The 20th century saw a rapid evolution in emergency services. While firehouses began to be purpose-built in the 19th century, and in a few cases earlier, the advent of gas-powered fire trucks and telephone communications in the 1920s saw a blossoming of community emergency services throughout New Jersey. As emergency services evolved, so too has the equipment. Today’s fire engines, ladder trucks and ambulances are much larger than their predecessors. Due mostly to improvements for firefighter safety, such as enclosed cabs, more equipment compartments and
enclosed side ladders, fire engines have become heavier, which in turn requires more robust suspensions, engines and braking systems, making them heavier and larger still. The result is historic firehouses that cannot fit modern emergency equipment. Communities often respond by re-locating stations, or demolishing historic stations and constructing new. This has created a preservation crisis as these significant buildings of a community’s past are being abandoned or disappearing entirely.
Milltown Borough’s firehouses follow this common storyline. Their first firehouse on South Main Street was originally built as a school in 1889. Purchased by the borough in 1909 and converted to the community’s first borough administration building, it was remodeled in 1911 to house the borough’s new fire engine. Milltown’s second firehouse on Cottage Avenue was purpose-built in the 1920’s, and exhibits the typical features of a firehouse from that time – a rectangular shaped, two-story brick building with two bays in the front. In order to better accommodate modern equipment, Milltown is currently undergoing a $12 million project to construct a new firehouse and public works facility with no commitment as to the future of the two historic firehouses, which have served to protect the borough’s citizens for over a century.
Firehouses encompass the important history of emergency services in New Jersey, and represent the civic commitment of their communities to protect and serve in times of need. Rarely does an entire typology of structure come under threat, but due to rapid technological and policy changes, these iconic foundational community structures are under immediate threat in Milltown and throughout the state. We know that these structures can be adaptively reused for a number of functional and interesting purposes, such as libraries, offices, restaurants, bars, and even homes. Preservation New Jersey calls upon communities to think creatively and proactively to seek out new uses and/or owners for these structures, rather than abandon or demolish them.
Matthew E. Pisarski, AICP, PP
Pine Mount Consulting