- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

Historic preservationists marvel at the circa-1900 Italian Renaissance-style firehouse in Northwest's Tenleytown, with its hose tower and bay doors designed to accommodate horse-drawn firefighting wagons.

But community members, who overwhelmingly voted in an Internet survey two years ago to raze the station in favor of a state-of-the-art facility, are angry about a city decision to designate the station a historic landmark.

They say the designation could delay renovation and risk the safety of their community.

After an hour and a half of testimony from preservationists, architects, community leaders and the D.C. fire chief, the city's Historic Preservation Review Board voted 7-0 yesterday to designate Engine Company 20 on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest a historic landmark in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites.

One of the existing station's drawbacks, community members say, is it can be entered only from the front meaning engines have to back in from Wisconsin Avenue with no stoplight for cover. The building also lacks proper ventilation for the diesel exhaust of the departing vehicles, and the living quarters are an afterthought with inadequate plumbing and heating. The station is considered undersized for the lot on which it sits and for the needs of the community.

The doors are the biggest problem.

Fire engines have 1-inch clearance on either side entering the two bay doors unless the drivers pull in the rearview mirrors.

"I work in it on a daily basis, and the building is an unsafe building," firefighter Dennis McVey told the board. Mr. McVey has been driving firetrucks out of Engine Company 20's undersized bay doors for more than 22 years. He said the firetruck the station uses, Engine 20, is the oldest and smallest engine in the city's fleet. The city's newer engines don't fit through the doors.

D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few said the narrow bay doors are "slowing down the response times in our neighborhhods." He testified that he was in favor of preserving a historic building but not at the expense of public safety.

"What part of the history are we taking away from that neighborhood?" he asked the board.

But what truly angered residents was they thought they had resolved the issue among themselves more than a year ago.

Under Chief Thomas Tippett, the fire department proposed demolishing the building and creating a $3.5 million facility with enhanced living quarters, a training room and a third bay. The bays would allow rescue vehicles to enter from 40th Street on the back side of the station and exit onto Wisconsin Avenue.

But the Tenleytown Historical Society opposed razing the station and filed an application for historic status in June 2000.

An agreement was reached among neighborhood leaders, the historical society and the fire chief to adopt an alternate design a $3.75 million to $4 million renovation that would enlarge the station and the bay doors while maintaining much of the facade. The historical society was satisfied and withdrew its application.

In December, the community was shocked to hear the Capitol Fire Museum, a nonprofit organization, filed to have 19 stations that were built before 1945 including Engine Company 20 designated historic.

Sally Berk, a local historian and preservationist, filed the application on behalf of the museum as the result of a contract she signed with the fire department in 1999 that called for her and a fire department liaison to evaluate the stations for nomination as historic buildings.

"Many other cities have landmark firehouses and they continue to do state-of-the-art firefighting," Mrs. Berk said, adding that additions and renovations to historic buildings are common.

But community leaders were shocked by the application, especially because they felt the issue had been resolved.

"We thought we had been through this as a neighborhood," said Advisory Neighborhood Commission member Jill Diskan, who expressed her outrage yesterday to the review board.

The commission argued the city had 15 engines, 10 of them active, that were the same age as or older than Engine 20 and three firehouses that were designed by the same architect.

Board Chairman Tersh Boasberg responded that buildings designated as historic did not have to be unique, just significant, and emphasized that while the board was not trying to impede the department's mission, the issue it was to decide was whether or not the station's history warranted protected status.

"This is purely an analysis of the historical value of this property," he said.

According to the board's mandate, published in the D.C. Register in 1995, a building has to meet one of four criteria to be deemed historic: It should be associated with people who have contributed significantly to the heritage, culture and development of the city; exemplify a significant historical and architectural heritage of the city; embody a distinguishing architectural style to the District; or be the notable work of an architect who has influenced the development of the city.

Preservationists argued it met all four.

The station was built in 1900, designed by architect Leon Dessez, who also designed seven other D.C. firehouses and the vice president's mansion on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

It was part of a turn-of-the-century beautification movement among municipal buildings, and while the bays were designed to accommodate horses, in 1913 it became the second station in the city to be adapted for motorized vehicles.

Three firefighters in the station's history have died in the line of the duty.

In the historic register, architects now will have to take their renovation plans before the historical review board, which will take up Engine Company 20's renovation plans Feb. 28.

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