106-year-old Firehouse Is Home To A Sculptor

Quest For Space And Limestone Ended Saturday

December 19, 1990|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff writer

UNION BRIDGE - Two years ago, an artist searching for a studio with doors wide enough to drive a truck through found a home here.

The quest for a space to sculpt and a gallery in which to show ended when Jo C. Israelson saw the old, empty fire station on East Broadway.

She called the two-story brick building, built in 1884, the ideal stop in her journey as a sculptor. The station is rich in history, well-suited for her present needs and full of future possibilities.

She saw herself lifting the bay doors and emptying loads of stone into a first-floor workroom, which once housed fire engines. She also could envision a second-floor gallery and living area.

Her "enchantment" with the site grew as she discovered the town has a ready supply of limestone, a favorite material for sculptors, and that renowned sculptor William Rinehart had lived and worked here.

Although she knew she had her work cut out for her, she said she had to buy.

After settling on the site, Israelson became a weekend resident here, commuting every Friday from her Prince George's County residence and her job as an instructional designer with the General Accounting Office.

After the town fire company moved to larger headquarters in 1967, years of neglect and disrepair followed for the old station. Israelson's far-from-relaxing weekends were filled with "demolition," clean-up and renovation.

"Using my hands is my craft," she said. "I'm not afraid of hard work."

Before the 3,500-square-foot building was livable, though, she had to call in contractors.

Electricity, central heat and a bathroom became top priorities.

"This place originally cost the town $3,000," she said. "I paid that for the bathroom."

Just above the oak door hangs a "Firehouse Studio 1990" sign. A wood stove warms the work area, which still has its original tin ceiling.

Chanah, the name Israelson signs on her works, plans to exhibit in the upstairs gallery. Nine windows and a clerestory line the walls, filling the room with natural light. The stage, where traveling entertainers once performed, also has been restored.

About 200 guests filed into Firehouse Studio Saturday to take part in a dedication and party. From the stage, visitors saw "Brick by Brick," a videotape that grew out of the oral histories Israelson heard from her new neighbors. Cable Channel 55 is televising the 14-minute segment, which took Israelson and a friend, Timothy Brown, about 200 hours to create.

As Malcolm H. Rakestraw, 88, sat by the warm stove, he remembered playing dominoes and seeing silent films years ago in the one-time town hall. E. Ray Wilson, another senior citizen, said he and his childhood friends used to station themselves outside the firehouse every time the alarm went off. Eventually, all the boys joined the volunteer company, he added.

"This whole project is about transformation," said Israelson. "The transformation of stone, of a building. And I am one more link in the chain, the movement to the future."

Her guests hung ornaments on a huge tree, which towered to the ceiling and spread across the gallery's front wall. Some added 1991 wish cards, with standard hopes for peace and an end to hunger.

One child gave Israelson a fireman ornament and wrote "For me to be a fireman" on his wish card.

"We're really celebrating a rededication," said Israelson as she lighted the fifth candle of Hanukkah. "After all, this building was really dedicated in December 1884."

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