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The fashionable firehouse

Back in 1976, an abandoned 1872 firehouse took Noel DuMaurier's fancy and he bought it at city auction for $20,000. He liked its spaciousness, its solidity, and its feeling of having been ``built for the ages.'' Although the original brass firemen's poles and brass door knobs were long gone, other paraphernalia remained, including the oak lockers in which the firemen stored their gear and their cot-like beds. Some ten years and $250,000 later, the three-story brick and limestone structure that was once the headquarters of Engine Company 215 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is a meticulously renovated home for Mr. DuMaurier and his tenants.

The 25-foot-wide by 70-foot-long firehouse is located in a Polish ethnic neighborhood, and its roof garden takes in sweeping views of both the vintage architecture of Brooklyn and Manhattan's towering skyline.

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DuMaurier first moved into the back of the basement in order ``to get the feel of the place'' and to rough out his designs for transforming the 8,000 square feet of space into two rental units and a home and garage for himself. He occupied each floor as he finished it, and now lives in the sunny top-floor apartment with its two loft bedrooms, skylight, and 9-foot-by-10-foot windows front and back.

The designer points out that many friends and family members helped with the project - including his mother, who chided him for taking on such a huge task, but offered to come and help scrape paint.

The building had to be completely gutted. He replaced the roof as well as the heating and electrical systems, replastered throughout, and repaired rot from water damage on the top floor. A wooden staircase was added, all of the turn-of-the-century oak floors, doors, and woodwork were refinished, and modern bathrooms and kitchens were put in. Oak kitchen cabinets, newly crafted, blend with the wood in the building.

DuMaurier's furnishings consist of ``street finds,'' old English pine pieces, 1930s sofas and lounge chairs, and various Victorian and Art Deco treasures that he picked up at thrift shops, auctions, and flea markets. ``I discovered that I had an eye for good pieces,'' he says, ``which, while cheap at the time, have increased greatly in esteem and value, and have become bona fide antiques or collectibles. I term my mixture of pieces `Noel's Renaissance' and I have given many of them a new life.''

He uses pieces of furniture to divide spaces because he prefers a wide-open feeling. His walls are covered with old photographs, framed posters, and traditional landscape paintings placed in vintage frames. Two Franklin woodstoves not only add a decorative touch, but are also useful as stand-bys in case the heating system fails.

DuMaurier suffered through the turmoil of the renovation project and admits there were plenty of times he wanted to quit. Still, he says, he found a lot of satisfaction in the ongoing project and in what he was learning from it. ``It was so diverse, I could never get bored. Now I look on it as a real achievement.''

Asked what his advice would be to anyone else about to tackle such a renovation, he replies, ``Keep your intention and resolution strong, particularly when times get rough, and envision how proud you will be when you finish. But come to think of it, the job is never finished; there are always other things to do, so I guess I would just say to hang in there.''

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His renovation has inspired some of his neighbors to seek his advice before tackling their own remodeling jobs.

Old firehouses have intrigued numerous others besides DuMaurier. In recent years these unused structures have been renovated into residences, smart restaurants, community centers, offices, museums, and artist's studios.

Rebecca Zurier, who is now working on her doctorate in art history at Yale University, even researched and wrote a book on firehouses, ``The American Firehouse'' (Abbeville Press). The only such book on the subject, it sold out an initial printing of 5,000 copies and has not been reprinted, though it is available in many libraries. Ms. Zurier's research papers, architectural drawings, and photographs have been permanently placed in the archives of the Library of Congress in Washington.

``I've always been fascinated with unusual buildings,'' Zurier said in a recent interview, ``but former firehouses have a personality of their own. Funded with tax dollars, they have a public aspect to them and a lot of character and expression.

``Some look like French chateaux, or were Dutch Revival, or Spanish Mission, or Art Deco in style. One was even made to resemble the ducal palace in Sienna, Italy. They are full of nostalgia and they made a real contribution to their neighborhoods. It is good that so many are being preserved and so creatively renovated for reuse.''

Why has firehouse architecture been so neglected by architectural historians?

``Mainly because it was supposedly functional, utilitarian, or even vernacular architecture, not worthy of the same attention as more important and imposing buildings such as churches, office buildings, university buildings and great houses,'' replied Zurier. ``Alhough most firehouses were designed by profesionally trained architects, not many of them were famous.''

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study firehouses as a building type, Zurier and a friend, Theresa Beyer, did two months of research in New York, and then set out in a huge van (equipped with a small library on American architecture, three file boxes of notes, and a complete set of darkroom chemicals) for a seven-month journey across America to photograph and document about 300 firehouses that their preliminary research had turned up.

``We learned that before the Civil War, fire companies were voluntary organizations much like lodges, with all the rituals, parades, and competitive spirit that would later characterize fraternal societies and baseball teams,'' Zurier later wrote in Historic Preservation magazine.

``When municipal authorities took over from the volunteers, the fireman changed from a rowdy folk hero to a trained professional. The buildings themselves reflected this change.''

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