by Diane M. Fiske

Streetscape is a regular column on architecture and planning.

While a new glassy building resembling a cube is being built on Highland Avenue at Shawnee Street to house large modern fire trucks as part of Engine 37 Firehouse’s renovation, a massive construction process is underway to make sure the firefighters have accommodations in the 125-year-old building left behind.

The renovation of the new one-story engine house, designed by the architecture firm Cecil Baker+Partners, is expected to wrap up in time for Christmas 2021 and once complete, the older building, with an exterior of Wissahickon schist and sandstone, will be refitted to serve the men and women who fight fires and answer emergency calls in the Chestnut Hill area. The engine serves about 10,150 residents in the neighborhood and has four staff firefighters.

Engine 37 firehouse is the oldest working firehouse in the city, according to architect Roy D. Conard, Project Director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Property and supervisor of the project.

In the renovation, being undertaken by contractor Watts Restoration Inc., the original building, will be fitted with a new kitchen, a dining area, fitness equipment and gender neutral bathrooms to keep the fire crew well rested and ready for their challenging jobs. There will also be storage areas.

Many new accommodations are a sign of the times, such as the gender-neutral bathrooms.

“There were no women firefighters when the firehouse was built,” Conard said.

In addition, the renovation will include the installation of two antique red front doors. The firehouse, at 101 W Highland Ave., was accepted by the Philadelphia Historic Commission in 2015 as a historic structure so the work cannot in any way change the exterior appearance of the Richardson Style structure, which uniquely features the front wall’s combination of large and small stones as well as the arched doors.

When the project is completed, the firefighters will travel from the engine house to the old building through a largely glass walkway between the two buildings.

“It will be just like one house,” Conard said. “Plans show the areas with lines drawn in red for work areas, the rest spaces in green and the inter-media areas as yellow.”

While the original building is being renovated, areas not yet part of the project will be fitted with temporary beds and showers for the firefighters.

The existing firehouse is 8,678 square feet and the addition will add 3,408 square feet for a total of 12,086 square feet. The cost of the project is estimated at $9 million. There are four firefighters assigned to the engine house, which fluctuates as needed.

“We hope to get it finished by December 2021,” Conard said.

The new construction is addressing a problem that is connected to the longevity of Engine 37 since it was built in the late 19th century. Despite its historic significance, the building has many problems such as the fact that modern engines can no longer fit into the firehouse.

The current truck was built in 1991 and was fitted so it could enter a smaller than usual space. Currently the company has only one truck but can summon a truck if needed. To make this possible, the additional truck must be taken to a body shop to have its mirrors and doors changed so the truck can enter the space. In addition, it is necessary for any additional equipment to be modified so it can fit into the 9.5-foot bay doors.

Originally designed by John T. Windrim, the house was constructed for 19th-century horse drawn fire wagons, which turned around on Shawnee Street when there were no houses on the street between W. Highland and Evergreen Avenue.

With the expansion, the 125-year-old firehouse should acquire all features needed to serve a 21st-century community.

Chestnut Hill resident Diane Fiske writes about architecture and planning for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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