In the National Register of Historic Places, Hoboken is home to nearly twenty listed as preserved cultural resources. For those not in the know, the National Register, as stated in their website, is part of the effort to identify, evaluate, and protect historic and archaeological resources significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture – that includes buildings, structures and objects.
Upon entering the city of Hoboken from downtown, a fully restored and operational firehouse built in 1892 sits as a staunch guardian promising security to its residents and welcoming visitors in regal splendor. Seemingly scattered about, firehouses such as this not only tell a story of the architecture utilized within the city walls, but also of Hoboken’s Bravest.
Take a stroll through The Mile Square City; newer structures like 720 Willow or even restorations such as The Clinton Social on Seventh Street represent the modern amongst the long-lived turn-of-the-century firehouses. Humble opinion? The mark of every American city or town is a firehouse, an American tradition. The brave few who now control and tame fire have come a long way from the Stone Age when man first learned to temper metals with that very element. A firehouse was a meeting hall, a training facility, and symbol of honor for these men. Through the years, alongside the newest structures lie these sleeping giants of Colonel John Steven’s time. They chronicle the town he developed and knew and its deep roots in history.
Hoboken Architecture 101
Romanesque. Gothic. Neoclassical. Italianate. Whatever the style, the Engine Companies of Hoboken are living artifacts of its rich history on the Hudson. Many of the structures were built in the sturdy, solid Romanesque-style alluding to their imperative need and their highly regarded stature in town or better yet, that the hard-working working class was a force to be reckoned with – ideas similar to many collegiate buildings fashioned in the Gothic style which accumulated connotations of security, authority, and intellect.
Not letting any part of the architecture go to waste, says Paul Somerville, the towers that sit atop each of the houses were used to hang-dry the hefty fire hoses after a call. Somerville is an interior designer of Paul J. Somerville Design, Inc. in Hoboken. Additionally, he serves as city commissioner on the Hoboken Historic Preservation Commission. That practice ended in 1891 when the material of the hoses was modified, according to curator at the Firefighter’s Museum in Hoboken, Bill Bergin. Bergin added the towers also served as practice towers designed with pompier ladders for scaling and climbing making the architecture not only aesthetically pleasing, but also practical.
If you think the tall firehouse doors were meant for fire trucks as we know them today, think again. First pulled by hand to the blaze sites, fire wagons were soon after pulled by horses which lived at each of the firehouse locations. It was not until 1916 that the first motorized apparatus took over the equine responsibilities. Also, for practical purposes of energy and heat conservation, regular doors were added to the buildings for entering and exiting rather than using these enormous doors.
Making their mark prominently in town, the Engine Companies out-lived other buildings thanks to their well-planned architecture. The eight are spread about. And don’t think that eight is too much for a town only one-square mile; you can never have enough.
Engine House No. 3, Truck No. 2
Completed in 1899, this island-firehouse easily recognizable at 501 Observer Highway as you enter from downtown Hoboken finally underwent renovations after over 100 years of being in use – conditions were so bad at that point that by most standards the building would have already been condemned. Until the call for a much needed update, the blaze battlers occupied the house despite the state of affairs. After the restoration, floors were modernized; the interior was refurbished; and ultimately a facelift was in order. The final product? A Romanesque structure complete with hallmark features: a massive quality, thick walls, and round arches, a style which dominates the streets of Hoboken. But take a closer look; if the tops of the firehouse towers seem unfinished, they are. In restoring the century-old structure, both tower spires originally sitting on the east side of the building were not a high priority due to lack of funding and were not replaced.
Engine Co. 2
Head uptown to the 1313 Washington Street location and check out this north-most and active firehouse whose land was donated by the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company back in 1889. But make sure you keep your distance; it is fabled the house was set-back several feet to allow the blaze battlers of time past to sit and spit – a legend Bergin quickly dismisses: “they are rumors and most of them are false, although spittoons were placed in the firehouses, so there was probably a contest for that!” he laughed. “They had a contest for everything!”
Bergin talked about the competitions the firemen enjoyed – racing in particular. As a trophy with more ceremonial use than practical, a solid-silver trumpet – originally used by the commander of the department – would be passed to the winner until the next “competition.” Interestingly enough, that same trumpet which was engraved on each side with something about Hoboken, now sits in a museum in Houston, Texas.
Firefighters’ Museum aka Association of Exempt Firemen Building
Built in Italianate-architecture which is recognizable with flat roofs topped with a tower, the museum is located on 213 Bloomfield Street and originally a firehouse named Washington Hook & Ladder Co. in 1881, the museum is open free of charge on Saturdays for tours highlighting the history of the fire department in Hoboken, listing major blazes in town, and housing a vintage Ahrens Fox hose-wagon from 1932. Check-in with curators Bill Bergin, retired deputy chief of the Hoboken Fire Department and Joe Kennedy, retired firefighter. The museum holds pictures, ledgers, memorabilia. The two gentlemen hold the knowledge of everything behind it all. Many pictures are of the Firemen’s Parades through the years in town. In a career mostly employed by men of Irish and German descent in Hoboken, there was one time when an Italian was in charge of them all: Chief Anthony “Martin” Sinatra, Frank Sinatra’s father. A picture of Ol’ Blue Eyes and Sinatra, Sr. on a fire truck at a parade in 1927 hangs among others in the upstairs hall of the museum.
Among the most beautiful of firehouse structures is also the stateliest of statues. Standing prominently on a twenty-foot tall granite pedestal is an eight-foot bronze fireman depicted cradling a child in his left arm as he overlooks the dog-run and playground-filled Church Square Park. A dedication from the citizens of Hoboken to the Volunteer Fire Department for their service in Hoboken and erected in 1891, the commemorative monument is a constant symbol of the long history and continued presence of our Bravest.
The other firehouses in town all possess their own unique character and design, definitely destinations of interest. Engine Co. 3 on the corner of 2nd and Jefferson is also Fire Headquarters built in 1900. Engine Co. 4 on 212 Park built in 1850 in Italianate-style which focused on symmetry and proportion is now a private residence. Engine Co. 5 located at 412 Grand is also a conversion to a private residence built in 1875. Engine Co. 6 which is midtown at 801 Clinton across from Hoboken High School was built in 1900 reflecting Neoclassical architecture, an aching nostalgia for a lost world of Greek and Roman architecture.
But why so many in such a small area? Bergin says it was better to not put all your eggs in one basket; especially with the way traffic conditions were and are. To have the fighters come from all different directions would be the best-case scenario. The positioning of the houses themselves determined the wards for which they were responsible and served. These sections were used when cast-iron fire alarm boxes adorned the streets, since removed because of youthful mischief in town.
The courageous firefighters were revered back then, perhaps even more so than today. Firemen, at the time, were only allowed to serve in the town in which they lived. So essentially, the men would battle the fires twice: first in real time and then again in the retelling as the men tried to best each other but were each ultimately recognized as local heroes.
To preserve is to protect this rich history and heritage for generations beyond us, so they may also take that same stroll.