The oldest municipal building in St. Paul — the Hope Engine Company No. 3 firehouse — may be saved from demolition, following emergency rescue efforts by neighborhood residents.

The historic building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Leech Street was operational between 1872 and 1956, the first volunteer fire station in the city.

It has been vacant in recent years, however, and a local developer planned to knock it down to make room for a 109-room Marriott hotel.

But four historic-preservation groups filed a lawsuit, and this week a Ramsey County judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing local developer David Brooks from tearing down the firehouse.

Its fate will be discussed in court April 4.

St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she will meet with Brooks on Monday, noting he has previously “worked on several developments in St. Paul and has traditionally been very historically minded.”

“It’s very sensitive right now and everything is kind of under wraps,” Noecker said. “My sense is the community would really like to be able to incorporate the building on the current site into the development, so the question now is whether that’s possible.”

Brooks could not be reached for comment.

Since the neighborhood discovered the possibility of losing its historic firehouse, Facebook groups have popped up, and some community members been discussing it in online forums.

Mark Fangmeier, co-chairman of Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association, one of the groups involved in the case, said neighbors are passionate about the issue.

“Our neighborhood is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, and one of the things that makes it so neat is the history,” Fangmeier said. “It makes sense to develop the firehouse in a way that celebrates and anchors any new development in the history of our neighborhood.”

Neighbors offer options

Aaron Rubenstein, program coordinator for Historic St. Paul, said there are three options for the developer to consider: demolition, moving the firehouse to some other site or incorporating the historic structure into the hotel development.

“Preservation and development are not necessarily enemies,” Rubenstein said. “The hope is for both to happen. That site is underutilized now, and so the ideal would be to have the historic firehouse building incorporated into the hotel development.”

Tom Brock, co-founder of Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association and president of the Historic St. Paul executive board, said there was an attempt in 1991 to register the building as a historic site, but that effort was abandoned.

“I think it was long enough ago that no one remembers why,” Brock said.

However, according to affidavits filed by local architectural historians Larry Millett and Robert Frame, the firehouse is significant enough to be designated as a historic site by the National Register of Historic Places and the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission.

Emphasis on preservation

John Yust, an architect based in the city’s West Seventh neighborhood, hopes that the firehouse will not only be saved but also restored.

“There used to be a bell tower, and I don’t think that would be hard to rebuild,” Yust said. “If I were the architect for the project, I would really take it back and allow people to experience its great heritage.”

Yust suggests emphasizing the firehouse’s proximity to nearby Children’s Hospital with a firefighting-themed restaurant for visiting families.

Fangmeier, from the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association, said the preservation groups “would just like to see the hotel incorporated into the history of the building.”

The plaintiffs will make a case to save the firehouse by including it in the new development at the April 4 hearing.

Possibility of repurposing

Richard Duncan, the attorney representing the preservation groups, said they haven’t been able to reach Brooks.

Duncan said the best possible outcome for his clients would be an injunction barring demolition of any part of the historic structure.

“As it happens, firehouses are one of the easier types of buildings to repurpose,” he said, noting that this has been done in Lowertown and elsewhere.

“We don’t want to see the building destroyed,” Duncan said, “but we do ultimately want to see it successfully repurposed.”

 

Zoe Peterson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.