South Philly neighbors hope to rescue 1894 firehouse

Demolition permits have been filed for the address of the former Engine 46 firehouse, which more recently housed a popular steakhouse.


Preservationists and Pennsport neighbors are rushing to save a turn-of-the-century firehouse building, but the rescue mission may already be too late.


Demolition permits for 1401 South Water Street were filed in January and February, and updated on June 10. The permit allows for “demolition of existing building as part of a secondary building.” Admirers of the building hope that the permit refers to a modern addition to the rear of the firehouse on Water Street.


“There is an outside chance that the permit is for a small portion of that addition on the firehouse lot,” said Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “But, unfortunately, it’s more likely the permit is for the firehouse itself.”


The only one who really knows is the owner of the property, Cedar Riverview LP of Port Washington, N.Y. Recent attempts to reach the company by the Preservation Alliance and the Pennsport Civic Association have not been successful.


PCA president Dr. James Moylan has left messages for the owner and is sending a certified letter asking for an update on the property. “From what we have been able to learn, the permit was issued this past January and we only found out this week,” Moylan said in an email on Friday. “So, I guess they are not in any hurry. We will continue our efforts to contact them and be involved.”


A bright orange demo notice was posted on the building for a few days in February, then was removed.


The building for Engine 46 Fire Company was erected in 1894 – the date inscribed on the building’s pinnacle. It is one of the last High Victorian-style firehouses in the city, and has been compared to the work of Frank Furness. Leech said that attribution is probably incorrect. (Furness did design a firehouse at 313 Branch Street, which was demolished in 1888.)


The building at Water and Reed Streets was occupied by the fire unit until April 1957, when the company was disbanded, according to a 2006 story in the South Philly Review.


From about 1996 to 2006, the firehouse was repurposed as Engine 46 Steak House, a seemingly successful restaurant when the adjacent shopping strip on Columbus Boulevard was first developed. Cedar Riverview LP owns the block, including the Riverview Theater and Warmdaddy’s jazz club/restaurant, according to a report on the Passyunk Post.


It’s hard to miss the brick castle, with its Flemish roofline and crenulated fire tower, which peeks over Interstate 95. “It is one of the most iconic firehouses in the city, certainly, and is highly visible and recognizable,” Leech said.


A nomination for the building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places was submitted by a private citizen several months ago, Leech said, but it was “substantially incomplete and returned to the nominator.” Leech did not know if the nomination was submitted before or after the demolition notice appeared on the building.


Once a valid demolition permit exists, the Preservation Alliance will not assert jurisdiction over the matter, Leech said. The Philadelphia Historical Commission does not designate structures once a demolition permit has been approved.


“If the permit lapses, historic designation in the future isn’t out of the question, and the Alliance would assist in creating the nomination. For now, we will provide technical assistance to whoever would want to pursue the preservation of the building. But it will likely prove futile,” Leech said.


The current goal is to determine the intention of the property owner. Obtaining historic designation is a powerful tool, Leech said, but “what’s more needed is contact with the owner and clarification of his intention, and discussion of possible alternatives to demolition.”


Dr. Moylan said the Pennsport group “would love to have it retained in its current visible aspect” as an anchor of the neighborhood. “As for its use, it was always a great restaurant. And with the housing explosion we are experiencing in Pennsport, we could use more restaurants.”


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