Detroit’s former firehouses get new life

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
TOP: Andrew Jukes’ front door is as big as a fire truck — literally. He is refurbishing Engine No. 18 on Mt. Elliott into a residence.

Former Detroit firehouses are finding new life in a city that sold them to help solve its financial crisis.

Defunct Ladder Company No. 12 on the southwest border of downtown Detroit is starting to show its style: Behind the fire engine red doors of the former firehouse on West Lafayette, the expansive ground floor with glossy-tile walls will soon debut as the studio for a former design guru at General Motors. The private quarters upstairs have a walk-in closet that could fit a subcompact car.

On the east side of Detroit, what was Engine No. 18 on Mt. Elliott is becoming someone’s house, complete with a backyard pond and former horse stable. Former Ladder No. 8 on Junction in southwest Detroit could become a single residence, too.

In April 2013, seven shuttered firehouses — some dating to the mid-19th century — and a vacant police precinct were put up for sale. The city was on the verge of declaring Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which would happen July 2013. The bankruptcy slowed the sales; only two firehouses were sold in 2013 and 2014.

This year, the remaining six buildings became hot properties. Three have been sold, and two others are under contract, which means final details are being negotiated between buyer and seller. The last one for sale, former Engine Company No. 49 on Grand River, is listed for $45,000 and has multiple interested buyers, officials said.

Kate Bordine is one of the owners of Ladder Co. No. 12.

“My father was a firefighter,” she said. “It’s an honor to be able to live here.”

Bordine is co-founder of Ponyride, a Corktown incubator for various ventures. She lives in the former firehouse with husband Phil Cooley, co-founder of Slows Bar BQ. The couple own the building along with Michael Chetcuti and Kyle Evans.

The group paid $140,000 for the 4,825-square-foot facility built in 1925. At least a dozen others wanted it, Cooley said. The firehouse was basically a shell when purchased in late 2013 — even the fire poles were gone.

Work on the building has been extensive: A lot of plaster removed, new ceiling and floors, a steel staircase moved and widened.

“We had a $1,000 heating bill one month,” Cooley said. That was before they replaced the vinyl windows and took other measures.

Bordine and Cooley are making great effort to retain the building’s architecture. The main floor where fire engines once parked will become the commercial studio for Ed Welburn, former vice president of design at GM. The former horse stable behind the main house will become a food-related business.

Public records are incomplete, but the city could make less than $1 million from the combined sales of the former municipal buildings.

Jill Bryant, manager for the city’s General Services Department, said sometimes the buildings were sold to the highest bidder and sometimes to the buyer with the best plans. “Sometimes that was the same,” Bryant said.

In Core City on the near-west side, former Engine Company No. 10 on Vinewood could get overhauled with a coffee-roasting facility, bar, commercial kitchen, residences and offices, according to a city zoning request. The new owners, which include the roastmaster at Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co., closed on the 6,724-square-foot site this summer. The sales price isn’t known, but it was listed for $128,000. The owners could not be reached for comment.

The former 9th Precinct of the Detroit Police Department on East Bethune in New Center is under contract by a local company that wants to make it its headquarters, Bryant said. Near Hamtramck on Miller, an entity affiliated with the owners of the Ambassador Bridge bought the 8,464-square-foot former Ladder No. 16 this year, Bryant said. The sales price hasn’t been publicly recorded, but it was listed at $76,000.

Not everyone is happy about the former firehouses being sold. The firefighters union tried to get some of the buildings back as late as last year.

“It was an idiotic decision to sell them,” said Michael Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association. “I have nothing against anybody who bought one of the facilities, but my heart breaks every time I go by one of those places. In some cases, we have left those areas underserved as the population grows.”

Here’s ex-Ladder Company No. 12, now a second-floor residence for Phil Cooley and Kate Bordine. They were part of a group of four who purchased the old firehouse for $140,000. It was built in 1925.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones disagreed the closed firehouses have left neighborhoods vulnerable. He said the fire department studied whether one of the stations, Engine No. 49 on Grand River, could be reactivated. But the aging firehouse would have been too costly to modernize and was too small. Many fire stations now house medical units.

There also is precedence for finding new uses for old fire houses.

In 2012, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law bought former Engine No. 2 at 585 Larned, a half-block from the campus. It’s now the George J. Asher Law Clinic Center. The two-story facility provides space for the school’s legal aid clinics. The facility hadn’t been used as a fire station for decades.

Downtown near Cobo Center on West Larned, the former fire department headquarters is expected to open next year as a $34 million boutique hotel. Aparium Hotel Group is converting the building. The former headquarters was put on the market in 2012.

In an earlier interview, Mario Tricoci, CEO of Chicago-based Aparium, said the sale of the fire headquarters was beneficial to both sides: “It was a great opportunity to show our commitment to the city. We are inspired to be part of making Detroit a city beyond industry — a city of ideas, verve and unmatched enterprise.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN