Saturday, November 14, 2015

Irvington Fire House--Station #25

One of the chief reasons for Irvington's annexation to the city of Indianapolis in 1902 was to obtain police and fire protection. Two disastrous school fires and numerous house blazes demonstrated to many folks in the community that Irvington needed city services. In 1903, the community hired architect John Stem to design a beautiful fire station to fit into the "classic" suburb. Mr. Stem was likely recommended by Hilton U. Brown, the publisher of the Indianapolis News, as the architect had designed Brown's large stone mansion at the southwest corner of East Washington Street and Emerson Avenue. (demolished) Stem's design was unlike any other fire station in the city. By 1903, the National Road or East Washington Street had emerged as the main commercial corridor for Irvington so the town planners placed the fire station at 5432 East Washington Street.

The Irvington Fire Station c1905 at 5432 East Washington Street
Stem opted for a European-styled structure with the first floor exterior sheathed in stone and the upper gables clad with wood shake. Since the first fire engines were powered by horses, the station had a stall on the first floor and a hayloft on the second floor. In the early years of the station, firemen, worked 24-hour shifts for six days of the week on a rotating basis and slept on the second floor. They were allowed to eat meals at home, but most dined at the station. Later, their schedules were modified to a more reasonable time frame.

If neighbors needed to report a fire, then they could run to a nearby fire alarm box scattered throughout the neighborhood. In 1910, there were fire alarm boxes located at several intersections including: Downey and Julian; University and Ohmer; 200 block of South Audubon Road; Beechwood and Burgess; Layman and Lowell; Washington and Ritter; Washington and Arlington; and Washington and Bosart. Many residents already had a telephone by 1910 so they merely had to pick up the receiver and call the station.

On February 8, 1929, Fire Station #25 obtained its first motorized vehicles. The horses, who had been lovingly tended to, were sent away to a nearby farm. The station hosted a Dalmatian and "Spot" became a beloved animal in the neighborhood.

Life for the firefighters was fairly routine. Oral histories conducted by the Irvington branch of the Indianapolis Public Library and now found online revealed that fireman had tasks to do each day. Substitutes or the newer recruits were assigned the worst jobs like stoking the coal furnace in the winter or cleaning out the disgusting spittoons. On Mondays, the men stretched out the hoses to dry and clean them. On Tuesdays, the men conducted inspections of nearby schools and institutions. On Wednesdays, the station was cleaned and the floors scrubbed. On Thursdays and Fridays, they cleaned every inch of the firetrucks and did maintenance work. They had some free time where they could play cards, read, or listen to a ballgame on the radio. Each man was given a task for dinner and the subsequent clean up. They also had assigned beds and each man a monthly night watch.

The Irvington Fire Station (#25) c1929 at 5432 East Washington Street
Over the years, dozens of men served their time in the beautiful but aging chalet of a fire station. Bob McDonnell, a veteran of World War II and an employee for the city fire department since 1938, started working at #25 in the early 1950s. Mr. McDonnell reported that by the mid-twentieth century, the station was in such poor shape that the firemen did not jump into the trucks until they were out on the concrete pad because they worried about the sagging floors.

Bob McDonell worked for Station #25 for many years. In 1958, he helped in the from the old station at 5432 East Washington to the new site at 17 South Sheridan Avenue. 

In November of 1958, the city of Indianapolis vacated the unusual fire station for a modern structure located at 17 South Sheridan Avenue. Sadly, the community had no rules in place to protect such structures so it was torn down very quickly as a nearby car dealership needed space for a parking lot. One can only imagine the reuse of this building in 2015 as a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bookstore, or as a boutique.

To learn more about the station and to see additional photographs click on the link below. Much of the information for this post came from an oral history interview with Errol Evans and from Terry Wilgus, the daughter of Bob McDonnell. Ms. Wilgus also provided the wonderful images.

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