Week 27 – Fire Engine Houses and More

This week I continued to rephotograph buildings and street scenes in the West Leonard area of Grand Rapids. A couple of the photos I took match pretty closely to a postcard from a century or so ago, where a building from that era is still there. In a bunch of other cases, the buildings and street have changed enough that rough approximation was all I could do.

One of the things that I like about GR is its old fire engine houses, built at the turn of the century. One of my more successful (i.e., accurate) rephotographs from this week is of the former No. 9 Engine House, built in the 1890s, now The Mitten Brewing Co., at Leonard and Quarry.

As you can see, I made my frame a bit bigger to provide more context, but the positioning of the building is very chose.  You can see that the tower on the engine house was removed at some point in the past. Towers on fire engine houses were used to watch for fires and to hang hoses to dry.

Below is a second fire engine house, No. 5 (build in the 1880s), just on the other side of the river, on East Leonard and Monroe (then Canal). Again, you can see a tower and the grand, gorgeous architecture. These were not just functional buildings, they were symbols of progress.

The picture of the site from today is a rough approximation. The old building was taken down brick by brick in 1981 and reassembled in Allendale, where it is a museum. If you go to the museum website, you can see a variety of pictures of the building, including ones where the watch tower has been removed and become a clock tower. The old engine house faced on Leonard; the current fire station faces on Monroe. I’ve photographed it from the viewpoint of Monroe and Leonard.

The first two images are the historic No. 5 house. The next two are my images and were  from the same Leonard street vantage point as the old images. The last, taken on Monroe, looking NW towards Leonard, focused on the front of the building viewpoint, as in the first of the old images.

The modern fire engines and buildings are more functional, I’m sure. But they do not communicate an almost religious sense of progress, like the old engine houses did.

The next two images are of West Leonard, looking west from Hamilton Street. The street and sidewalks have changed, and there no longer are streetcar lines. But the building on the left provides continuity from the early twentieth century until now. It looks to be the same structure, but the doors and windows have been redone and it has been painted black. If you look closely at the postcard, you can see the tower of No. 9 Engine House, up the street, on the right.

Leonard Street NW at Hamilton today is easy to compare to the corner 120 years ago. A couple blocks later, No. 9 Engine House (i.e., The Mitten), provides a similar easy comparison. The 130 year old buildings anchor the comparisons. But across the street the story is quite different. The two images you see, below, look from the north side of  the corner of Leonard and Elizabeth south toward Quarry.

What you would have seen in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a lovely building–West Leonard St. School. What you see today is a complex of commercial buildings that includes a small engine repair shop, a storefront church (Eagle’s Nest Church), and behind them an arts organization (Hearts for the Arts). It’s easy to see the beauty in the old school building in the postcard. Perhaps it takes more imagination to imagine the pride the owner of the small engine shop has, the community in the storefront church, and the people involved in the arts community in a building that we can’t see at all.

The next two images are Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1888, the era when these buildings were first going up. The No. 9 Engine House is not on the map because it was built a year later.

In the first first image (on the left) you can find the school. Look for a purple-pink building in the upper middle of the image. Note that the image has two panels, the first taking you up Leonard from the river, west towards Broadway; the second continues from Broadway to just past Elizabeth. You can see that the school is on the south side of the street, between Quarry and Elizabeth, facing north.

In the second image (on the right), you can find the No. 5 Engine House, at Leonard and Canal, right by the old Leonard Street Bridge (upper left of the map). Just to the south of it is a building labeled “Street Car Stables,” presumably for the horses that pulled the city’s streetcars.

Finally, the last set of rephotograph images is of the Leonard Street Bridge. The first image is the covered bridge built in 1879. It’s beautiful. The next three images are the bridge and river today.

The buildings and streets have changed a lot in the past 120 years, and even the river and its banks have been changed, to manage flooding. The space where the postcard photo was taken no longer exists. A building abuts the bridge there now. The last image in this little gallery is an entry way into the building that abuts bridge.

It’s easy to be nostalgic about the old streets, fire engine houses, schools, and bridges. From a purely aesthetic point of view I am nostalgic. I also like when old buildings are repurposed, as with The Mitten Brewing Co. and No. 9 Engine House. I’m also aware that beautiful architecture often costs a lot, and renovating old buildings is expensive and not always practical. Paying for expensive projects like these might compete with other, more practical things, like tax dollars for public services.

Still, I wonder what a modern Leonard Street Bridge would look like if it had been designed to in some way visually echo the old covered bridge. I also wonder whether tax payers who might willingly pay for beautiful bridges and buildings today that echo the past also might willingly pay for better public services (health, welfare, education).

The final two images have nothing to do with rephotography, other than that I took them while rephotographing nearby buildings. Both are images of reflections in windows, one a barbershop, the other a dry cleaner business.

I just like those kinds of images. Pure indulgence.

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