An urban statement Fire station in Neck Area builds new traditions

A dominant feature on Charleston’s new Fire Station No. 9 are the louvered screens, which are horizontal on the south but vertical on the east to block the most sun.

At first glance, the brand-new fire station at King and Heriot streets may seem like a break from Charleston’s rich firefighting history, but it actually continues that in its own way.

Architect Steven Coe remembers designing his first city fire station more than a decade ago and essentially says it was essentially a house with a big garage.

A lot has changed since then.

Rosenblum Coe Architects also designed Charleston’s newest and largest fire station, design considered so up-to-date from a firefighting perspective that the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization gave it an award before it was even built.

The new Station No. 9 also makes a statement about the future of the Neck Area, and how the city hopes its design follows an urban form.

“This will be the first significant city building in the entrance to this new part of downtown,” says Coe, who used to live nearby.

In fact, Coe says the greatest challenge the architects faced was a classic urban challenge: how to fit a large building — 19,600 square feet, five truck bays, living and office spaces — onto a relatively tiny, half-acre site.

He and the city reviewed several configurations and eventually settled on one that allows trucks to access four of the five bays from either side of the building. “We really try not to have them back in the bays,” he says, a sentiment appreciated by those stuck temporarily as fire trucks back into the city’s older downtown stations.

And the station is pushed up to the corner, unlike most of the industrial buildings nearby, but very much like the urban, 19th-century station at Wentworth and Meeting streets that Station No. 9 essentially replaces.

Like that historic station, Station No. 9 is brick, which Coe notes is a traditional material, one that gives a sense of permanence and fire resistance. Both have bays fronting on two different streets.

And both had state of the art features for their time.

In 1887, the Wentworth and Meeting station, designed by architect Daniel G. Wayne and built by Colin Grant, is considered one of the nation’s oldest working fire stations. It featured living quarters over its firefighting equipment and grooves in the concrete to help horses gain traction as they began pulling the original fire wagons.

From the street, Station No. 9 features a series of horizontal and vertical louvers designed to block the morning and afternoon sun to minimize the station’s energy use. Built by M.B. Kahn, the station is expected to be LEED rated by the U.S. Green Building Council.

This station also is the city’s first to have individual bunk rooms, recognizing there are now firewomen as well as firemen. It’s the first to have a spacious kitchen area with separate refrigerators for each of the three battalions.

It also features a spacious workout room, a well-lit television room, a special button to cut off the stove should an alarm ring in the middle of cooking. Coe says this issue actually caused an embarrassing station fire elsewhere recently.

There are even traffic lights near the bay doors so drivers can know when the doors are fully raised.

It has a system of night lights along the floor so firefighters don’t have to turn on the overhead light after they awake at night to respond to a call.

Still, it has one other traditional feature found in the city’s 19th-century station: a pole through the floor to let firefighters get down to the trucks quickly.

“I go to fire station design conferences, and there are always debates about the poles,” Coe says. “Are they safe or not safe?”

Coe lands on the side that they’re safe. “You’ve got to remember, there’s also a safety issue of running downstairs in the middle of the night.”

The station helps secure the city’s firefighting history, not simply by continuing it into the 21st century but also in a part of town that once was Charleston’s northern tip that is now close to the geographic center of today’s 100-square-mile city.

It’s also big enough to help preserve the old stations. Its size will let it temporarily house other downtown battalions as their older, historic stations are upgraded structurally to withstand earthquakes.

When that code work is done, then the city’s older stations will be more like this new one.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.