Keys Homes
Sunday, September 30, 2012
No house like a firehouse

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

On Dec. 21, 1907 a fire inside the engine room of the newly constructed Key West Firehouse No. 3 delayed its opening by a few months until February 1908. Of course, Captain Alex Vega doesn't expect such irony to repeat itself when the long-awaited Key West Firehouse Museum opens in January.

"I've been working on this for 20 years, and I can't decide if it's been love or torture," laughed Vega, who officially retired from the Fire Marshal's office in 2005, but continues his quest to save old Firehouse No. 3 at the corner of Grinnell and Virginia streets.

Through the non-profit Old Fire House Preservation, Inc. Vega, who was a firefighter before joining the Fire Marshal's office, spearheads the museum restoration effort. He's from a family of firefighters -- father, uncle, cousins, brothers-in-law -- but he said it takes a village to amass a museum.

"Several grants and very generous people through fundraisers like the one we had last month at the Bottle Cap Lounge help a lot, but restoring this building takes way more than its original $5,500 construction cost," he said. "These days, firehouses are much more commercial than were neighborhood stations like No. 3; we had hundreds of volunteers, and people dropped in with food or came by to play cards and dominoes with the firemen."

Vega started raising awareness of the historical and architectural importance of the station in 1991, according to his book, "The History of Key West Firehouse No. 3."

The building, though, wasn't officially vacated until Sept. 25, 1998, "the day before Hurricane Georges blew through Key West," the book states.

The two-story building is rich in history, but firehouse artifacts bring it alive. What might be antique chairs in an eyebrow house are in this firehouse seats aboard the "Tiger Hose Company No. 3" fire engine.

Instead of abstract paintings, authentic fire-retardant coats, helmets and boots hang in artistic array on the engine room wall. The 1906 Gamewell Fire Alarm system, with the list of boxes and bells and outdated code signals, still holds a place of honor next to the fire pole.

Upstairs, old lockers and more gear -- be sure to check out the Bum Farto collection -- is displayed in the communal living room, where reclining leather chairs face a big screen TV. (Even museums nod to technology and contemporary amenities like air conditioning and handicapped bathrooms, which were installed in 2004.)

In the adjoining five-man sleeping quarters, imagine a master bedroom suite on steroids, where five metal cots have the luxury of space, but no privacy. Up here, the galvanized fire pole, a symbol of firemen sliding into action as pervasive as the welcoming porch light in a Conch cottage, is fenced off in a section of the spit-shined wood floors.

"We had to remove five layers of floors to get to the Dade County pine," said Vega. "It was eaten pretty badly by termites, but we saved every board we could save."

Under the first floor's engine room, Vega says the floor-preservation effort unearthed the original coal pit used to fire up horse drawn steamers.

"The New York Fire Department says it had a coal pit until 1924, and some departments in Virginia claim to have one now, but no one has confirmed this with details or photos," said Vega. "Ours is probably the only one still existing in the U.S., covered over sometime after 1914, when Key West went from coal-fed steam to motorized fire engines."

Horse-pulled steam engines didn't disappear quickly, though.

"The guys were attached to their horses," Vega said. "We have photos of the modern engines alongside the horse-drawn steam engines until 1923."

A night stall for quickly hooking horses up to the engines is reconstructed in the engine room, and the museum's gift shop is located where the day stalls were until Firehouse No. 3 underwent a 1954 renovation.

Architecturally, the firehouse has changed with the technology of the times. For instance, one of the two arched bays built initially for accommodating horse-drawn steamers shifted to a contemporary metal roll-up door, then with the current overhaul, returned to the folding-wooden bays.

Jalousie windows replaced wood frames sometime in the mid-1900s, and in 2001 "we rehung them with sash windows," said Rich Siniscalchi, the nonprofit's director of operations.

As with so many historical buildings, restoration coincides with funding, yet, much, much more is embodied in the firehouse than what money can do for stone walls and hip roof.

"Carolyn Fuller's first bottle wall was taken out by a fire truck in the late 1960s," said Siniscalchi. "And the spirit of Peggy Mills, an early tree-hugger, who went to battle with Chief Farto over a Poinciana tree, lives on with the museum. There's a lot of local residential history that goes with the fires."

But of course, there is no residential house quite like a firehouse, and during its nine decades of service, Firehouse No. 3 "really didn't look this good," said Captain Vega.

Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to barbara@bbowers.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.

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