Dating back to 1938, the New Deal-financed Austin Central Fire Station No. 1 sitting at 401 East Fifth Street on the northwest corner of Brush Square is an unlikely gem of downtown architecture, one of the few really striking examples of the Art Deco subset known as Moderne or Streamline Moderne in the city’s stock of public buildings — unfortunately, great vintage design doesn’t necessarily mesh with the facilities requirements of modern firefighting, meaning the Austin Fire Department has tolerated a growing list of frustrations with operating out of the the aging structure despite its obvious historic merit to those of us not actually fighting the fires.
But even as the city prepares to improve the public amenities of the surrounding Brush Square — including our friends at the O. Henry house and the Austin Fire Museum located in the station itself — the task of modernizing the facility is a growing civic priority. Outlined in a briefing from design director Rob Robbins of San Antonio architecture studio WestEast Design Group at a meeting of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission last week, the station plan tackles the significant job of bringing this 82-year-old building up to speed without harming its original looks by local architects Edwin Kreisle and Max Brooks.
That’s a commission made all the more challenging by the size of modern American fire trucks and other emergency vehicles, which have ballooned far beyond the scale of their Depression-era counterparts. Increasing the height of two engine bays is part of the plan, but its less visible interior renovation contends with another amusing anachronism of the building’s era — the fire department is no longer comprised only of men, making the station’s open barracks-like accommodations not exactly ideal.
The remodel will enhance privacy with gender-equitable sleeping quarters and other facilities like restrooms, made possible in part by a two-story modern addition at the rear of the structure, as seen in the rendering below:
Other than cleaning the grime of many decades off its exterior bricks and replacing a few non-historic windows with versions more accurate to the original building, the addition is the only major cosmetic change to the station’s exterior — and it’s mostly visible from the unremarkable south side of the building facing the facility’s parking lot and barely seen from the street. Robbins says the designers understand the significance of the building’s original facades facing East Fifth and Trinity Streets, and this addition does as little as possible to compromise their historic integrity.
The addition expands the overall size of the building by only 558 square feet or 4.6 percent of its total size, and is designed with materials and color intended to create a clear delineation between old and new — “There’s no trickery,” Robb says, “to what’s original and what’s been added.” The add-on also serves as a secondary entrance to the building, as well as a bridge between the station and the building’s 1960s annex, which is less architecturally interesting than the original structure. A small awning added to the rooftop patio will provide some second-story recreational space, as seen in the view of the addition below:
These improvements, though designed to be subtle enough for the building’s continued presence on the National Register of Historic Places while likely also improving its accessibility and LEED rating, will allow additional EMS personnel to operate out of the space — the building’s front signage will be altered to reflect this, with the facility going by Central Fire & EMS Station once the dust settles.
Commissioners weren’t hearing about the plan in order to approve it — for now, this was simply an early-phase courtesy briefing. But they liked it just the same, appreciating its respect of preservation considerations with one exception — the red piece of public art shown outside the new addition in the renderings seen here was a bit frightfully modern for their taste. Thankfully, according to Robb, it’s only a placeholder, intended to evoke the geometric sculptures of Joel Shapiro but apparently only used here because it’s simple to model in Autodesk Revit.
The plan to modernize this building is fairly simple when it comes to preserving one of downtown’s more understated bits of historic architecture. More complex is its implications for Brush Square itself — previous explanations of the Brush Square Master Plan indicated that only so much work could commence to fix up the square without the closure of the fire station and relocation of its personnel, which would allow the site to reclaim its parking lot for expanded green space while converting the building to what was theorized as a downtown visitor’s center or other public use.
There’s no reason the station can’t still be converted if the fire department finally outgrows the current structure, but the significant modernizations laid out here make us wonder if the city’s plans have changed — if so, Brush Square could remain in the first phase of its planned upgrades for a lot longer than we expected. We’ll likely hear a little more about that as this project moves forward.