2500 Washington Street
Sat and Sun 10AM–4PM
Architect: Charles Francis Pillsbury
Architectural Style: Spanish Bungalow
Year Built: 1931
Designation: Denver Landmark
The original Fire Station No. 3 was constructed at 2563 Glenarm Place in 1888, a location just west of the current station. Initially the station was staffed with an all white company. In March 1893, a black fire company under the command of a white captain was installed. Station No. 3 became the first and only Denver Fire Department station staffed by black individuals. Responding to the American civil rights movement, the Denver Fire Department desegregated in 1958. According to Elvin Caldwell, “if you wanted to be a fireman, were black, and there wasn’t an opening at Station No. 3, you just had to wait until a vacancy occurred.” Caldwell was the first black individual elected to the Denver City Council.
This station is architecturally significant as a carefully preserved representative of the Spanish Bungalow style as adapted to firehouses in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. During the early twentieth century, the design of firehouses changed in response to new firefighting equipment and technologies as well as the concepts of city planners. When engine powered vehicles replaced horse drawn machines, the space required by fire stations to store equipment diminished dramatically. At the same time, city planners began to suggest that public buildings in residential areas should be sympathetic in size and design to their surroundings. As early as 1912, Denver had designed a fire station in Park Hill in a Bungalow style to harmonize with the homes, which had been erected in that neighborhood.
Station No. 3 is composed of variegated shades of red and brown brick ornamented with terra cotta inset panels and courses, topped by a red tile roof. Basically rectangular in plan, the building derives complexity from its multiple gables, arches, and terra cotta details. The façade features a prominent pedimented, stepped cross gable ornamented by a blind arcade with terra cotta insets in a shell motif and terra cotta sills. The pedimented gable contains the apparatus floor, accessed by double, paneled and glazed, swing-out doors flanked by wrought iron lanterns. Along the walls of the building are decorative downspouts and diamond-shaped terra cotta insets. The building is set back on the lot with a landscaped front yard, reminiscent of dwellings in the neighborhood.
Shelley Rhym, reflecting on Five Points in 1934, noted that, “The new fire house at 25th and Washington Street is equipped with the oldest fire engine in the city, but the all-Negro team is a thing of pride in the neighborhood.”
Tragedy befell Station No. 3 on 17 July 1938 when Captain George H. Brooks and Fireman James Simpson were killed and three other members critically injured in a collision with another fire truck at 20th and Larimer Streets. Station No. 3 was covering for another station while the other station’s truck was responding to a fire at Elitch’s Amusement Park. The crash aroused feelings in the community regarding the part that old, faulty equipment may have played in the collision. The Fire Chief defended the truck’s state of repair.
Prior to construction of the 1931 building, an earlier tragedy occurred at the St. James Hotel fire of March, 1895. Three black firemen and their white captain lost their lives in the fire when a floor collapsed without warning. A history of the Denver Fire Department stated, “This was the only time in the history of the Department when an entire company was killed in the line of duty.” In August 1897 Silas Johnson was promoted to Captain becoming the first African American officer in the Denver Fire Department. Station No. 3 became a completely black company.
In April, 1943 the 50th anniversary of the city’s first black firemen was observed. The ceremony at the station featured “the dedication of a new fire truck complete with the most modern fighting equipment.” Station No. 3 then had a complement of ten firemen under the direction of Captain Nathan J. Biffle. The station was often one of the busiest in the city.
Charles Francis Pillsbury (1896-1979) was a Denver native and East High School graduate. He was a draftsman with the G. B. Robertson architectural firm before joining the Harry James Manning firm. In 1926 he established his own practice at the Midland Savings Building at 17th and Glenarm. He was a practical and efficient architect rather than an innovator. However, he was among those who broke away from Neo-classical styles and incorporated utilitarian, modern styles for public buildings. The old Denver Police Building at 13th and Champa designed by Pillsbury, Meredith Musick, and Earl Chester Morris, is a good example of the International style. The same is true of Pillsbury’s Denver Fire Stations numbers 3, 11, 14, and 20. The State Capitol Annex at East 14th and Sherman was a joint effort of Pillsbury and five other architects. Pillsbury designed Ellis, McMeen, Gust, and Hallett elementary schools for the Denver school system.
Station No. 3 is in the center of the Five Points neighborhood. Curtis Park, Denver’s first street car suburb, and much of the River North Arts District are within the official boundaries of the neighborhood. The name comes from the streetcar stop at the offset conjunction of the diagonal downtown grid with the rectangular suburban grid at Washington Street, 27th Street, 26th Avenue, and Welton Street. From the 1920s into the 1950s this intersection, and its surrounding neighborhood, was the heart of African-American culture, commerce, and civil rights in the Rocky Mountain West. Starting at 17th and Downing on the east edge, the boundary extends north along Downing to 38th, then continues northwest on 38th to Ringsby Court. From that point the line goes southwest along Ringsby to 20th Street, then southeast on 20th Street and east on 20th Avenue back to Downing.
Denver: The City Beautiful, Thomas J. Noel and Barbara S. Norgren, Historic Denver 1987; Denver Landmark Nomination Form from: Denver Landmarks Commission; Sarah Morris, Strategic Programs and Government Affairs Manager, Denver Fire Department; “Five Points, “34: Modest, Well-Kept, Hopeful”, Shelley Rhym, Denver Post, 20 March, 1968; history.denverlibrary.org.