Uncertain future for historic firehouse

Engine 18: The vacant firehouse on Harvard Street dates to 1869. Photo by Pete StidmanEngine 18: The vacant firehouse on Harvard Street dates to 1869. Photo by Pete StidmanIn an annual ritual, the Dorchester Historical Society is again collecting nominations for its annual list of the top 10 endangered properties in the neighborhood. And just as they've put out the call, a late 19th Century firehouse in Four Corners seems to be stepping forward all on its own.

Among Boston's many firehouses old and new, it is architecturally unique; perhaps the quaintest and most quintessentially "fire house" of them all.

Only a few years ago, in 2005, there were kids playing in its double garage bay and out back in a playground built there. It was called the Little Scholars Workshop, but that non-profit was headed south that year with a $282,000 deficit, and didn't file a 2006 tax return. Now the building is silent, which actually draws a lot of attention.
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"It's so joyless," said neighbor Felix Winsley. "When there's no kids, there's no life. It was so sad to see it happen you know? This is a big place too."

The ownership of the building is difficult to nail down, as a foreclosure auction was scheduled for Oct. 15 last year, but the building wasn't sold or foreclosed upon, according to the Suffolk Registry of Deeds. Ed Araujo of Capital Realty in Beacon Hill has been showing prospective buyers through the building lately, with a $375,000 listing that cited Little Scholars as the owner. Without a sale, that listing expired on April 1.

If the building was foreclosed upon, and somehow that documentation was lost in the system, PMB Mortgage LLC of Calabasas, Calif. would likely be the owner. A number found for the company reaches only an anonymous answering machine. And a message left there did not yield a return phone call.
The Greater Chamberlain Neighborhood Association and the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition (GFCAC) have both taken note of the building's vacancy, as has Four Corners Main Street, which is housed around the corner. The three groups and others are meeting this week to begin strategizing about the building's future.

"I've been looking to see if any of the CDCs would be interested in developing it," said Marvin Martin, director of GFCAC. "Some kind of combination of office and community use would be great for that space."

Somewhat troubling to many observers is buzz that a number of church groups have viewed the property. Churches are a blessing in any neighborhood, say people who advocate for a better business climate in Four Corners, but not when they take up all the available retail space in a neighborhood. Four Corners has so many storefront churches, it became the focus of a book by researcher Omar McRoberts called Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood, which postulated that the proliferating churches actually damaged the vibrancy of the neighborhood by taking over spaces that would traditionally be bodegas, restaurants and hardware stores.

"I'm a Christian and I believe in God and going to church. I go to church. Churches having buildings is a good thing, but I don't think every storefront should be a church," said Pamela Bush of GFCAC, who is gathering stakeholders to vision a new future for the firehouse. "Greater Four Corners has approximately 18 churches. They're taking up all the commercial real estate."

At least one non-profit toured the firehouse. Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses director Mark Culliton said it didn't quite fit the bill for their operation.

Whatever its future may be, Engine 18's old home has the potential to become a huge asset to the neighborhood. It's solid brick construction and Victorian-era details exude nostalgia for days gone by.

It was built in 1869, according to Bostonfirehistory.org, as a new home for Engine 18, or the Torrent Engine 18 as it was known in those days. When it was first located there, Dorchester was still its own town, not yet an annex of Boston, and a team of three horses hauled the Torrent around. The firehouse was in service until June 1960, when Engine 18 moved over to Peabody Square.

For those who are interested in nominating this or any other historic building in the neighborhood to Dorchester's top 10 endangered building list, nominations can be made by calling the Dorchester Historical Society at 617-265-7802 or by e-mail at dorhist@aol.com.