Sound the Alarm: Craft Brewers Stoked Over Retired Firehouses
In most neighborhoods and towns, few buildings hold the cachet of the old firehouse: its blend of function, historic flair, and community connections. Although in about 20 such structures—now decommissioned—around the US, craft breweries are adding new chapters to the already rich histories of these local landmarks. Chapters that often include surprises.
Consider the one-time central fire station in Bossier City, La., which was built in 1953 and now serves as the home of Flying Heart Brewing. To install a new floor drainage system, co-owner Ben Hart had to cut a 130-foot trench through the building’s thick cement floor—8 inches of concrete designed to support the weight of heavy rescue vehicles.
In Muskogee, Okla., Garry and Ann Page are converting the city’s second firehouse, built in 1904, into a brewery. When the thoroughly soaked ceiling literally blanketed the floor in a portion of the aging structure, they dubbed the space “the mush room.” It wasn’t the only challenge they faced.
To the west, in a largely residential corner of Colorado’s capital city, Station 26 Brewing Company founder and president Justin Baccary was forced to run new power lines for two blocks as he transformed a nearly 60-year-old fire department building into a facility for beer.
Less imposing but curious nonetheless, Firehouse Brewing Company owner Bob Fuchs discovered a nest of fire hose nozzles behind a wall when he began renovating his 1915 building in Rapid City, S.D. These and other unique twists and turns abound, but seem to only bolster the appreciation the current residents hold for their brewery’s adopted homes.
“It was meant to be a building that lasts, as old as it is,” says Hart, who borrowed a friend’s jackhammer and diamond saw to conquer the concrete block that anchors Flying Heart. “It’s built like a tank.”
Early in the planning stages, the brewers navigated structural columns, multiple floors, and other peculiarities. “We had to do a little Tetris to figure out how to make our production area, the taproom, cooler, and restrooms fit into the space,” says Station 26’s Baccary, who decided that the basement was an ideal barrel aging room.
In South Dakota, Fuchs capitalizes on gravity as Firehouse’s operations span three floors: the grain is milled on the third floor; the brewing, aging, and cooling tanks reside on the second floor; and the first floor holds the serving tanks. At Flying Heart, the three-story hose tower now houses the grain mill and storage, and entices drivers on nearby Interstate 20 with a 30-foot beer bottle painted on its exterior.
Of the breweries that operate in structures that previously served as part of a municipal fire service, Firehouse, which opened in 1991, ranks among the oldest. Fuchs acquired the building, which had been decommissioned in 1974, from a restaurant owner in Rapid City’s then-decrepit downtown district. Since then, the brewpub has buoyed an impressive urban renaissance.
“In 25 years we went from a downtown filled with vacant, asbestos-filled crappy old buildings to a really vibrant area,” Fuchs says.
Over the past few years, the potential economic boost from a local beermaker has spurred a handful of similar transformations as entrepreneurs around the country convert retired firehouses into breweries.
For example, Bossier City officials named Flying Heart as a key part of their downtown revitalization effort when the city sold the building to Hart and his partner in 2014. In Muskogee, Garry Page says that the city, looking to reverse years of blight, gave him the downtown property, which was decommissioned in 2001.
“The city had slated the building for demolition to make a parking lot,” Page explains. “But now they want us involved in just about everything they’re doing to turn things around in this part of town.”
Character often comes with complications, however. As each of the taprooms has taken shape, contending with modern-day building codes and regulations, such as those tied to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has been a constant challenge. Frequently, issues stem from the ADA’s 36-inch width mandate for doorways and hallways. Federal and state historic designations may also restrict renovation plans—especially on exteriors—for older buildings.
And community sentiment can be just as strong as any preservation decree. For example, Hart says that removing the 50-year-old magnolia tree in front of Flying Heart—a memorial to two firefighters and two city workers who died in an early 1960s accident—was never an option.
So while each brewery wears its past life in different ways, nurturing such a legacy is all part of adopting a repurposed space that once served a vital role in its community. At Firehouse, the walls feature many historical photos, while Flying Heart displays donated firefighter uniforms and helmets, a countertop crafted from a salvaged bench, and fireplug tables on its patio.
At Station 26, which the city of Denver replaced with a new facility nearby in 2006, a more understated approach includes two reinstalled fire poles and a tap wall covered with firehose material. In Muskogee, Ann Page is eager to educate patrons on many aspects of town history when the taproom, which occupies the oldest brick firehouse in Oklahoma, opens in 2018.
For all of the logistical and spatial quirks and challenges, regrets are rare from the brewery owners nestled in their converted firehouses. The combination of tradition, history, and character simply enriches the taproom experience like few other locales.
“It’s just such a perfect fit and, frankly, if we were anywhere else, I don’t think we would have the success we’ve had in this location,” says Hart. “I think we make great beer, but beyond that, we love the environment, the open space, and how relaxed it is. It’s a big space that just lends itself well to the brewery.”
Rally Around the Fire Pole
Some compelling stops along the firehouse-brewery trail include:
Brew House No. 16
The stately 1908 brick and stone ex-firehouse in Baltimore features many intricate design details, from the frieze over the entry to the extensive tile work on the walls. In the summer, the Rahr-Punzel Golden Blonde Ale is a popular choice.
Engine House No. 9
This 1907 structure survived three fires in seven years after it was decommissioned in 1965, was converted to a tavern in 1972, and has housed E9 Brewery (the first craft brewery in Tacoma, Wash.) since 1995. Try one of its award-winning wild ales.
Oval Craft Brewing
The US Oval Historic District is a collection of old military buildings located on the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Air Force Base. This brewery occupies an 1890s carriage house originally used by the Army for its horse drawn fire equipment. Ask for Star Gazer, an American wheat IPA.
Old Firehouse Brewery
Co-owner Adam Cowan, an ex-firefighter, has a large collection of firefighting memorabilia on display at this Williamsburg, Ohio, brewery located in a 1955 firehouse. Chief, a vanilla Porter, is a local favorite. ■