DC Firehouses not only reflect the geographic expansion of the capital, but also the city as a place of diverse and vibrant communities.
A boom in the construction of municipal buildings took place during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the most critical years of the City Beautiful Movement; included in this wave of new municipal buildings were sixteen firehouses, constructed between 1897 to 1916. The development of the DC Fire Department supplied jobs to the influx of veterans returning from the Spanish-American War and again during the interwar period. By World War II, there was little undeveloped land remaining within the DC boundaries, substantially curtailing development and influencing both the design and location of firehouses. Whether firehouses predicted future neighborhood development or became a welcome addition to the community, these buildings became distinctive landmarks.
The earliest fire companies in DC were staffed on a voluntary basis, functioning much like social clubs which often advanced the careers of their members. The companies were ethnically and socially stratified: some drew their membership exclusively from the city's Italian or Irish population, while other companies admitted only doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. African American firefighters often faced discrimination when seeking promotion; to ameliorate this issue, the first all-Black company organized in 1919 with more units to follow.
DC's firehouses were identified by the names of the volunteer companies that occupied them. When firefighting professionalized in the second half of the nineteenth century, the city purchased the volunteer firehouses and the names were replaced with letters or numbers according to an established city-wide system. Engine companies, primarily featured in this tour, received numbers while hook and ladder companies, also known as truck companies, sometimes received letters. As companies consolidated, “old” firehouses were abandoned for newer facilities and companies took their names with them; hence, “Old Engine Company No. 26” is a different historic site than “Engine Company No. 26,” but the same firefighting unit. Alongside the professionalization of firefighting in the city, these firehouses feature advancements in firefighting technology, from "chemical companies," (units too far from the public water system who used chemical fire suppressants instead) to the extensive fire call box system, to the implementation of motorized apparatuses, such as fire engines or ladder trucks .
Try to spot the firehouses in your community! Some of these historic sites still act as firehouses, while others have new and creative uses.