A late save for old Engine 18: Couple buys firehouse for home and arts space

Harvard St Firehouse: Stephen Frederick, left, and Katherine Bergeron outside the Engine 18 building. Photo by Bill ForryHarvard St Firehouse: Stephen Frederick, left, and Katherine Bergeron outside the Engine 18 building. Photo by Bill ForryA historic firehouse on Harvard Street near Four Corners has been purchased by a couple with deep roots in Boston’s arts community who intend to restore the 1869 building and use it for their home and, eventually, for performances and exhibit space.

The sale has been cheered by neighbors and preservationists, who have worried that the landmark brick structure might become too decrepit to save without a swift intervention.

Katherine Bergeron and her partner, Stephen Frederick, first noticed the firehouse two years ago when they began an exhaustive search for a building to house Frederick’s collection of artwork. Their search has covered some 60-plus properties across Greater Boston, but they always kept one eye peeled on the Harvard Street building that captured their imagination.

“I’ve always been an admirer of Victorian era buildings and industrial, municipal buildings,” said Bergeron, an actor and dancer who performs under the stage name Katrina Galore. “And this was perfect because it was both of those things.”

The Engine 18 building at 30 Harvard Street was converted into a day care center in the 1960s — and was used for that purpose until 2005. Its original interior has been transformed into a warren of small pastel-colored, stucco rooms on the second floor, but the first-floor garage is still a wide-open space with room for small performances and art installations. The twin poles used by firefighters in the old days were removed in the 1960s when the day care center renovated the building. The property also features a large backyard space that is cluttered with rusting playground equipment from the day care center’s heyday.

The building itself is an important artifact from the town of Dorchester, which paid for its construction in 1869— one year before the town was annexed into the city of Boston. According to bostonfirehistory.org, it housed the town’s Torrent Engine No.3, which became Engine 18 when it was incorporated into the Boston Fire Department. The firehouse stayed active until 1960 when the company was re-located to a new building in Peabody Square.

A church group purchased the property after the day care center— Little Scholars Workshop— lost the building to foreclosure. However, the church group put it back on the market two years ago, abandoning a plan to restore the property.

Frederick says that the realtor who showed them the property said some 300 people had come to see it in recent years, including one potential buyer who wanted to convert it into an animal shelter. The couple initially decided that the cost was too high for their budget and looked elsewhere in the city for their dream space— both hoping to escape from years of tenancy under a succession of “slumlords.”

“Both Katie and I have been involved in communal art spaces for ten years or more. We just decided that we needed to take control of our own destiny,” Frederick says.

When they learned that a planned sale fell through, the couple circled back and agreed to a lower, undisclosed purchase price on the property. They plan to lean heavily on friends to help them deal with cosmetic fixes inside and out, but will definitely need to invest untold thousands into more complicated jobs.

“Right now the goal is to get it livable and fix any structural issues before they get any worse,” says Frederick. He worries in particular about the building’s chimney, which has a noticeable and unwelcome lean to the left. There is water damage throughout the building thanks to a sieve-like roof that is in need of immediate replacement. They are awaiting the results of a more in depth engineering report to tell them what else may be next on the repair punch-list.

Bergeron says that neighbors on Harvard Street and the nearby side streets have been “really supportive.”

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she said. “We usually get blank looks or people get irritated when we tell them we’re artists, but we were pleasantly surprised to have people be enthusiastic about it.”

Eventually, she thinks, the firehouse will become a unique destination for Boston’s art community. Frederick’s post- apocalyptic themed art installations— which are known collectively as the Empire S.N.A.F.U. Restoration Project— have been staged in Boston and New York over the course of 20 years. The firehouse will be the first opportunity for him to exhibit his work in one space permanently.

“We got the perfect building that we wanted,” said Bergeron. "It really fit all of our very specific wish lists because we needed someplace big enough, but not too big. Obviously in Boston, we have a lot of culture and museums, but there’s not as many small spaces that people can go to that’s interesting. People don’t know enough about the small culture. We’re really excited about being able to do that.”

Frederick and Bergeron are following in the footsteps of fellow Boston artists who have made Dorchester their home in recent months. Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys, an award-winning music group that stages musicals and concerts throughout the city, is now based in a home on Ashmont Hill. Group member Edrie, who lives on Alban Street and has collaborated with both with Bergeron and Frederick over the past decade, says that the neighborhood is becoming a choice location for a new wave of musicians, sculptors and other artists, many of whom previously found space in neighborhoods like Allston.

“We have two other friends who are also planning to move into the neighborhood a few streets away,” said Edrie, who has visited the Havard Street firehouse and expects the eventual restoration will once again make it an important spot on the map.

“The opportunities are amazing for the space,” she said. “With Stephen’s skills as a carpenter - he makes such beautiful things— I can only imagine given some time and money they’ll make the firehouse beautiful again.”

Earl Taylor, president of the Dorchester Historical Society, said his organization has watched the property with concern over the years it’s been vacant.

“It sounds like good news that there is an owner who has plans,” said Taylor. “It is nice to see that someone cares about our architectural heritage.”

Frederick and Bergeron say they are not sure yet what the timetable for the renovations to the firehouse will be. Frederick jokes that his inspiration for re-purposing an old firehouse is mainly the film “Ghostbusters.” For now, they are beginning to clean out old furnishings — including children’s books, chairs and toys from the day care center, which they would like to donate to non-profits or families. They may be reached via e-mail at engine18firehouse@gmail.com. The public can also learn more about their plans for the building at their website. href="http://armyoftoys.com/">engine18.tumblr.com