By DARREN TOBIA
Special to Montclair Local

At the corner of Nishuane Park is a red-brick firehouse that has watched over the south end of Montclair for more than a century. The building is slated to undergo a renovation that will allow it to continue serving as the township’s oldest-working station.

“The building is being used differently than it was in the past,” said Tom Connelly, principal at Connelly & Hickey Historical Architects, the firm designing the renovations.

Built in 1901, Fire Station No. 3 is from an age when fires were extinguished with barrels of water hauled off on horse-drawn carriages. Today, the weight of a 30-ton vehicle and modern amenities like a kitchen and an exercise room have put a strain on the building’s frame.

First up is a project to address structural damage, as well as repair of the roof rafters, Montclair Fire Chief John Herrmann said. The Township Council approved $24,950 for Connelly & Hickey to design that part of the work in December.

“The second phase is the exciting part,” Connelly said. An expansion, if approved, would be able to accommodate an additional fire truck for the first time in the firehouse’s history.

A schematic design has been submitted to the township as part of a feasibility study, however, the Township Council hasn’t yet acted on it. It would also ultimately need approval from the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission, Connelly said.

Township Communications Director Katya Wowk said at present, there’s no plan to purchase a new fire truck, and there’s not yet a timetable or an anticipated cost for construction.

The firehouse was originally designed by somewhat obscure architect T. Cecil Hughes in the Gothic-revival style, according to a 1981 assessment as part of the Preservation Montclair project by the Junior League of Montclair-Newark. It recommended the “unusual little firehouse,” get landmark status as there are few examples of Gothic-revival architecture in town.

The crenellations along the rooftop and pointed archways give it the appearance of a miniature castle.

If the expansion moves forward, the new vehicle bay would have more “subdued” features while still paying homage to the original structure, Connelly said.

“We want it to read as an obvious addition but we want to use some of the vocabulary of the existing building,” he said.

Victorian-era firehouses are incredibly rare, especially working ones, according to Matthew Pisarski, Preservation New Jersey board president. Technology evolves so rapidly that buildings that house emergency services often become obsolete. 

Montclair is home to three century-old firehouses — which also include Fire Station No. 2 588 Valley Road, and the former firehouse that now serves as a Montclair Ambulance Unit facility on Walnut Street. (Montclair’s Fire Station No. 1, on Pine Street, was built in 2003).

in 2019, Preservation New Jersey named historic firehouses throughout the state among the most endangered places.

“In many cases, historic fire stations aren’t capable of accommodating architecturally the new fire trucks — that’s why they’re either abandoned or demolished,” Pisarski said. His organization’s annual list of the state’s most endangered places will be announced in May. “To have examples of the early history of fire prevention services is a very rare thing.”

The three older firehouse buildings have some protection enshrined in the township’s Master Plan. The Valley Road firehouse, completed in 1902, is within the Upper Montclair Historic District. The Walnut Street building, built in 1906, is located in a proposed historic district. Buildings in historic districts and proposed historic districts are defined as “historic structures” and therefore require the Historic Preservation Commission’s review of visible modifications and demolition.

The same goes for Fire Station 3, as it was included in the Preservation Montclair survey. The master plan defines properties mentioned in any survey filed with the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office as historic structures as well.

At the moment, Kathleen Bennett, chair of the commission, said the group is focusing on designating two new historic districts  — the Estate Section, comprising about 180 homes, and the Upper Montclair Commuter District, with about 600 properties.