicit today.

Fire Station, near A1A, Lauderdale-by-the-sea, Florida

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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