by James Smart
It’s good news for traditionalists that the city plans to modernize the Chestnut Hill fire station on Highland Avenue. Fire engines have been headquartered on that site since the days when horses pulled them.
The nifty modern design of the new building will make pale reference to the Victorian stone elegance of the original.
The first fire house there was built in 1894, connected to an adjoining police station, with stables. It was one of many such combined police and fire buildings erected in the 1890s, the brainstorm of Edwin S. Stuart, then a member of Select Council. (City Council had two branches then, Select and Common.)
Stuart had begun his career as a clerk in the famous Leary’s Book Store, and years later owned it. At age 34, in 1886, he was elected a councilman.
He was president of the Young Republicans of Philadelphia. Knowing the history of Philadelphia politics of that era, we can assume that many friendly contractors would be involved in his plans to erect a series of police and fire headquarters.
The first of his proposed buildings, proclaimed by officials as “a model station house,” and said to be the first combination fire engine house and police station in the country, opened in May of 1890 at 20th Street and Long Lane (now Point Breeze Avenue).
The building cost $58,000. (The salary of the President of the United States then was $50,000.)
Mayor Edwin Fitler presided at the ribbon cutting, and Director of Public Safety William S. Stokley praised its “elegant three-story Roman design,” expressing regret that it was in “The Neck” in South Philly, where more people couldn’t appreciate it.
Stuart was elected mayor in 1891, the youngest ever at age 38. (He would be elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1908.)
The city allocated more than half the city’s budget during his first year as mayor for more new police stations and engine house buildings.
One was built at Front and Westmoreland Streets in 1892. Another followed at Berks and Warnock Streets in 1893. Four were built here and there in 1894, and two in 1895.
One of the 1894 structures was the Chestnut Hill complex on West Highland Avenue.
Stuart signed up noted Philadelphia architect James H. Windrim as the city’s Director of Public Works. Windrim had designed such local structures as the Masonic Temple, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Falls Bridge over the Schuylkill.
James Windrim is usually credited with the police and fire stations. But he was busy in the 1890s with federal buildings and post offices and other big projects all over the country. His firm was called James H. Windrim and Son, and it was his son, John T. Windrim, who handled the local police and fire construction.
Details are vague on the fate of the Windrim station houses in modern times. Most were torn down. Remnants of a few remain.
The castle-like Front and Westmoreland Streets building from 1892 is gone. Berks and Warnock Streets, from 1893, was replaced by a public housing development next to the Temple University campus.
Of the 1894 sites, the firehouse on Market Street near 21st is still there, greatly altered. At 26th and York streets is now a modern firehouse for Engine 45, Ladder 14. At Reed and Water Streets, modernized remnants of the old station include a brick tower.
From 1895, on North Fourth Street near Girard Avenue (unless something has changed in a year since I saw it) stands probably the most intact facade of any of the original combined police and fire buildings. And on Belmont Avenue near Girard is a gray stone portion of the original Windrim building.
The police section of Chestnut Hill’s Highland Avenue building was removed about 60 years ago. But soon, we’ll have a 21st-century version of what was in 1894, and still is, Engine Company 37.
James Smart is a longtime resident of Mt. Airy, author of local history books, newspaper columnist and freelance writer for more than 60 years.