Beyond Brinksmanship: Questioning our Urge to Preserve

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United States Hose, 423 Buttonwood Street, 1960. (
“View of the United States Hose House & Apparatus, Philadelphia.” Northwest corner of 5th and Buttonwood Streets. Detail of lithograph, ca. 1851. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

About a year ago, we drew attention to the heyday of the “exuberant stylistic storm,” the “eclectic boom” of Philadelphia firehouses. So many were designed by so many talented Philadelphia architects. Yet so few survive. And that was the second wave of firehouse building, after 1871, when the city had an official fire department. (If you are interested in an overview of the issue, see Extant magazine for the Summer 2016 online at the Preservation Alliance, or read it here at Hidden City Daily.)

It wouldn’t have amounted to as much without the earlier glory days, when volunteer firefighter companies built their own halls, and staked out their own styles. The city was full of examples. Far more than sheds, these were symbols of civic power, statements intended to radiate good will, patriotism and good intent—so much so that the companies adopted those names. (All the better to distance themselves from the city’s younger, grittier and violent street gangs, who adopted names, by contrast, conveyed ill will.)

Fire companies were only a few rungs above gangs in the city’s expansive hierarchy of street politics. The firefighters also had their colors, insignia and banners. But more than gangs, they had their own buildings, clubhouses that projected civic and patriotic ambition. When fire companies organized their parades, they filled the city’s streets with exuberant patriotism not riotous chaos.

“Yesterday was a proud day for our noble hearted, indomitable, FIREMEN. It was a brilliant civic holy day,” boasted the Inquirer in 1849. “At an early hour, the bold and daring fellows begin to prepare for the celebration of the day, and ever and anon they were to be seen wending their way, with elastic step and manly bearing, to their respective houses.” No matter that the weather was cold and stormy, these “gallant men, who are always ready to stop the progress of devastating flames” were ready to show themselves “to good advantage.” This triennial procession would be “a large, imposing and magnificent spectacle” the likes of which the city had not quite seen.

Firefighters carried white silk banners, wore elegant hats with painted allegories, black hats and black capes. Companies had their ornately painted equipment pulled by teams of grey horses, or black horses, done up with wreaths and garlands. Popular marching bands filled the air with music. One of the oldest companies, Assistance Engine, had its 49 members dressed in blue hats, capes and white coats followed by the engine “drawn by four black horses, led by four colored grooms in Turkish dress.” Right behind them marched the 60 sharply-dressed members and brand new carriage of United States Hose, the company founded on the nation’s fiftieth birthday in 1826.

“Gratitude was eloquent in the smiling welcome and the hearty admiration which greeted the Firemen on every hand and from every quarter, from the aged and the youthful, the beautiful and the gay.” Public and Press praised “the taste displayed in the adornment of the engines, hose carriages, banners, trumpets, & c.—the elegance of the rosettes” and flowers.

Even during the Civil War, amidst news of casualties that dampened spirits United States Hose couldn’t resist an Independence Day blowout. Their Buttonwood Street quarters “was splendidly decorated during the day and evening with flags and transparencies. Early in the morning a flag was raised on the house with some ceremony, during which a patriotic speech was made by Mr. Graff. A transparency containing the words: “the United States,” was erected on the roof of the house. Thirty-four small white flags, containing the names of all the states in the Union were flying from the front of the building. Banners, representations of American shields, and the large number of variegated lanterns, also adorned the front of the house. A large flag was stretched across the street.”

United States Fire Company, 1960. Detail. (
United States Hose, 423 Buttonwood Street, 1960. Detail. (

Beck’s Band was engaged and occupied the balcony of the Hose House from early in the morning until dark, enlivening the neighborhood with music. A silver horn, worth $150, was presented to the company during the day. The presentation speech was made by John P. Weaver. The company housed a new carriage in the morning, and had of fine collation spread during the whole day, of which some 1600 persons, including a large number of ladies, partook. During the evening the house was brilliantly illuminated.”

The headquarters of United States Hose lasted about another century, somewhere into the 1960s. By now, each and almost every last one of the city’s original fire companies and hose houses are gone. (Do we even have an idea of what remains?) Living up to their names: Good Intent, Vigilant, Perseverance, Hand-in-Hand, Harmony, Reliance, Assistance, Humane and Independence, they kept the city standing.

Will the same be said of us?

[Sources consulted from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Firemen’s Triennial Parade,” March 28, 1849 and “The Fourth among the Fireman,” July 5, 1862.]