Philadelphia Architects on Fire(houses)

Fire Engine Company No. 47. 3035-37 Grays Ferry Avenue. Charles E. Oelschlager, architect, ca. 1899. (

As the city heated up, pushing outward in all directions, so did its fire department. As we’ve seen in more than one post, architect John Windrim stepped in and supplied an array of new and eclectic designs for the expanded municipal footprint, making up for lost time. Director of Public Works Windrim had a natural advantage getting commissions, but there was more work, and a broader appetite for design diversity, than any one office could handle. Projects went to bid, many other architects and contractors responded. What resulted might be called Philadelphia’s Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom.

This post introduces a six-pack of additional architects and handful of their firehouses, as well as a spattering of their kin, police stations. In all, the city put an estimated 50 or so fire houses and police stations on the streets between 1890 and the 1910, a prodigious display of design finesse.

Have we ever heard of such a demonstration in municipal architecture? We have, in a way. On NPR a few years back, Susan Stamberg presented the case of Columbus, Indiana. In the mid-20th century, Columbus commissioned more than 60 buildings “by a veritable who’s who of modern masters” including I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Philadelphia’s Robert Venturi (who, in 1967, created Fire Station No. 4).

The Philadelphia’s six are not big names, but the civic design frenzy that took place at the turn of the 20th century, long before Indiana’s, occurred at the intersection of demand and indigenous talent. Where Columbus lured starchitects from far and wide and funded their arrival with philanthropy, Philadelphia’s homegrown creative burst took place in its own space, on its own time—on its own terms.

Firehouse, 1322 West Cambria Street. (Google)
Firehouse (Engine 50; Latter 12) 1325 West Cambria Street. Charles E. Oeschlager, architect, 1900. (Google)

So who’s rushing out for a Philadelphia firehouse tour? Unfortunately, much of this work got lost in the shuffle over the last century. In truth, we barely even know the extent of what once was. A few private efforts at compilation hope to fill the yawning information gap. (See Mike Legeros’s List of Historic and Former Philadelphia Firehouses.) You can’t just dip a toe in the complicated and (early on) violent history of the Philly firefighting, certainly not in a few blog posts. It’s a steep, slippery and, so far, largely silent slope. But who and what you’d encounter makes it a ride well worth the price of admission.

Here are a few of the architects and buildings you’d see along the way:

Charles E. Oelschlager’s listed projects include churches, theatres (both moving picture and vaudeville) and even early gas stations. His “new three story fire house…at 31st and Grays Ferry Road,” from 1899 (illustrated here) didn’t survive. What did is still in use: his three-bay-wide firehouse from 1900 on Cambria east of Broad (also illustrated). Behind its terra cotta, red brick façade, beneath its green, slate-covered mansard roof were nine horse stalls, sleeping quarters, four sliding poles and all the latest “appliances…electric bells and buzzers.”

Joseph M. Huston (1866-1940) generated more impressive projects, like the Pennsylvania State Capitol, but that job proved to be a show stopper. Scandal and conviction led to a residency at Eastern State Penitentiary. Before all that, in 1899 and 1900, Huston designed several firehouses that have yet to be documented and none of which survive.  In addition, his stationhouse for the Sixth Police District at 11th and Winter Streets was a lovely, long gone, Georgian Revival design.

Engine Company #13, 1529-39 Parrish Street. Phillip H. Johnson, architect. Photographed by Vince Feldman in 2001.
Engine Company #13, 1529-39 Parrish Street. Phillip H. Johnson, architect, 1901. Photographed by Vincent D. Feldman in 2001.

E. V. Seeler (1867-1929) is known for 65 projects including Curtis Publishing Company on Washington Square, the nearby Penn Mutual Life Insurance Building and the Philadelphia Bulletin Building on Filbert Street, once just to the northeast of City Hall. His breakthrough took place with the First Baptist Church in 1901, at the corner of 17th and Sansom Streets. It’s not far from the extant fire house at 1528- 1530 Sansom, which he completed two years before that.

Hazelhurst & Huckel – Way back in the early 1880s  Edward P. Hazlehurst and William Samuel Huckel, Jr. started a long and prolific partnership generating 326 projects. Their combination police station, patrol station and fire house stood at the northwest corner of Seventh and Carpenter Streets until it was demolished in 1962.

W. Bleddyn Powell’s (1854-1910) projects include the completion of City Hall. His combined fire/patrol houses including one at 4th and Snyder, now long gone. He also turned out a police station at 19th and Oxford that later served as the first Opportunities Industrialization Center.

Phillip H. Johnson (1868-1933) is not to be confused with another architect: Philip Johnson. The Philadelphian was more notorious than famous. Through some skill and sheer connectedness he landed a lifetime contract with the City Health Department that earned his office more than $2 million in fees over three decades. Johnson’s projects include the Philadelphia General Hospital, Philadelphia Hospital for Contagious Diseases and buildings at the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases aka Byberry. He also designed City Hall Annex.  Johnson cut his teeth on several firehouse projects: at 1016-1018 South Street, 50th and Baltimore Avenue, 1529-39 Parrish Street (illustrated here from Vince Feldman’s aptly named book, City Abandoned) and 2936-38 Ridge Avenue. All of these survive except the last, which was demolished in 1994.

No, we’re not quite ready yet for the Philadelphia’s Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom tour. Heck, we’re not even sure what we have—or if we really even want to keep it. 

4 replies on “Philadelphia Architects on Fire(houses)”

Mr Finkel,

The former Engine 58, Worthington and Byberry Roads, is in need of mentioning. Built in 1915, the building survives today as a Department of Prisons office (so typical of Philadelphia to have buildings wear different hats over their lifetimes). I do not know the architect, but since it’s celebrating its centennial year of existence, I thought it worthy to note it.

The HikeOut Legeros website will allow anyone to find firehouse locations of the past, regardless of the noteworthiness of the designer. I was able to identify the location of a 1956 DOR photo near Broad and Erie (the former Engine 30), from that site. One person’s minutiae is a another person’s ammunition, it seems at times.

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