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LSS240: 2018 Student Guide: Fireproofing Northampton

Created by students in LSS240 - Spring 2018

A Brief History

In the 19th century, Northampton introduced major features in its fire infrastructure and continued expanding and altering this framework as the town developed and technology improved. The current fire station on King Street is a dramatic upgrade from the Masonic Street firehouse that operated from 1872 to 1999. The conversion of the former firehouse into a cafe and offices reflects a shift towards an increasingly dense downtown and the need for larger facilities outside the central business district. Similarly, the ever expanding water works system of Northampton shows how the growing fire infrastructure mirrored a growing population. This evolution in architecture and infrastructure illustrates how Northampton was gradually “fireproofed.”

Former firehouse

Northampton established its fire department in 1857, and the historic firehouse on Masonic Street was constructed in 1872 for $12,000. The existing structure maintains historic architectural features such as a rear bell tower and a patterned cornice on the facade.  

By the time the fire station closed in 1999, the structure had fallen into disrepair. It was condemned in 1927, and an account from 1995 described exposed wires and water running down the walls of the cellar. It also suffered from a lack of space with cramped offices and files stored in the attic. A 1999 article from the Daily Hampshire Gazette remarked, “At the Masonic Street station, there is an air of utilitarianism. The architecture is devoted primarily to the housing of machines, and secondarily to the housing of people.” This growing dissatisfaction with the Masonic Street building indicates its inability to meet the needs of modern firefighting, where a large staff required room for both storing equipment and dealing with bureaucratic matters as a governmental department.

Despite its shortcomings, the historic firehouse became a fixture of downtown and many developed sentimental attachments. Shortly before moving to the new firehouse in 1999, firefighter Paul Maynard explained, “The young guys, they’re pretty excited about the new station. But not the old guys. They’ll miss it here.” Maynard had served on the force for 28 years. The 127-year life of the structure as a firehouse made a lasting impact on residents.

The question of how to adapt the firehouse loomed large once it was vacated. Residents voiced many opinions on what should be done: one volunteer firefighter suggested leaving one or two engines and a skeleton crew on Masonic Street to respond to downtown fires; another resident proposed making it a permanent homeless shelter; the city also suggested conversion to offices, apartments, or retail space.

Ultimately, the prime real estate went to the Media Education Foundation, a national nonprofit organization. After gutting the space, the MEF renovated the former firehouse into editing suites, a research room, a community room, and office space for 12 full-time employees. Thomas Douglas Architects were hired to convert both the main firehouse and the rear maintenance building, which became a private residence. Woodstar Cafe now occupies the front retail space, where seating takes place in the former garbage bays and former garage doors flood the cafe with light as windows. According to Thomas Douglas Architects, this “new incarnation epitomized the revitalized image and feel of the downtown Northampton.”

Photo courtesy of Thomas Douglas Architects.

Water Works

According to local historian Laurie Sanders, economic interests were the impetus for developing Northampton’s water works system. Business owners were concerned with protecting their property and goods. In 1867, three fires broke out that damaged large blocks of the downtown. In response, a committee formed to explore water systems in the nearby Connecticut towns of Waterbury and Hartford. In 1871, the water works system was established when the principal pipes were laid. The following table presents information from Sanborn Maps, created by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company.

Water system
Firefighting apparatus (center city)
Storage reservoir 16.5 million gallons
Distributing reservoir 5 million gallons
1 3rd class steam fire engine
4 independent Hose Companies 
1 hand engine 
1 hook & ladder truck 
*all drawn by horses 
Storage reservoir 18 million gallons 
Distributing reservoir 5 million gallons 
34 miles of water pipe across entire system
157 fire hydrants in Northampton and Bay State Village, 212 total 
98 men, partly paid 
1 3rd class Silsby steamer
3 independent hose carts 
1 hand engine 
1 hook & ladder truck 
Fire alarm telegraph, 13 boxes, 8 miles of wire (whole system)
2 reservoirs: 89 million gallons and 16 million gallons 
46.5 miles of water pipes in entire system 
170 hydrants in Northampton and Bay State Village, 236 total 
98 men volunteer
2 men paid, always on duty 
9 men sleep in engine house 
Night police 
1 3rd class Silsby steam engine 
3 independent hose wagons 
1 hook & ladder truck 
6,000 ft of 2.5" hose "in good order" 
Fire alarm telegraph, 31 boxes (whole system)
2 reservoirs: 90 million gallons and 35 million gallons 
56 miles of water pipe 
300 double and triple hydrants 
22 call men, 7 fully paid men, 7 horses 
1 2nd class Silsby steam engine 
1 combination chemical and hose wagon
1 hose wagon 
1 hook & ladder truck 
5,000 ft of good hose 
Gamewell fire alarm system, 50 boxes (whole system)
4 reservoirs total:
1 with 350 million, 3 combined with 350 million gallons
66 miles of water pipe 
348 hydrants 
Daily consumption estimated 1,800,000 gallons 
32 call men, 8 regular men, 7 horses
1 Metropolitan steam engine 
1 chemical engine 
1 hose wagon 
1 hook & ladder truck 
8,000 ft of 2.5" hose 
Gamewell fire alarm system, 52 boxes (whole system)
*Streets are generally improved but not paved,
public lights electric,
fire limits are not established
4 reservoirs, total capacity 505 million gallons 
Approximately 97 miles of pipe 
886 hydrants 
Average daily consumption 4,000,000 gallons 
Partly paid: 1 chief, 2 assistant chiefs, 1 district chief
37 fully paid men, 20 volunteers
1 Seagrave 750 gallon pumper 
1 Pope combination hose and chemical truck 
1 Reo combination hose and chemical truck 
1 Seagrave 75' aerial truck 
1 chief's Studebaker touring car 
Gamewell fire alarm system, 74 boxes (whole system)
*Practically all streets paved, public lights electric, 
fire limits established 1927 

Major Fires in Northampton's History

1870: Edwards Church destroyed 

1876: First Congregational Church and Whitney Building destroyed 

1895: Kirkland Block destroyed 

1955: F. W. Woolworth Company destroyed 

View of the ruins of the First Congregational Church, 1876. Image courtesy of Historic Northampton.

Building Regulations

Northampton adopted an ordinance in 1927 prohibiting the construction of frame buildings and wooden shingle roofs within fire limits. Many towns in Massachusetts had enacted similar regulations. Boston, for instance, had banned wooden chimneys and thatched roofs in 1631. While this legislation arrived in Northampton late relative to much of New England, building technology in Northampton had long reflected a shift away from flammable materials. Forbes Library, opened in 1894, was touted as a fireproof building made from stone, slate, and copper and featuring a steel structure.

View of the Forbes Library roof during construction. Image courtesy of Forbes Library.

Northampton Fire Stations

New Firehouse

Statistics on the King Street fire station:

  • $5.5 million
  • 25,000 square feet
  • Approx. 30,000 concrete blocks
  • 95,000 bricks
  • 7,500 cubic feet of mortar
  • 38 miles of electrical wires

Features of this state-of-the-art facility include a three-story cathedral ceiling in the lobby, a full kitchen and fitness center, a modern communications room, and special red lights to signal a fire alarm in nighttime conditions. The new space is designed to facilitate prevention and education with several large offices where contractors can review their designs with the Fire Department to ensure they meet fire codes. A large conference room will also double as a classroom. The new space enables a more holistic approach to firefighting in Northampton.


“Brief History of the Fire Department.”, City of Boston,
“City Preps Plan to Sell Old Fire Station.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 9 June 1999, p. A3.
“Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970.” Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970, Sanborn Map Company,
“Fire Station Progress.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 30 June 1995.
“Fire Station Reflects a New Mission.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 10 June 1999, p. 3.
Interview, Laurie Sanders. 
“Library History .” Forbes Library, Forbes Library ,
“A New Home in Old Firehouse.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 8 Mar. 2003, p. A3.
“Northampton's Fire Station.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 11 June 1999, p. A8.
“Reader Suggests Use for Old Fire Station.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 13 July 1999, p. A6.
Reid , David. “Fire Station to Be Deactivated.” The Republican, 13 July 1999, p. B01.
“Sanders Lecture Series.” Historic Northampton, Historic Northampton ,
“Suggests Ways to Use Vacant Fire Station.” Daily Hampshire Gazette , 25 Aug. 1998, p. 8.
“Main Street, Northampton Photograph Collection.” Historic Northampton, Historic Northampton, 
Massachusetts Historical Commission, “MACRIS Form NTH.769.” MACRIS Form NTH.769, 2011.