Historic designation will bring new fire station to Chestnut Hill

Chestnut Hill’s Engine 37 will finally have a new parking spot, thanks to a recent unanimous vote by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

The Commission has placed the current fire house at 101 W. Highland Ave. on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, ensuring protection against future alterations.

That means an end to any notion of modifying the station in order to accommodate modern fire apparatus.

Measuring 98 inches wide, the company’s 1995 KME fire truck barely fits through the 114-inch garage door openings. Its side safety railings have been repositioned inside the cab and pump panel in order to allow passage.

“It’s really situation we need to resolve one way or another,” said Gary Knappick, deputy dommissioner of the city entity responsible for improvements to city fire facilities.

Fat fire trucks

The lengthy process to both preserve the fire hall and retain its ongoing use began three years ago when Engine 37 approached the Chestnut Hill Community Association for community input on its tight predicament.

A small committee representing the neighborhood, the city and the fire department was formed to find a solution.

Though several options have been put forward, the Chestnut Hill Fire House Coalition agreed that the current structure should be preserved.

Built in 1894 by John T. Windrim, the Richardsonian Romanesque building is the oldest active fire hall in the city.

“This was really a collaboration to save an important building. We are just thrilled that the Historical Commission went along with it,” said Patricia Cove, a coalition member who also represents the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (which wrote the nomination) on the CHCA board.

What it means to be on the register

The designation now gives the Historic Commission full jurisdiction over the building’s exterior. Any changes to it or work requiring a permit must be reviewed and then approved by the Commission first.

“Now that it’s on the Philadelphia register, it’s 100 percent unlikely that the facade will ever get changed,” Cove said.

Widening the existing garage doors had been one proposed option.

Laura DiPasquale, a historic preservation planner at the Philadelphia Historic Commission, noted that such an alteration would irreversibly destroy materials and spatial relationships that characterize the building.

Only with proof that no other possibilities exist to modernize the property and provide life-safety services to the public would the Commission be inclined to approve that kind of modification, she said.

What’s next for Engine 37

Where the future station might be located has yet to be settled, but the coalition believes building a new state-of-the-art facility on an empty lot next to the fire house is the most viable option available.

The lot is also city-owned and once housed an adjoining police station, which was torn down in 1959.

“Everybody is of the same mind that it would be the most economical idea,” said Knappick.

Response time, as determined by the fire department, will be the ultimate deciding factor, he added.

Cove says the hope is to keep the existing fire house in use as separate sleeping quarters, kitchen and dining area, plus equipment storage for Engine 37 firefighters.

While the city will oversee design and construction, the CHCA plans to be very involved in the process to erect any new structure in the neighborhood. Being located in Chestnut Hill’s historic district, both CHCA and CHHS would want to see the new building have some important reference to the 121 year-old fire hall, said Cove.

Four more years

A capital budget would need to be approved before any such planning and sit-down discussions about architectural details occurs.

That won’t happen until early next year.

The fiscal year 2016 budget already has $500,000 allotted for schematic and programming phases, Knappick said. Another $5 million is earmarked for the building itself in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Knappick says if it’s decided that the new station is to be built next door to the current one, the design process could take longer than the typical 12 to 14 months, because of the connection to the historic property.

Construction, which may take another 16 months, won’t be able to begin until January 2018.

First priority

Right now, however, there is a more pressing concern. The historic building is in dire need of repairs to its roof.

It’s a top priority and will be addressed before beginning any new plans.

The roof’s condition is being evaluated by architectural firm, Claflen Associates to determine how best to approach its restoration.

“With this designation, I think there’ll be a lot of people rallying around to really bring the fire house back to its glory again,” Cove said.

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