Historic Fire Alarm Building May Become Museum

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

ART DECO CREATION: The Fire Alarm Building was built in 1930 and 1931 and is located at 1010 E. 8th St., near Centennial Park. The modest building is one of Tulsa’s Art Deco jewels and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

ROSSY GILLE for GTR Newspapers

Tucked away at 1010 E. 8th St., close to Centennial Park, is a modest building, and one of Tulsa’s Art Deco jewels. The Fire Alarm Building was built in 1930 and 1931 and was a response to the city’s growth in the 1920s. Tulsa had not only a Central Fire Station but suburban stations throughout the city to accommodate a population that had doubled in 10 years. Requirements for Tulsa to maintain a lower fire insurance class rate necessitated a fire-proof building at a minimum of 150 feet from any adjacent building. Thus, this seemingly isolated location was selected.

One of Tulsa’s leading architectural firms, Smith and Senter was awarded the contract. Frederick Vance Kershner, a young architect with the firm, actually designed the building. The firm was known for its Art Deco work, and was the popular style for public buildings. Kershner achieved this style handsomely. The building received a design award soon after it was built. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At 6,090 square feet, it is a small building. The structural frame is steel with masonry perimeter walls and exterior terra cotta detail. The roof was gypsum. Doors, windows and exterior trim were steel. A large basement housing an auxiliary power system was dug by hand to provide more local employment. The building was considered Tulsa’s most fireproof structure and in 1930s technology, it was.

Flanking the original brass entrance doors were two massive lantern light fixtures. A polished limestone surround at the entry evokes thoughts of a Mayan Temple. The original doors and lanterns, which were victims of vandalism, are gone now, but a sense of grandeur remains. The elaborate terra cotta panel above the doors is of an Adonis-type male, stripped to the waist with Gamewell alarm tape running through his hands. Adjacent to him from behind are two helmeted fire fighters.

The exterior buff brick is highlighted by a terra cotta frieze that encircles the building. Its design is significant and succinctly appropriate. Included are stylized hoses, firefighting axes and my personal favorite, fire-breathing dragons.

It took several years to complete the alarm cables supplied to the building. When completed in 1934, red Gamewell boxes throughout the city dispatched alarms to this central location. From there, individual stations were alerted. New technology, a vocal dispatch and alerting systems replaced the Gamewell system by 1958, but it remained as a backup until 1966. In 1981, dispatchers walked down the front steps for the last time. The Fire Alarm Office was relocated to the Jack Purdee Police & Municipal Courts Building at the Civic Center.

The Fire Alarm Building sat empty for a number of years, a victim of vandalism and a 1984 flood. In the early 1990s, offered to sell the building for the price of the land if prospective buyers had a doable plan for rehabilitation, but none were successful.

In the early 2000s, with the help of some preservation-minded Tulsans, the building became the new home of the American Lung Association. Extensive renovations were completed in 2006 with architects Fritz Bailey. The American Lung Association is consolidating its local offices and will offer the building for sale as of June 2015. A serious fundraising effort is underway to buy the building and convert it to a nonprofit Tulsa Fire Museum. The parent organization is the Tulsa Fire Museum Committee, headed by Debra Bailey, assistant fire marshall, Tulsa Fire Department. Debra can be reached at 918-527-0289 or dbailey@cityoftulsa.org. Tax deductible funds have been established with the Tulsa Community Foundation and the Tulsa Firefighters Credit Union. An open house is planned March 17, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. for anyone interested in the project and wanting to tour the building.

This is a second attempt to create a fire museum in the building. In 1986 – 1987, the Tulsa Development Authority agreed to sell the building to the Firefighters Union but the needed funding wasn’t available.

Practice makes perfect. We hope that this time, the campaign is successful. In this author’s opinion, this is the most natural and best use of the building. Readers, they need your support and contributions.

Updated 03-14-2015

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