Old Baltimore firehouse to get new lease on life

Public-private program designed to rehabilitate city's aging stations


News from around the Baltimore region

April 04, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

In February, when the city suddenly shuttered a dilapidated 112-year-old firehouse in Highlandtown, community leaders feared the station in Southeast Baltimore might never reopen.

But those concerns should be alleviated today. The city and two Baltimore companies are scheduled to announce that the South Conkling Street station will be the first project for a new public-private program aimed at rehabilitating the city's aging firehouses.

Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and Obrecht Commercial Real Estate will pay for renovation work at the firehouse at 520 S. Conkling St. - one of Baltimore's oldest. Mayor Martin O'Malley, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. and company leaders will make the news official this morning.

"We were concerned, so I'm ecstatic about the news," Highlandtown Community Association President Ron Arnold said yesterday.

Wedged between an Army recruiting station and a neighborhood newspaper office, the 1893 building was last overhauled in the 1960s.

Renovations are budgeted at $250,000 and include a new roof, modern heating and air conditioning and up-to-date plumbing and wiring.

Set to begin this month, the project should be complete by midsummer, when the station will be reopened, fire officials said.

As the first venture in the city's new Adopt a Firehouse program, fire officials hope the project will spur others in the private sector to contribute funds to restore other stations.

Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said yesterday he did not know how many of the city's firehouses require the same level of repair.

Asked whether the program might benefit only neighborhoods where private investment was booming, Cartwright responded: "That's certainly true to some degree. In this area, we're more likely to get the support from the business community."

State and national firefighting officials called Baltimore's program unique and much-needed in an era of reduced spending on public safety.

Roger A. Steger Sr., fire chief in Ocean City and president of the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association, said he was unaware of another department in the state trying the same approach.

"There are very few fire departments in the United States that have very flush budgets," said Alan Caldwell, a senior adviser to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

A former volunteer fire chief in Fairfax, Va., Caldwell said that improvements to station houses, where firefighters spent a third of their lives, are likely to improve morale among the rank and file.

Structural problems forced about 20 members of Engine Company 41 to move out of the Conkling Street station in February to temporary quarters at 5714 Eastern Ave.

"It's been so-called condemned since I've been in the Fire Department," said Joe Evans, 49, an emergency vehicle driver with Truck Company 20 who spent eight years in the firehouse in the 1990s.

During his time there, Evans said, rats infested the building, windows needed to be covered with blankets to keep out drafts and the roof leaked.

"They had to put plastic tarps on the ceiling ... so the water would dump into trash cans," he said.

Firefighter Steve Stewart, who serves with Engine Company 41, said his 20 years in the firehouse continued a family tradition: His father, Joseph, 86, spent more than 20 years fighting fires from the same station.

"We can't wait to have our house back," he said yesterday at his company's temporary home on Eastern Avenue.

Fred Struever, vice president of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, said his company's donation would help the community while ensuring protection of its redevelopment projects in nearby Canton and Brewers Hill.

"I think that Highlandtown needs a little love too," he said. "They need a jump-start, and it's the least we can do."

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