Old Firehouse

History of the Firehouse Building

For more than a century, the Ethan Allen Firehouse has stood as a community landmark in downtown Burlington. Designed by local architect A.B. Fisher and completed in 1889, the building features an 85-foot bell tower, a distinct signature on Burlington’s skyline for more than 100 years. In 1889, the Firehouse ranked the tallest building in the city of Burlington. It served not only as home to the Ethan Allen Engine Company No. 4, one of Burlington’s seven volunteer fire departments, but also as a place for the members to socialize, break bread, and share ideas.

While the Firehouse housed spirited service efforts throughout its many incarnations, it did not weather turnover without a few pointedly dangerous moments. The first was in 1967, after the police department moved to South Winooski Avenue. Unoccupied for two years, the Firehouse fell sadly silent for the first time in almost 80 years, and plunged into a state of disrepair. With renovation costs insurmountable, the building was scheduled for demolition in 1973. But community protest compelled the Board of Aldermen to divert the demolition funds to stabilizing the building instead and a partial renovation took place. In step with Firehouse tradition, a number of service operations took up residence there in the years that followed, including the Burlington Ecumenical Society, the offices of Senator Patrick Leahy and the University of Vermont’s Church Street Center.

Burlington City Arts first began developing the concept of an arts center in 1995, soon after the Firehouse Gallery moved in to half of the ground floor. The Ethan Allen Firehouse made a perfect location for this concept for many reasons. First of all, the immediate success of the Firehouse Gallery and the subsequent Arts Education Program hatched in a small room on the second floor proved the general public eager to engage with their surroundings through the visual arts. Visual artists in the area had themselves long thirsted and campaigned for a consistent venue that could promote and expand visual culture in Burlington. Second, the building was again in need of significant repairs that would have to be undertaken by someone. In addition, its proximity to City Hall, City Hall Park, and the Church Street Marketplace afforded an opportunity to establish a powerful dynamic between government, business and culture. And finally, placing stewardship of the Firehouse in Burlington City Arts’ hands made sense; the organization had matured as a credible institution capable of raising significant funds. Burlington City Arts established a vision for the art center that made the art-making process accessible to all, young and old. It was defined as a learning lab--a place where experimentation was encouraged, technical skills developed, ideas discussed and risks taken. When presented to the City Council in 1999, they voted unanimously in favor of the concept, and plans for transforming the Ethan Allen Firehouse into the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts began to take shape.

Burlington City Arts hired John Anderson Studios as the architect for the renovation. The complicated task required a careful balance between preserving historic elements and incorporating creative, contemporary components that could launch the Firehouse into its new life as forum for art and ideas. J.A. Morrissey was hired as the construction team for their ability to think creatively and enforce a high standard of craftsmanship.

By the spring of 2001, Burlington City Arts had raised enough funds to begin construction, and for the first several months, all went smoothly. But while underpinning the foundation, the soils started to give way, a large crack developed on the north wall, and the building sank close to four inches. Once again, the Firehouse was in danger of leveling. In the midst of the shock of September 11, workers evacuated and a thorough investigation of the cracks and shift began. After additional shoring, lots of steel, a thicker foundation slab and many hours of specialized engineering work was added, the renovation cost dramatically increased. In the final assessment, the engineers reported that much of the destabilization was the result of under-engineering in the late 19th century and years of neglect. The most surprising and compelling piece was the fragile and deteriorated state of the bell tower atop the Firehouse.

No longer simply a renovation, the rescue of the Ethan Allen Firehouse took on new meaning for everyone involved. The concept of stabilization and protecting the future of the building resounded with the nationwide reaction to the September 11 attacks. It was soon after this time that the Shelburne Museum decided to gift the original bell back to the Firehouse tower. As a symbol of the dedication and sacrifices that hundreds of families made as their sons volunteered to protect their neighbors, the bell’s return seemed to confirm the building’s connection to the community and brought the Journey of the Firehouse full circle. The first two floors, including a renovated and much-missed Firehouse Gallery and a brand new community Darkroom, opened to the public in December of 2002.

All five floors of the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts are now open to the public. It is appropriate that such a beautiful building infused with so much passion and emotion over the course of its lifetime has become a home for the visual arts. Burlington City Arts renovation and rescue ensures it will serve the community for its journey through the next hundred years and beyond.