“The most intriguing element” on the façade of Engine #29 on 4th Street near Girard,” Inga Saffron wonders, is “the vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs embedded between the handsome truck doors and the German-style pattern in the ribbon of flowery tiles just below the cornice. Why those motifs?”
Yes, we agree: What the hex?
Might this be “an attempt to reflect the heritage of the German immigrants who worked in the neighborhood’s breweries and mills,” Saffron pondered. Or “was it just the fancy of the architect?”
Philadelphia firehouses took off in an exuberant stylistic storm in the 1890s, and John T. Windrim, the likely designer of Engine #29, was the creative at its center. We can see the broad eclecticism on 4th Street; it’s one of the factors that led to the building’s listing by the Philadelphia Historical Commission in 1989. We see something similar at Windrim’s Engine #37, on Highland Avenue in Chestnut Hill, completed about the same time. (The Commission recently added that structure, “the oldest active fire hall in the city” to their list, reported Newsworks.) Two happy survivors, but many more gems by Windrim got lost along the way.
But back to our original question: What the Hex? How, in the 1890s, did firehouses become places for expressions of opulence, eclecticism, and outright design rowdyism? Not only did Windrim draw from the German vernacular, he dipped into all kinds of historical and contemporary design sources that added up to a wild ride in architectural design. More than “Richardsonian Romanesque,” the firehouse on 4th Street takes strides toward the even wilder, contemporary work by Frank Furness which Michael Lewis refers to with an apt and revealing subtitle: “Architecture and the Violent Mind.”
What was it about firehouses at the end of the century that made them so susceptible to architectural expression? Did the culture of rowdyism, which played out so vividly in firefighting’s earlier years, somehow become channeled into its architecture? Or, as Rebecca Zurier suggests in The American Firehouse, could it be that there was “no prevailing ‘proper’ style for a fire station, [so] architects tried nearly all of them.” In firehouses, she wrote, they executed designs “considered too outlandish for another type of building.” Zurier, who conducted her own Grand Tour of American firehouses concluded: “no one ever complained about a fire station being undignified.”
In recent times, observed historian John Maass, “municipal officials generally want inconspicuous fire stations lest they be accused of wasting taxpayers’ money.” But in the 1890s, “political bosses used to glory in building the showiest firehouses.”
“Opulent fire stations,” said Zurier, “constituted political as well as architectural statements. Responsibility for commissioning a particularly extravagant fire station” was often “traced directly to the wishes of the mayor.”
Purposeful extravagance resulted in “a wondrous variety of architectural styles,” wrote Maass, from “Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Richardsonian Romanesque” to “French Chateauesque, Castellated, Half-timbered Tudor, Prairie Style, Spanish Colonial, Pueblo Adobe, Art Deco, Ugly & Ordinary Venturian.” The American firehouse had become, and would remain, a genre all its own.
“Up-Town Firemen Move to Better and More Modern Quarters,” reported the Inquirer on February 28, 1895. Contractor Frederick J. Amweg had turned Engine #29, his project in “terra cotta and Pompeian brick,” costing $39,611, over to the City Department of Public Safety. Philadelphia added one more creative interpretation in the firehouse genre to its ever-more exuberant, ever-growing collection.
But do we really know that Windrim came up with this particular design? The hex sign offers a possible confirming hint. The same feature also appears in another, documented example of Windrim’s work: Fire House #2, which opened in 1894 at the southwest corner Warnock and Berks Streets. That building had a similar hex pattern, applied in a similar way, as does the Engine #29 on 4th Street.