The Philadelphia Historical Commission moved last week to help preserve an important part of Chestnut Hill history when it voted unanimously to place the Chestnut Hill Firehouse at Highland Avenue and Shawnee Street on the register of historic places.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. “We’re excited that this was passed by a unanimous vote by the Historical Commission.”
Registration documents for the firehouse prepared by the historical society made the case for why the building is an important part of both Chestnut Hill’s and Philadelphia’s history. Built in 1894, the firehouse is the oldest still in use in the city.
The firehouse’s new historic status gives the building a layer of protection against any future development or alterations by granting the Historical Commission review rights over any permit sought for the property. The commission’s staff reviews routine permits, but the commission must meet and vote on any changes that would alter the physical appearance of the property.
That permit review is important, given the fact that recent proposals to modernize the 121-year-old firehouse have included expanding the size of the two garage doors on the front of the building. The fire department has been interested in modernizing the facility, particularly since newer fire trucks are much wider than the building’s current bays can accommodate.
Other options on the table include purchasing thinner, European firetrucks, moving the firehouse to a new building in Chestnut Hill or adding a new bay to the existing building on open space that currently exists just to the building’s west.
What has not been considered seriously is moving the firehouse altogether. Because it is in a corner of the city, Chestnut Hill can’t effectively be covered by neighboring firehouses.
Salganicoff said the historical society has been working for several years with a consortium of neighborhood groups, including the Chestnut Hill Community Association, Chestnut Hill Business Association, the Philadelphia Fire Department, the Philadelphia Department of Public Property (which owns the firehouse), Councilwoman Cindy Bass and nearby residents.
“We prepared the registration application several years ago but were reluctant to go forward before we had spoken with the fire department and the city,” she said. “We didn’t want to use it aggressively. When we introduced it recently, there was no objection from the fire department.
That, Salganicoff said, is the best part about the historic designation – aside from preserving the building – getting all potential stakeholders on the same page.
“We’re excited that going forward we’re going to be making choices with the fire department that preserve the firehouse,” she said.