Jack Conner still remembers the 18-foot brass pole he had to slide down to get to his truck when the call to duty rang out at Engine House No. 16 in the middle of the night.
“They had to take out that pole because at night you’d be half asleep and you’d slide down and your ankle would hit hard on the ground,” said Conner, 87, who served as fire lieutenant at Engine House No. 16 in the 1950s, then as captain from 1975 to 1986, when the North Point Breeze firehouse closed.
But while that original brass pole is long gone, the new owner of the building — the aptly named Paul Fireman — has installed new poles in the long vacant space as part of his renovation and historic preservation of the firehouse at the corner of Penn and Lang avenues.
“That building was falling apart,” said Conner, who still lives across the street from Engine House No. 16. “It was terrible. He (Fireman) deserves a lot of credit. He’s wonderful, trying to preserve it.”
Fireman purchased the 10,000-square-foot building for $20,000 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh in 2014, and commenced $750,000 in renovations approved by the URA in 2015. The renovations were financed in part by the URA and the Small Business Administration.
The firehouse is now the home of Fireman Creative, a design and development agency that serves a host of Jewish organizational clients, including several Jewish community centers throughout North America. The company moved into its new digs earlier this year.
The fact that Fireman, a Pittsburgh native, has ended up in a firehouse is no coincidence.
“From the time I was a little boy, I was always fascinated by firehouses because of the name,” said the longtime Temple Sinai member. “I wanted to be a fireman, but I don’t know if my parents would have signed on to that. Then I saw the film ‘Ghostbusters,’ and there were great scenes of them in their home base, which was a firehouse.
“Now I have one,” he grinned.
Engine House No. 16 was built in 1888 and was used as a firehouse for almost 100 years. The firemen moved out in 1986, and the building was used by the Pittsburgh Police for training exercises through the early 2000s, Fireman said. The firehouse then sat empty until 2013, when the City of Pittsburgh turned it over to the URA.
Fireman, who had no previous experience in property development, worked with Craig Dunham of the Rubinoff Group to help plan the conversion of the space to an open office floor plan. The 11 employees of Fireman Creative — which used to be located on the South Side — have use of a conference room, a kitchen, and several work areas.
Walking through the building, though, feels as much akin to strolling through a museum as being in an office environment. Decades-old artifacts are incorporated seamlessly amid the modern technology needed to run a cutting-edge design firm.
At the landing at the top of the steps leading into the work space is a rack bearing an old fireman’s coat that Fireman found in the attic of the firehouse, as well as an original helmet that was given to him by one of the several firemen who have come to tour the newly renovated building. Other relics displayed in the Engine House No. 16 include an antique — and very heavy — fire hose nozzle, a framed display of various types of knots, an old fire extinguisher, as well an original stirrup and saddle hailing from the time when firemen used horses and not trucks as their primary mode of transportation.
In fact, the original space was equipped with a hayloft and barn.
Fireman has struck an impressive balance of preserving the historic details of Engine House No. 16 while creating a modern workspace that includes polished hardwood floors, interesting artwork and charming architectural details.
For now, Fireman Creative is the only company using the space, but Fireman plans to welcome a tenant, Fitness Essentials, this summer.
Fireman also plans to grow his own business in the new space, adding four more employees and increasing his work for the Jewish community.
“We are helping build Jewish community on a lot of levels,” he said of his firm that creates websites as well as strategies to help Jews in the 21st century connect with each other and their heritage.
“We just launched the national JCC website, which is headquartered in New York, and last year, the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco had us do its Web work,” he said. “Now we’re working with the JF&CS in Pittsburgh and doing a lot of interesting stuff with the Jewish Federation [of Greater Pittsburgh]. With the Jewish Federation in Seattle, we’re working on connecting young people with the community who were not traditionally affiliating.”
Fireman Creative has also done work for the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh and forBeth El Congregation of the South Hills, not only on its website, he said, but on its social media strategy “on how to engage people.”
Fireman feels strongly about contributing in a positive way not just to the Jewish community, he said, but to his hometown.
“It was so wonderful growing up in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I feel that preserving this building will be my lasting legacy, my contribution to Pittsburgh.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.