Old Firehouse, New Life | Exploration by Design

Old Firehouse, New Life | Exploration by Design

When I approached the station off of 20th and Lake, I couldn’t help but notice the sticker on the front door.

While the building is historic, the decal seemed much more modern, reading “Omaha Association | Black Firefighters | We Unite Today, For a Better Tomorrow.” Also featured on the logo, a burning torch and a growling, black panther.

A gentleman appeared next to me, offering to move his car so that I could get a better photo. He lived across the street and he told me he parks his car in this lot when he does yard work. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. He also told me that he wished someone was around to show me the inside of the garage – inside of the garage lived a 1940’s, vintage fire truck, fully restored. I peeked in the garage windows but my phone camera couldn’t do justice to the beauty of the vehicle.

I’d never thought much about fire stations until that day. I’d recently watched “King of Staten Island” and learned that actor and comedian Pete Davidson’s dad was a firefighter who was killed on 9/11. Our Executive Director Scott Dobbe grew up with a firefighter grandfather and has stories about taking his kids to explore the fire station and trucks in his home town. This was the extent of my fire house knowledge.

A transit and tech nerd by accident, but a teacher by trade, I quickly fell down a rabbit hole of research around historic fire stations, sparked by my first experience photographing this, specific station. I came across a project of some Omaha Public Schools students for their summer program on racial justice and equity in the history of Omaha called “Making Invisible Histories, Visible.” This particular project focused on the untold story of Black firefighters in Omaha. At this, I was hooked.

The rich history of fighting fires in our community spans racial divides. It preserves historic architecture. It has saved lives and it has saved beautiful spaces.

Join us in exploring Old Firehouse, New Life, an installment of Exploration by Design, where we’ll guide you to many of our city’s historic stations, one of which is still fighting fires today.

Starting with the aforementioned Lake Street station, each segment of our journey has been co-authored by your guides, me, Keegan Korf, Scott Dobbe, and our special guest, Joshua Biggs. We invite you to read the history of each station in the post that follows and use the below map as your guide through this journey.

O.F.D. No. 14 | 2028 Lake Street

The Saratoga Fire Station | 2204 Ames Avenue

Tucked away near 24th & Ames is one of Omaha’s finest historic fire stations. The Art Deco station was designed by Leo J. Dworak and completed in 1938 as a project of the Works Progress Administration. 

Though only one story in height, the station has a notable emphasis on verticality and modernity. The facade is in relatively original condition today, and is characterized by elaborate organic limestone carvings above the main entrance. The center relief panel shows a captivating scene of a fire fighter appearing to put out a fire with their bare hands. 

The former fire station today holds the offices of a self-storage company.

The Benson Fire Barn and Library | 6008 Maple Street

The Benson community has always been a vibrant space, full of life, art, food, and culture.

In 1901, the then Village Board of Benson formed a volunteer fire department. Years later, during the “Eagle Hall Fire” of 1911, while no lives were lost or injuries sustained, the community lost a block of valuable property and livestock. Shortly after, the community was activated and a bond was passed to purchase more equipment and transportation for firefighters. In 1915, the historic Benson Fire Barn was erected.

Eight years later, in 1923, the Benson Library opened on the second floor of the Benson Fire Barn, where it would reside before moving to its current location shortly after World War II.

Today, the former Benson Fire Barn stands as the Benson Community Center.

The Dundee Fire Station | 4923 Underwood Avenue

The Dundee Fire Station was constructed in 1913 to serve the residents of the village of Dundee.

Two years later, on June 20th, 1915, the City of Omaha annexed Dundee – a unilateral move which was fought in the courts until 1917. According to a 1918 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, the Dundee Fire Station became known as No. 17, as it was by then incorporated into the Omaha Fire Department.

Though the original truck doors have been replaced by a modern storefront, some original features remain, including the cornice, elaborate parapet, and stone relief panel reading “DUNDEE.” A smaller relief panel near the roof reads “1913.”

The fire station is one of the few buildings along the Underwood business district that is set back from the sidewalk. A historic photograph in the storefront reminds the passerby of the building’s roots as a fire station. 

The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a member of the Dundee-Happy Hollow Historic District. 

Source: City of Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission

O.F.D. No. 12 | 717 S. 27th Street

Located just north of Leavenworth on South 27th Street, O.F.D. No. 12 sits nestled in between what appear to be two, industrial buildings. I was disheartened to see piles of discarded pallets stacked out front near the visible dumpster. Stepping back and shooting photos from across the street, the beauty and decadence of a once functional fire house was apparent.

While attempting to dig up the history of this building, what I found instead (as happens with much research) was a rich history of the neighboring Saint Peter Catholic Church, the accompanying school, and what would eventually become today’s McMahon Hall. In 1976, during “the tenure of Pastor Rev. Patrick Nolan, the parish buys several properties in the immediate area.”

However, property records link the former fire station to the owner of the metal clad industrial buildings to the north. It appears O.F.D. No. 12 is biding time as a storage facility.

Source: St Peter Catholic Church

O.F.D. No. 4 | 999 N. 16th Street

Designed by architect J.P. Guth and built in 1913 by Peter Kiewit & Sons, this thoughtfully restored building sits on the corners of 16th and Izard Streets awaiting new life. The built-in stone plaque provides historic information on the building, pictured below.

Unmistakable with its fire-red garage doors and limestone relief reading “O.F.D.” and “4,” the structure has had quite a few chapters in its 107-year story. Beginning as a home for horse-drawn fire wagons, the station served as a plumbing company, auto transmission shop, armored car garage and, most recently, storage facility.

Most exciting is that No. 4’s story is not yet finished, as it is currently being rehabilitated as the future home of an Omaha-based financial services company. A large settlement crack in the brickwork has been repaired, and continuing renovations appear to be underway.

Sources: Omaha World Herald, Omaha Fire Department

O.F.D. No. 16 | Santa Lucia Hall | 725 Pierce Street

The oldest firehouse on our list, what was once Omaha Fire Department Station No. 9 still stands today, alive and vibrant, as an event and meeting space called Santa Lucia Hall. Station No. 9 was built in 1891 to serve the rapidly-growing area south of the Union Pacific yards. Led by brothers Joseph and Sebastiano Salerno, the area became known as Little Italy for the southern Italian immigrants who gave the neighborhood its distinctive character. After being decommissioned in 1924, the station was purchased by neighborhood residents from the City of Omaha for $1,235.00.

In 2015, a capital campaign was launched to fund remodeling of the space and today, it still lives on as the heart of the Little Italy neighborhood.

Source: Santa Lucia Hall

O.F.D. No. 21 | 4602 S. 33rd Street

The station was designed in the Prairie School style, a style which was made popular and immortalized by Frank Lloyd Wright. The facade is characterized by its horizontal emphasis, overhanging eaves, and prominent hipped roof. The building is no longer used as a fire station, but does have many surviving design elements. 

Prairie School was a popular style among Omaha architects working at the turn of the 20th Century. Many single-family homes, apartments, and commercial buildings featured Prairie School elements. Many of Omaha’s Prairie style buildings are found in Midtown Omaha, so it’s rare to see a surviving structure in South Omaha. 

Today, the building, with its large and functional garage, stands as a vehicle repair business serving the South Omaha community.

O.F.D. No. 31 | 4702 S. 25th Street

Standing out at the corner of 25th and L Streets in South Omaha, Station No. 31 shares little in common with the decorative brick firehouses found elsewhere.

Designed in the Streamline Moderne style, the concrete structure exudes a sense of motion and speed. The style grew out of Art Deco, but stripped of ornamentation in favor of aerodynamic-inspired, clean lines. Sharing a streamlined design language with its contemporaneous locomotives, ships, and airplanes, one can almost sense the energy of fire engines springing into action through the projecting curved fins at the garage bay doors.

Originally opened in 1949 as Station No. 5, this is the only firehouse featured to be actively fighting fires today. In the next few years, O.F.D. No. 31 will move to a new home on 33rd Avenue and Q Streets, at which time the City intends to sell the current building. Perhaps you have a vision of what this remarkable station could become.

Source: Omaha World Herald

Often hidden in plain sight, the beauty of Omaha’s historic fire houses spans across the city. The rich stories that have unfolded in these places may have been preserved, or may be hard to find, but what happened inside (and more importantly, outside) of the four walls of these stations helped to shape our city and the people in it.

As you explore our city’s fire houses, we invite you to share your discoveries. Which is your favorite, and why? What additional stations have you found?

On social media, tag us (@OmahaByDesign) and your findings with #ExplorationByDesign so we can together appreciate these markers of our urban past, present, and future.