The Fourth Ward Fire Station was built in 1914 according to records discovered by owner Van Snider, who loves history and collecting industrial antiques. (Rita LeBleu / American Press)
Last Modified: Friday, December 06, 2013 12:02 PM
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.