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New life for city’s oldest firehouse

Dudley Square building undergoes $2.5m renovation

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 3, 2011

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Abandoned for half a century, Boston’s oldest firehouse spent decades sliding into decay: boarded-up, overgrown, and listing in the direction of Dudley Square’s Eliot Burying Ground.

Fans of history protected it from the wrecking ball in 1969 and propped it up in 1993 to prevent collapse, but the hollowed-out Eustis Street station remained too daunting for public or private rescue.

That changed with a series of new tax credits and a partnership between the city and the nonprofit Historic Boston Inc., yielding a two-year, $2.5 million rehabilitation that will be officially celebrated with a ribbon-cutting Wednesday.

Quietly open since midsummer, the building turned heads this past weekend as a temporary art gallery stop on the Roxbury Open Studios tour. For weeks it has been causing double takes among passersby accustomed to the graffiti, razor wire, and plywood that long marred the property.

“People pause and say, ‘What is that? What’s going on here?’ ’’ said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston, whose office now occupies the top floor of the Italianate firehouse; granite arches frame her windows, and elaborate scrollwork supports the building’s eaves.

Now, she said, “it pops.’’

The occupancy by Historic Boston marks a departure for the organization, which formed in 1960 to save the Old Corner Bookstore, a 1718 building that had been slated to be razed for a downtown garage.

The nonprofit had kept its offices above Old Corner, now a Freedom Trail landmark, as its mission expanded to saving other properties across Boston by lending money and expertise to private owners or by redeveloping them itself. The move to Dudley represents a vote of confidence in the firehouse and the surrounding neighborhood.

State Representative Byron Rushing said in an e-mail that Roxbury residents will welcome the resurrection of “this small but significant building.’’

“One of Roxbury’s untapped resources,’’ he wrote, “ is its variety of 19th century architectural styles still standing.’’

Starting next month, Historic Boston also plans to unlock the adjacent Eliot Burying Ground for weekday public access. Until now, it has been the only one of the city’s trio of 1630s burial grounds not regularly open. The cemetery is the final resting place for multiple Colonial governors and for John Eliot, 17th-century minister to the Indians.

The firehouse has a colorful history that predates Roxbury’s 1868 merger with Boston. It was designed by John R. Hall, a noted architect who oversaw the 1859 restoration of the State House dome and cupola and who also designed Dudley Square’s Dartmouth Hotel - itself redeveloped a few years ago as residences, artist lofts, and commercial space.

The brick station, erected in 1859 to replace a wooden firehouse, had a foundation that probably disrupted burial plots. A circa-1869 wooden annex behind it had to be razed in 1991, a move that revealed structural problems in the original brick section as well. The recent work restored the main core and built a new ell in back on the footprint of the 1860s addition - this time with footings, or support pilings, dug into the ground.

Initial exploration for those pilings revealed unmarked graves that had been covered by the old addition, Kottaridis said. Conferring with city and state archeologists and preservation officials in 2009, officials decided to proceed with digging the pilings while taking pains not to disturb remains.

“We made the choice to continue with the project while being respectful of the burials that were here, and keeping them here,’’ Kottaridis said, referring to them as “permanent residents.’’

In addition to securing and refurbishing the building, the project added an expanded walkway inlaid with markers detailing the building’s history, between the southern side of the firehouse and a new fence by Boston artist John Tagiuri - a whimsical silhouette of a 19th-century fire company pulling a steam-powered fire engine by hand.

The walkway was built over an easement obtained by the city on a sliver of private land to the south. The city also replaced the concrete sidewalk in front with brick and provided a low-interest loan to assist with the project. State and federal tax credits helped defray nearly $1 million of the cost, with Historic Boston committing $1.5 million in private funds.

A sign over the door reads “Torrent Six,’’ in honor of the first Roxbury company based there. The firehouse was later home to Boston’s Chemical Engine 10 and Ladder Four, which spent nearly two days straight combating the fire that swept Boston in 1872, and that claimed one of the company’s men.

The department vacated the building in 1916, in favor of a larger, multibay firehouse on Dudley Street that no longer stands, said Frank W. Fitzgerald Jr., a retired Malden fire chief, local fire historian, and past president of the Boston Fire Museum.

Fitzgerald said he was elated to learn that the Roxbury building had been restored, as Boston’s last link to the hand-drawn firefighting era and a time when the city of Roxbury had its own department.

In that tinderbox age, fires were more frequent and more destructive; in the last full year before the 20 Eustis St. station opened, Roxbury’s municipal department - serving a community of just 25,000 - responded to 59 fires that destroyed $51,000 worth of property, nearly 20 times the cost of the station itself.

For three decades, the city leased the firehouse to the local post of the United Spanish War Veterans, who used it as a clubhouse until the last of the veterans died. The city used the building for equipment storage in the 1960s but it has otherwise been vacant for decades, despite a variety of unsuccessful efforts to attract redevelopment, Kottaridis said.

City Councilor Tito Jackson said the renovation gives a boost to efforts to tell Roxbury’s history, to promote the area’s cultural and social resources, and to draw more activity to Dudley Square. The first floor is leased to the Timothy Smith Network, which operates technology centers in nonprofit and social-service agencies across greater Roxbury.

“The work that Historic Boston did on the Eustis Street firehouse and their presence in Roxbury and in particularly Dudley Square means a great deal to the community,’’ he said. “There’s a renaissance occurring in the Dudley Square area, and the Eustis Street firehouse is an integral part of that.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.


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