John Windrim and the Eclectic Engine House Boom

Fire House #2, Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.March 23,1931. (
Fire House #2, Southwest Corner Warnock and Berks Streets.
March 23,1931. (

The newspaper headline confirmed what everyone already suspected. Philadelphia’s “Boom in Building” of 1889 had more structures going up than during any other year in the entire history of the city. On the streets, that translated into the city pushing noisily in every possible direction. On the books, that meant 70 new factories, 65 additional shops and foundries, 65 stores, 30 warehouses, five freight stations, three market houses, and as many hospitals. The spires of 18 new churches reached heavenward between the factories, punctuating more than eleven miles of new brick rowhouses. In North Philadelphia alone, just west of Broad Street, more than 1,800 homes extended the city’s grid monotonously to the north. Five hundred eighty new houses pushed the city to the south. And in West Philadelphia, developers obtained building permits for no less than 1,500 additional houses.

Everyone expected 1890 to be an “even more prosperous” year. After all, open land in the vicinity of 29th and Susquehanna that had been selling for $1,000 per acre. Now it fetched up to $30,000. “Everything points to success” claimed an optimistic developer, “if we build 10,000 houses a year we are only supplying the demand of our growing population.”

Thing is, the city’s own role in the phenomenal growth of 1889 was seriously stunted. Only one fire station and three patrol houses were built that year. Politicians scrambled to close the gap. Dancing in their heads were visions of something new, not the same old kinds of firehouses and police stations, those had been outgrown in so many ways. Here was the chance to fix the problem while crafting a newer image for the expanding metropolis. And who could disagree with more and better services based in newer, more and better facilities?

In May of 1890 the first one opened. “A Model Station House, the first combination fire engine house, police station and patrol house in the country,” proclaimed officials gathered at 20th and Long Lane (now Point Breeze Avenue). Mayor Edwin Fitler addressed the crowd at the ribbon cutting as Councilman Edwin S. Stuart stood proudly by. Director of the Department of Public Safety William S. Stokley praised the new, “elegant” 3-story, “Roman” design as “the ideal station house of the city” regretting only that “it was not in a more central position, as nobody but people from the Neck” might see it for inspiration. Officials believed this building, which cost the hefty sum of $58,000, was nothing less than “the finest station house in the country.”

Engine # 45, 26th and York Streets, 1908. (
Engine Company  #45, Northeast corner, 26th and York Streets, 1908. (

The election of Edwin S. Stuart to the mayor’s office in 1891 allowed him to extend his construction campaign citywide. As the Bureau of City Property looked ahead, they allocated more than half of their next annual budget for “new stations and new engine houses” specifically earmarking $25,000 for a new station house at Twentieth and Berks Streets. Many more were on the way.

To carry out Stuart’s vision in style, he brought in architect James H. Windrim as Director of Public Works. But Windrim had too much work from other clients and turned his partner and son, John T. Windrim, loose on the fresh streets of the city. Over the next several years, the younger Windrim expanded the city’s footprint in a string of gem-like fire stations. By 1913 the list had grown quite long.

More than a century later, a few remain in various stages of threat and preservation. Others have been lost to time. Below, Windrim’s extant buildings are presented in bold; each is linked to contemporary street views. Two of the major causalities in North Philadelphia, Engine Companies # 2 and #45, are illustrated with the only things that remain: rare archival images from the City Archives.

1892 – Engine Company #42, Front and Westmoreland Streets.

1893 – Engine Company #2, Berks and Warnock Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #43, 21st Street near Market Street.

1894 – Engine Company # 45, 26th and York Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #46, Reed and Water Streets.

1894 – Engine Company #37, West Highland Avenue and Shawnee Street (Chestnut Hill)

1895 – Engine Company # 16, Belmont Avenue near Wyalusing Avenue (Mill Creek)

1895 – Engine Company #29 , 1225 North 4th Street near West Girard Avenue.

[Sources in the Philadelphia Inquirer include: “The Boom in Building. More Structures Erected in 1889 than during Any Previous Year,” November 9, 1889; “A  Model Station House. Opening of the New Seventeenth District Fire, Police and Patrol Station,” May 13, 1890; “A New Style of Station Houses.”  (Front and Westmoreland), September 29, 1892; “A New Police and Fire Station,” (Chestnut Hill), October 4, 1894; “A New Engine House. Fourth Street above Girard Avenue, February 28, 1895; “New Fire Station. It Will be Opened for Use in a Few Days,” March 7, 1895; “New Fire House: West Philadelphia Boys Will Occupy It To-Morrow,” June 21, 1896.]