By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006; DZ01
The quaint old firehouse was still, a century after it was first built, just big enough to serve what was once the rural outpost of Tenleytown.
But fire department officials stoked the flames of ardent neighborhood preservationists in 2002 with plans to raze the 1901 Italianate revival-style structure on Wisconsin Avenue to make room for the larger equipment needed to fight the fires that came with larger houses and more people.
The battle that ensued ultimately redefined the historic preservation process in the District and cleared the way for a $13 million project to renovate several aging firehouses. Last Saturday, the fire department unveiled the first of the projects to be completed, a new state-of-the-art Tenleytown station, which houses Engine 20.
"The fact is, when you call 911 because you have chest pains, you don't want to hear it took us several minutes longer to get to you because we had to drive slowly through the old, historic doors," said Alan Etter, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesman.
Yet, Etter said, the clash made fire officials more sensitive to the value of preserving the uniqueness of the department's history. The new Tenleytown firehouse, for example, was built around the three walls and roof of the old firehouse. The $5.5 million renovation project even preserved the old brass poles that are a hallmark of old firehouses, though firefighters no longer use them.
The other four firehouses slated for renovations also will retain some of their old character.
"We're very sensitive about the desires of the community," Etter said. "We listen to what people have to say. We're all about tradition, and we want to preserve these old buildings as well."
Both sides seem satisfied that they have worked out a viable solution for the future, a feat hardly imaginable when the values of historic preservation first clashed with the realities of contemporary firefighting over the old Tenleytown station four years ago. Scores of preservationists protested when the fire department announced plans to raze the historic structure, which had been designed by the architect of the vice president's mansion.
The critics had the backing of the D.C. Preservation League, which had recently placed all of Washington's pre-World War II firehouses on its most-endangered list.
"They are significant not only for their architectural merits and diversity but also for their socioeconomic impacts on their neighborhoods, as the firehouses spurred subsequent residential and commercial development," the preservation league wrote in its 1999 report on the city's most endangered places.
After several hours of testimony in a heated community meeting in 2002, the Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously to designate Engine Company 20 a historic landmark in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites. It was untouchable by bulldozers and wreckers.
This was one of the few instances, the fire department and many residents argued, that public safety could be endangered in the name of preservation.
The firehouse had ventilation designed to handle the odor of horses that pulled water tanks not the diesel engines that now fume in the parking bays. The bay doors were adequate for the horse but left only one inch on either side of today's massive rescue and pumper trucks. The firefighter's living quarters were an afterthought.
The Tenleytown project was a harbinger for other problems to come, as the fire department began reevaluating the worsening condition of several other firehouses. As neighbors and the fire department clashed in a series of heated meetings, the preservation board stepped in.
"The Tenleytown firehouse was the building that did bring up that issue of tension between public safety and historic preservation," said David Maloney, D.C.'s deputy state historic preservation officer.
After several months of debate, an architectural solution was drafted that saved three walls and the roof of the old firehouse. That set the precedent that now allows historic preservation laws to make an exception for firehouses across the District.
"In the case of firehouses, we realized that we should loosen the provisions of the [preservation] law," Maloney said. "The legislation now has a special process for firehouses."
Since Tenleytown, the Historic Preservation Office has worked with the fire department on the other projects, Maloney said. When Engine 25 at 3203 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE undergoes a $1.7 million renovation this year, it will retain many of its historic features, including an observation tower once used for spotting fires. According to the state preservation landmark report, it was one of the city's largest and most innovative firehouses when it was built.
Similar considerations will be taken on a string of other renovations underway this year: Engine 17 at 1227 Monroe St. NE in Brookland will undergo a $1.7 million renovation; Engine 9 at 1617 U St. NW will have a $2.2 million overhaul; and Engine 28 at 3522 Connecticut Ave. NW will have a $1.5 million facelift.
"A lot of these buildings are charming," Maloney said. "Since Tenleytown, the process has worked well. The community, the firefighters, everyone will be very proud of these buildings."