Transforming Fourth Ward Fire Station

By By Rita LeBleu / American Press

The old Fourth Ward Fire Station, built

in 1912, has had many owners since it was decommissioned by the City of

Lake Charles

in the mid ‘50s. The current owner, Dr. Van Snider, said that it’s

been an auto repair shop, an art gallery, a hair salon

and a bakery. It’s had three street addresses. “Ryan St. used to

go straight through here,” Snider said. “Then the street

was changed to South Ryan. Now it’s Dr. Michael DeBakey Dr. after

the world-renowned cardiac surgeon who grew up in Lake Charles.”

Its latest incarnation — a beautiful modern home — honors the purpose for which it was built 100 years ago. Many of the vestiges

of the building’s former life remain intact. Others have been recreated, added by Snider who has a love of history, an eye

for detail and penchant for collecting industrial antiques. He collects and displays firehouse finds in this home but also

collects railroad and oil industry pieces.

Snider combed the McNeese archives to discover the beginnings of the 129 Michael DeBakey Dr. firehouse. He found that after

the fire of 1910, residents of Ward 4 were promised a fire station. In 1911, the city council voted to build it.

The year 1912 saw the conversion of the fire department from completely volunteered to paid.

“As far as I can tell, it was the first time that four firemen were hired full-time. Before that, there was a volunteer fire

brigade made up of local businessman and professionals,” Snider said

According to an article in the Lake Charles Daily Times dated Feb. 8, 1912, Barney and Woodsen placed the winning bid. It was $1,798. The architect was I.E. Carter.

The brickwork of the two-story building

is laid in a pattern that Snider describes as “running bond with a row

lock about

every fourth row. The row lock added strength.” (Row lock bricks

are placed on their face at intervals.) The upper level was

designed to house two fireman. The downstairs area was designed to

house the fire wagon and horses.

The street-level masonry archway, bearing the name “Fourth Ward,” and the original cast-iron guards are still in place at

the base of both sides of the front entrance. These served to protect the brick from quick exiting wagon wheels driven by

men fueled by adrenaline and the memory of the devastation of the fire of 1910.

Right inside the door is a framed copy of the 1914 fire chief’s report from the McNeese archives. It notes that one horse

dropped dead while making a run.

The most distinctive exterior design element of the fire station home is the front entryway. The striking oversized door is

made of reclaimed yellow pine and fashioned by Chris Monticello, Resurrection Mill Works. He based the design on the door

from archived photos of the Lake Charles Central Fire Station.

Period exterior lighting and the

fire-alarm telegraph station box were added by Snider. These boxes used

telegraph code to

signal fire stations before the days of telephones. Part of the

signal included a number that corresponded to area neighborhoods.

A hitching post makes the perfect

sentinel. One of Lake Charles’ early bench styles, given to Snider by

Dr. Richard Chafin,

retired Lake Charles orthodontist, provides seating. It’s similar

to one in front of the Central Firehouse, according to Snider.

The two-story red brick edifice, 1,100 square feet upstairs and down, built to keep homes safe from the peril of fire, no

longer erupts with wagon, horses, men or fire trucks.

But Snider has managed to keep its past

alive, inside as well as out, with his graceful sprinkling of

reminders. Simple elegance

with a nod to industrial design characterizes the interior. The

flooring is slate tile. The walls are sheetrock and painted

brick. Furnishings serve a purpose and are bold and spare.

Decorations are minimal. Cast-iron

mirrors that Snider said were created from reclaimed gothic European

window frames anchor

the living area. On the kitchen counter, an antique cast iron wind

mill weight, in the shape of a rooster, sits next to what

has recently been deemed a collectible — a rotary phone. A dolly

tub, which Snider explains is an antique English washtub,

sits near an antique rolltop desk.

The question Snider gets asked most

about his firehouse is, where’s the pole? He doesn’t know if there was

ever a firehouse

pole in the old Fourth Ward Fire Station, but he’s hoping that

someone has information about the building. He’d like to see

photos from any era.

Snider does know why old fire stations did not have interior stairways. “Horses will go up a straight set of stairs,” he said.

“The firehouse pole came into existence around 1880 – 1890. It happened when a young fireman jumped from the stairs and grabbed

a pipe and slid down, beating everyone to the lower floor,” he said.

Snider replaced the narrow spiral staircase that was in the building when he purchased it with a larger, cast-iron version

from the 1900s that had been in a Buffalo, N.Y. railroad station. Hanging in that stairwell is a working fire bell from a

Texas firehouse. Nearby are three hanging fire buckets with pointed bases.

The pointed bases made the buckets a less desirable unsanctioned acquisition. This is a perfect example of form following

function, a design principle that would soon become a popular 19th century saying among designers and architects.

Though both floors of the old Fourth

Ward Fire Station were never meant to be a place to eat, sleep and relax

with family,

and it hasn’t answered an alarm since 1954, its new form seems

perfectly fitting for today: a comfortable, safe and secure

modern-day haven with an owner committed to safeguarding the fire

station’s history, in the neighborhood it served, for generations

to come.