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Again, Form Follows Function

Berenice Abbott, for her “Changing New York” project, took this picture of a firehouse in December 1935. She labelled it as “Park Avenue and East 135th Street” but it’s a little more complicated than that, since that location is where those two streets end at the Harlem River. Most of the avenues continue over bridges to the Bronx, but Park does not. The Park Avenue bridge carries the main line of the New York Central Railroad from the viaduct and tunnel that starts at Grand Central. As a result, these two major streets are weirdly devoid of traffic at the river.

Despite its old-fashioned appearance, this firehouse was constructed in 1908. But it was not constructed at this location: it was at Lexington Avenue and 132nd Street, four blocks away, and moved to this location in 1917. It’s not entirely clear from the records that I have where the firehouse was, but it appears it may have been moved to serve as the fireboat station on the east side of Park directly in line with 135th.

That tower is not purely decorative. The hoses used by fire-fighters used to be canvas, and if put away wet they would mildew and eventually rot. So, after use, they were stretched out in the tower, allowed to hang dry as if they were so many sweaters for snakes. We are currently working on a circa-1900 firehouse and it has a similar tower, with the racks for hoses still intact, although long since abandoned. Score a point for nylon hoses. Even a two-story tower, something like 25 feet high, was better for drying hoses than the one-story space of the apparatus floor.

There is often this kind of simple artifact-based logic for decorative architectural features of the past. Old ferry terminals usually have clocktowers. Sure, they serve as advertisements and let people know if they’re late, but they are there because watches used to be expensive. Back in the pocket-watch days, not everyone could afford a watch, so there were more public clocks. Ferry terminals, and sometimes railroad stations, were obvious places to put public clocks, since people at those locations needed to match the transportation schedule.