SUC­CESS!

Old House Journal - - Contents - By David Braly, Mont­gomery, Alabama | Pho­to­graphs by Steve Gross & Su­san Da­ley

Unconventional liv­ing in a con­verted fire­house.

A cou­ple finds an unconventional place to live—with space for work­ing at home, and in a his­toric neigh­bor­hood. We didn’t want a con­ven­tional house. I’m an ar­chi­tect and my part­ner, Mark Mon­toya, is a land­scape de­signer; be­sides our reg­u­lar jobs, both of us draw and paint. We wanted to be in town, with stu­dio space and a small gar­den. This old fire­house fit the bill—and an aban­doned build­ing was saved.

Known as Fire­house Nine, it was built around the time of the First World War. Later it served as a pub­lic-school an­nex and ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions fa­cil­ity. It took us eight years to make it home. The equip­ment room on the first floor be­came great open stu­dio space. Our first hur­dle, though, was get­ting the prop­erty re­zoned as a pri­vate res­i­dence. We bought it from the city for $110,000 in 2007. The city had to re­plat the prop­erty to di­vide it from a school and park­ing lot next door. And to get a loan—bankers don’t like unconventional—I had to work up floor plans and in­te­rior draw­ings, which I pre­sented to the neigh­bor­hood de­sign re­view board as well.

Though we made it homey and just a lit­tle bit ur­bane, we had no in­ten­tion of re­mod­el­ing the struc­ture into a reg­u­lar house. In­stead, we learned how to live in a fire­house. The pro­por­tions turned out to be a bless­ing. The sec­ond-floor hall­way, for in­stance, is over six feet wide.

We put fur­ni­ture against the walls and it func­tions as a room.

We could have made more ex­treme changes be­cause this build­ing is not a des­ig­nated his­toric land­mark. But I’m a preser­va­tion­ist and for­mer pres­i­dent of Mont­gomery’s Land­marks Foun­da­tion, which has helped save 50 his­toric build­ings. Mark loves vin­tage architecture as much as I do. We weren’t go­ing to go against the spirit of the build­ing.

We did of course make some changes in­side. The com­mer­cial fire-sta­tion kitchen was turned into a guest room. We in­stalled a new kitchen and a din­ing area on the sec­ond level, which is open plan and uni­fied by sym­met­ri­cal pairs of win­dows. The pine floor is orig­i­nal. To­gether Mark and I cre­ated a clas­si­cal architecture mu­ral that runs from the hall­way down the stair­case.

The ground floor al­ready felt like a stu­dio, with a high ceil­ing and nat­u­ral light from side win­dows and the glazed garage doors, which are op­er­a­ble. We built a wall in the cen­ter for hang­ing art­work. The 1940s-era kitchen is now the guest room.

The con­crete floor came later; the fire­house was built with a dirt floor to ac­com­mo­date horse-drawn equip­ment. A door on the stair­case was used to keep horses from go­ing up­stairs.

Most fire­houses are built to last, and this one is a sturdy brick struc­ture. Still, we think it may have been a tem­po­rary sta­tion, or built with in­suf­fi­cient funds, be­cause the fire pole is gal­va­nized steel in­stead of brass, and the sta­tion closed not long af­ter it opened. It re­opened briefly in 1948, with an ad­di­tion at the rear to hold the ground-floor kitchen and a bath up­stairs. Records were lost—iron­i­cally—in a 1932 fire at Mont­gomery’s Vic­to­rian-era city hall. At any rate, we kept the fire pole, cov­er­ing the man­hole with a beau­ti­ful iron grate.

Our re­mod­el­ing costs were re­fresh­ingly low, even though we added a kitchen and a bath. We did the de­sign and paint­ing our­selves. Pur­chase price plus ren­o­va­tion ex­penses were less than $80 per square foot. And we got a sturdy, one-of-a-kind home.

The own­ers elected to pre­serve the struc­ture, a for­mer fire sta­tion, while up­dat­ing the in­te­rior

LEFT Near the lower stair­case, a large of­fice/li­brary is bonus space; two small dens open off the up­stairs hall. ABOVE The old fire-en­gine bays have been re­con­fig­ured as a draw­ing and paint­ing stu­dio. BE­FORE PIC­TURES The struc­ture was all there, along with plenty of light. Re­mod­el­ing made the space homey and us­able, with­out chang­ing the essence of the fire­house.

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