Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive




  Tuesday, January 26, 1982

Los Angeles Times

Part V    

Los Angeles Fire Department

KEN LUBAS / Los Angeles Times  

City fire department plans to restore Station 23, shown above in May 15, 1915, photo, to its former elegant condition for use as a museum.  Engine house was closed and abandoned in 1960. Addie Scott, now 90, at Station 23, where she lived in the 1920s when her husband Ralph J. Scott, was chief engineer.

City Officials Hope Museum Idea Catches Fire

Restoring Historic Firehouse
to Former Grandeur Is Goal

By LYNN SIMROSS, Times Staff Writer

    When it opened in October, 1910, Fire Station 23 was considered far too elegant a living-working quarters for city firemen.  It was so extravagant that one Los Angeles writer complained that the bathtub in the chief's upstairs suite was "big enough for two large chiefs" and speculated that any self-respecting fire captain working downstairs after 6 p.m. surely would be dressed in evening attire.

    The press generated a big public flap over old 23's cost to taxpayers --$53,000--and its interior featuring imported Italian tile, French beveled glass mirrors, paneling of Peruvian mahogany and "sanitary arrangements" for the horses in 

KEN LUBAS / Los Angeles Times  

Interior ground-floor view of Firehouse 23 as it is today, without horses, stalls, brass bells.  Old engine house stands in what is now downtown's Skid Row district on 5th Street.
their stalls.  So great was the uproar that the fire commissioners of day denied they had had anything to do with the station , even though they approved its plans.

    They should see it now.  Old Station 23, closed and abandoned almost 22 years ago, has fallen on hard times, much like the derelicts who inhabit the Skid Row district of downtown Los Angeles where the building is located.

    Soon after it closed in 1960, F.S. 23 became a hangout for the street people; trash piled up at the front and back doors.  Eventually, looters took away most of the copper tubing and brass work, banisters, door-knobs, firebells.  Even the five huge brass firepoles disappeared.

    Made a Mistake
    In  1974, the city's Department of Public Works declared the building an earthquake hazard because of its "unreinforced brick" construction, and wanted to tear it down.  It was later determined that Public Works had made a mistake.  F.S. 23 actually is made of reinforced concrete, one of the earliest structures in the city to be so constructed.

    The Public Works people still wanted to tear it down, but the Fire Department balked.  It should be a museum, fire officials and commissioners said, and set about to make it so.  But that, it turnouts, is easier said than accomplished.

     On June 26, 1979, the City Council, urged on by Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, in whose district F.S. 23 is situated, put Station 23 under the jurisdiction of the Fire Department in order that it might be restored as a museum "at no cost to the city."

    Since then, Fire Station 23 has been in limbo. No money, no museum.  But at the first fund-raising activity recently, a beer blast on the first floor of the old station, F.S. 23 got its first large contribution, $20,000.

    "We're really pleased," said Chief Johnson, who is coordinating the museum effort.  "We have about $25,000 now.  It's not a lot, but it's a beginning.  You have to take a long-term view, but not that long.  Five years form now it will be a brand new building."

    Volunteer Brigade
    In June, 1981, Fire Department officials formally set up Olde 23's, a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation to save the historic building.  Fire Commissioner John Lawson is president; Chief Engineer John Gerard, vice president and Johnson, secretary-treasurer, of Olde 23's board of governors.  They are currently seeking 12 additional board members from the private sector.   

    "We should have the board completed in two months," Johnson said.  "We're looking for people in the community who have funding ability, organizational ability, interest in fire service.  We'll also have a volunteer fire brigade of people who want to assist the museum."  Johnson estimates the restoration will cost in the "ballpark of $1 million.  We don't have an actual figure yet, but we'll be starting an engineering study soon."

    Critics of the plan to restore station 23 have questioned the validity of putting in a museum in the middle of Skid Row, but Johnson pooh-poohs their comments.  "This whole area is scheduled for redevelopment," he said, referring to the downtown plan of the Community Redevelopment Agency.  "Down the read it won't look like this."

     Some people have asked why the Fire Department didn't choose Station 28, at Figueroa and 7th Street for its museum site.  "It just doesn't have the historical significance of 23," Johnson said.  Fire Station 28 was bought by a private firm.  Johnson said he believes that there are plans to turn it into a restaurant.

    "You have to remember," Johnson explained, "that 23 actually was the headquarters of the Fire Department at one time."

    Fire station 23 did serve as headquarters between 1910 and 1920, but that is not its total historic value.  In 1920, it became the only city fire station to house a woman.

    Converted Third Floor
    When Chief Engineer Ralph J. Scott married Addie Haas, the couple converted the third floor into a suite.  The front room, a showplace complete with leatherette walls, mahogany paneling and molding and a marble fireplace, used for department and commission meetings, became their living room.  A back bedroom, utilized previously by visiting fire chiefs, was made into a kitchen.  Scott moved

department headquarters to the station at Hill and 2nd streets.  It recently was torn down to make way for the Bunker Hill development.     

    The Scotts lived at Fire Station 23 until 1927, when they built a home in the Los Feliz Hills.

    Addie Scott, now 90, is assisting Olde 23's as a volunteer historian, helping with details on what the interior of the building looked like.

    The Fire Department, according to Gerald Johnson, has no pictures of the two upper floors of F.S. 23, and will depend on Mrs. Scott's memory in the restoration.  There are photos of the exterior of the building and of the first floor, one showing firemen getting horses ready for a fire call.

    Mrs. Scott has visited F.S. 23 twice in recent weeks, and will, with Chief Engineer Gerard, videotape a walking tour of the station next month.

    "It wasn't Skid Row when we lived here," said Mrs. Scott.  "It will take a great deal of work, but it can be done.  It's an awfully big job, though."

__  __  __

    Addie Scott hadn't seen Fire Station 23 for many years, and when she toured it recently, she said she wanted to cry.

    "It makes me sad to see what shape it's in," she said.  "So many things are gone.  The front room looks about like it used to, only I had curtains that went to the floor, not the windowsill."

    The front room and main bedroom of the Scotts' suite have been refurbished in the past few years by artist James Croak, who has been living there since 1978.  Croak, also a licensed contractor, originally applied to the Board of Public Works to rent F.S. 23 on the agreement that he would  begin restoration.  He now rents from the Fire Department and has stopped his restoration works since plans for the museum were formalized.

    Only Tenant
    I'm the Fire Department's only tenant," Croak said during a showing of the building.  "When I came here the building had been empty for 18 years and the garbage was piled high.  It was an open door hotel."

Please see FIRE, Page 2

    2   Part V / Tuesday, January 26, 1982

Los Angeles Times    

      FIRE STATION:  Restoration Planned

  Continued form First Page 
 Croak said he removed about 20 coats of paint from the paneling on both upstairs floors.  The second floor served as a firemen's dormitory.  It took him many months, too, to clean the hallway and stairwell tile work and ceiling moldings and repaint.  He uses the ground floor, with its 21-foot ceiling, as a studio.

    The old building was designed with front and back entrances (now secured by iron gates), one facing 5th Street, the other Winston Street, to facilitate easy exit from either side.

    "The stalls were here," said Mrs. Scott, pointing to a row along one side of the downstairs, paved in brick.  "I remember the horses.  They really knew what to do.  When the bell would ring, they would come out and stand there to be hitched up."  Firemen rigged the horses' harness to pulleys attached to the ceiling.  The harness would be dropped over the horses' heads.

    Although the stalls were removed from the building, some of the old oak closets that housed the tack for the horses remain.

    Upon F.S. 23's opening in 1910, a Times writer glowed in description, writing: "It is the interior of the structure that astounds, albeit the front exterior has a heavy trimming of real Italian marble.  It is the interior which is to reincarnate man and beast in the Fire Department.  It is the interior which is sort of Nirvana for a soulful legion of blue-shirted civil service graduates."

    The writer concluded by saying, "Remember, too, that this house for magnificence is unrivaled except in New York, where they are jealous and are trying to out-do it with an engine-house with a banquet hall.  The only way they can beat Los Angeles is to install cut-glass door knobs and onyx bathtubs, which seem to have been overlooked in the specifications for the Fifth street engine house deluxe."

    Came to L.A. as a Youngster
    Mrs. Scott remembers life at F.S. 23 with fondness.  Born in Coronado Shores, where her grandfather was a musician at the Hotel del Coronado and her father the owner of a deli, Mrs. Scott came to Los Angeles as a youngster.  Living in a firehouse did not seem strange to her, she will tell you, because she grew up in Boyle Heights next to F.S. 2.  She met her husband when he was a young fireman assigned there.

    Ralph J. Scott served as chief engineer from 1919 to 1940.  Known as "The man who never lets a good fire get started" Scott died of a heart attack in 1958.

    Mrs. Scott continued surveying the upstairs rooms, pointing out a chandelier that was missing in one, remembering where the firebells were located.

    "The firemen worked long hours," she said.  "They'd work 96 hours a week, seven days for one day off for $60 a month when Ralph started.  (Before that, city firemen worked a straight 29 days on, one day off).  They got paid in gold when he first started.  Then they switched to that dirty old paper money.

    "It was a nice life here for us," Mrs. Scott said.  "And the men were helpful.  If I couldn't do something or another, one of them would come and do it.  I remember trying to wax all these floors, and I just couldn't do it.  So someone came and helped me.  This is a lot of floor space, you know."

___  ___  ___

    Downstairs floor space, according to Olde 23's organizers, will be used to display some of the antique fire equipment that the city has stored at several locations.  The only such equipment on public display at this time is that at the El Pueblo Plaza city fire station, built in 1884 and now maintained by El Pueblo historic park.  It is financed by state, city and county funds and has a private support group of fire buffs called the Box 15 Club.

    A 1931 pumper truck, kept at Fire Station 3, has been restored and is now used as a Fire Department bandwagon.  In storage, alongside it, is a turn-of-the-century horse-drawn steamer.

    Last May, firefighters from Battalion 2 completely re-furbished an apparatus called a Gorter water tower, built for the city in 1905, motorized with an American LaFrance six-cylinder engine and tractor in 1914.  It originally was drawn by three horses.

    Firefighters from Station 12 in Highland Park, where the tower is kept, did most of the work, refinishing it in three weeks, in time to take it to L.A. City Muster of firefighters for all over the state.  They received a trophy and plaque for their efforts.

    Item Unique at Time
    According to Firefighter 2 Richard Purdy, who has been collecting date on the water tower, the item was considered to be quite unique at the time.  It was built by a man named Henry Gorter, whom the Los Angeles fire department lured here from San Francisco.

    "The city of Los Angeles, not wanting to be outdone," Purdy said, "heard about the one he built for San Francisco, and wanted one here."  Gorter, a mechanical engineer, took the job for a battalion chief's salary, $150 a month, and completed the tower on March 6, 1905.  He brought with him a blacksmith, carriage maker and machinist, and later was responsible for stating the Los Angeles Fire Department maintenance shops.

    "We take this out for parades and things," Purdy said.  "It's not easy to drive, no power steering.  We want to get some shirts made like the old-style ones that they wore.  We have the design for them.  But there isn't any money for such things.  We've been trying to get someone to make them for us."

The Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1982

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