The Story of the Firehouse
Today, the Firehouse Art Studio is a gathering place for creative learning and communal celebration, but many visitors may not realize the significance of the building they’re walking into. The Firehouse Art Studio is actually the oldest firehouse in the City of Chicago!
It was the first fire station built after the Chicago fire in 1871. It was constructed in 1872 and opened as a Firehouse in 1873. Chicago Fire Department’s Engine 18 moved into the building that year and it remained their home for the next 135 years.
The back area of the building was designed for the horses, the front area for the wagons they pulled. The entire second floor was made up of offices and living quarters, each room with its own fire pole so the sleeping firefighters could quickly slide into action.
In 1916, the front facade was redesigned and recessed making room for the widening of Roosevelt Rd. and the back of the building was expanded. The floors were reinforced and the overhead doors were enlarged to make room for a new era of fire trucks that would soon replace the horses and wagons. This was the only major alteration in the building’s history and even then, most of the original features were left untouched.
In the 1950's the entire surrounding city block (with the exception of the firehouse) was leveled and replaced with public housing high-rise apartments. The firehouse sat in the middle of them and became a community gathering place, for the entire neighborhood. It was so central to the community that the city even decided to ad on a public swimming pool connected directly behind the building!
In the early 2000s Chicago launched a new city rejuvenation project that involved replacing most of the city’s public housing high-rise buildings with mixed-income townhomes and low-rise apartment. This plan dramatically altered the demographics and the landscape of the neighborhood. Additionally, as a part of the same rejuvenation project, the city also commissioned a brand new fire station to be built just a few blocks away. In 2008 the firefighters moved into their new firehouse leaving the old one vacant for the fist time in its 135 years.
Because of the building’s historical significance and importance to the neighborhood, Chicago wanted to ensure it was repurposed in a manner that brought added value to the community. The city invited several people and organizations to submit options for this part of the city plan. As established organizers of city youth programming, we were invited to present our ideas of ways the building and the neighborhood could benefit from one of our programs. Following a lengthy process the city chose our proposal and they awarded us the authority to transform the building into the Firehouse Community Art Studio.
The moment we received approval, we went to work bringing the art studio to life. During the remodel, we went to great lengths to ensure the historical integrity of the building was preserved. Besides the building itself, we were able landmark several interior elements of the building, including the central staircase and the tin ceiling. The drying tower, kitchen, horse corridor, and even the original telegraph stand were also preserved. Throughout the building, nothing historical was removed or altered, including the same fire poles that firefighters slid down for over 135 years.
Modern amenities were added to accommodate people of all abilities and backgrounds, but these modifications were minimal and only effected areas that were not original to building's design. The style and elegance of its original design are as present as they ever have been and visitors today enjoy the same visual experience visitors had over a century earlier.
In less than a year after starting the remodeling project we hosted our fist youth program. In the years that have followed we have added new programs, partnered up with several city youth groups and expanded our reach, offering our program to students in every neighborhood in the city.
We have been blessed with wonderful supporters and amazing staff who have driven our program forward and continue to inspire us as we grow into the future.