Detroit couple calls Corktown's former Ladder Co. No. 12 home
Kate Bordine and husband Phil Cooley were riding their bicycles through Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood about seven years ago when Bordine spotted the couple’s future home. But it wasn’t a home. It was a firehouse.
Bordine, the daughter of a firefighter who worked for a department outside Cleveland, grew up visiting firehouses. No wonder why the idea of living in one appealed to her. She became obsessed with the idea of buying the firehouse, which was being vacated when they first saw it, admits Bordine, the co-founder of Ponyride, a business incubator in Detroit.
“I kept thinking about it,” said Bordine. “I told Phil, ‘If the city lists that firehouse, we have to make an offer.’”
So when the city did, in fact, put several old firehouses up for sale in 2013 as Detroit tried to stave off bankruptcy, Bordine, Cooley and two partners put in an offer on the one on West Lafayette. The city accepted and the former Ladder Company No. 12 –it even has an Instagram account – has been home for Cooley and Bordine since 2016.
Built in 1908, the firehouse spans 5,376 square feet over two floors. Bordine and Cooley, who owns Slows Bar BQ and is also a Ponyride co-founder, live on the second level with their two kids, where the ceilings range from 12 to 15 feet high. Walls that once divided a series of bedrooms for the fire crew were torn down to make the space open concept.
General Motors’ former Vice President of Global Design, Ed Welburn, meanwhile, rents the first floor for his design studio, which has a gorgeous coffered ceiling and glazed white brick.
But longing for more space and a backyard for their little ones – Josephine is nearly 2 and Edmund is just 6 weeks old – Bordine and Cooley, along with two other co-owners, are now selling the former Ladder Co. No. 12. It was listed this spring for $2.4 million.
In their living space, unique touches pay homage to the building’s history. Original handwritten call logs from the very same station are perched on a shelf near the kitchen area. Brass is incorporated throughout the design, from cabinet hardware to inlays in the concrete floor. Cooley’s mom even painted the duct work a brassy hue.
“We went with a lot of brass because of the firehouse reference,” said Cooley. “It made sense.”
And while the station’s three fire poles were gone by the time the couple bought the building, a separate brass fire pole from an Ohio fire station that Bordine’s father found was cut into pieces and is now the legs of their 18-foot island in the kitchen.
An 'OG' staircase
Throughout their second floor living space, the couple did a lot of the work themselves, including building all of the bathroom and kitchen cabinets. An original firehouse mural painted by former Detroit Piston turned firefighter Terry Duerod is now framed by a custom-made cabinet.
Cooley admits he didn’t always used to be so handy. But when he bought a $40,000 building in Detroit 17 years ago, he didn’t have a choice.
“You have to learn how to swing a hammer,” said Cooley. “I called my carpenter friends and asked what tools I should buy and got advice and started working. And now I’m a general contractor and I’ve taken welding classes at community college just to pick up whatever I can. I love it.”
By the time the couple started working on Ladder Co. No. 12, they needed that expertise. The firehouse had water damage in some areas and “wasn’t in great shape,” says Cooley. They tore down interior walls on the second level, redid the floors and reworked an interior stairwell, moving it outside.
“That’s the ‘OG,’” says Cooley, looking at the stairwell now outside. “We were able to salvage it and make it an exterior stair out of it. That way, we don’t have to go through their (Welburn’s) space and lose a bunch of square footage.”
And what was once the captain’s quarters is now a spacious master bathroom. And off the very back, near the kitchen, they added a greenhouse for Cooley’s large collection of plants.
Cooking led Cooley to gardening. He always wanted a greenhouse. A friend helped guide him through the process of building one. He now grows everything from fruit trees to cacti and bromeliads.
“It started because of cooking – and wanting to grow herbs and fruit – but then it grew into a passion for the plants,” said Cooley. “It’s a learning process. A lot of it is trial and error. Sometimes I almost kill a plant and have to figure out how to bring it back.”
Downstairs in Welburn’s studio, what once housed Ladder Co. No. 12’s fire trucks is now an airy studio with some serious swank.
A 1969 yellow and black Camaro – the same type of car featured in the Transformer movie “Bumblebee” – is parked in one corner of the studio. Above it, a glittery Restoration Hardware chandelier adds some serious glamour. Nearby, the original fire truck door is still in place, though another set of exterior doors have been added to it.
Walking through Welburn’s studio, Cooley say there’s no question that municipal buildings were built to last.
And even though he and Bordine and their young family are moving on to their next reno – a house in Indian Village originally built for the co-founder of Cadillac, Henry Leland – he’s glad that Detroit made the decision to sell these unique buildings when they did.
If they hadn’t, they could’ve been scrapped, salvaged or left to the elements, he says. But they weren’t.
“That was the genius of the city,” said Cooley.