From the Archives: Fire Hall Rises From the Ashes
by Erik Nordberg, University Archivist
It seems fitting that renovation has begun on the old fire hall in Houghton. After all, 2010 is Michigan Tech's quasquicentennial, and this is the building where it all started 125 years ago.
The building was constructed in 1883 as the headquarters for the Village of Houghton. The second floor housed the village offices, while the rest of the building was used for the town's fire department. Officially known as the Continental Fire Company, it was said to be one of the oldest volunteer fire companies in the Upper Peninsula. Its first firehouse, constructed in 1861, was near the site of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge.
At the time the "new" firehouse was built, the fire department consisted of a hand engine once used in Detroit; a steam engine with 2,500 feet of hose acquired in 1872, and an eight-person hook and ladder company. The engines were housed in two bays on the ground floor, horses in the basement, along with an underground cistern that would hold fourteen feet of water.
Following the establishment of the Michigan Mining School in 1885, the initial work of selecting faculty, courses, and textbooks allowed classes to be advertised for September 1886. The fledgling school lacked a campus or building that first year, however, so the first twenty-three students and four faculty met for their first classes in rooms rented on the second floor and in the basement in the fire hall. Classes continued there until 1889, when the school opened its new campus on the eastern edge of Houghton.
Yet the fire hall continued its intended municipal uses for many decades. In the early 1900s, additions to the building enlarged the bay openings to accommodate large fire engines and to provide more storage for winter hay and oats for the fire department's horse team. A larger addition added three more bays for additional equipment.
Finally, in 1974, the city constructed a new fire hall south of the city on Sharon Avenue. Part of the old building was sold for use as an auto supply store, but the historic 1883 building remained vacant. In 1978, Michigan Tech purchased the old fire hall from the city in the hope of preserving this piece of University history.
The fire engine bays and their large entry doors initially served as the scene shop for Michigan Tech's theater department. "The old fire hall was my home away from home," reports Kim Hartshorn '79. "It continued as our main work space until the opening of the Walker Arts and Humanities Center, several years after my graduation. I have so many great memories of the place."
Over the last thirty years, the building has served more mundane purposes, storing furniture and equipment collected for the University's surplus property sale. Old accounting and business records have also been secured in the building.
Pat Ross made frequent trips to the building in the 1990s as a staff member for the Michigan Tech property office. "I loved going to the fire hall," she recalls. "Call me a romantic, but I could almost feel the presence of those turn-of-the-century students. The building was dark, dirty, and just dripping with history."
During the spring semester of 2007, a group of Michigan Tech undergraduates undertook a project to determine the potential for rehabilitating the building. Students in civil engineering and social sciences came together to study the history of the structure, assess its structural stability, and brainstorm ideas for its possible reuse.
"Both Michigan Tech and the City of Houghton viewed the fire hall as a valuable part of their shared heritage," recalls Bill Leder '68, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering. "There was a desire to retain the building and incorporate it into the fabric of historic downtown Houghton as a cultural resource."
Leder and Bruce Seely, then a professor in the social sciences department, led the students through the research and design process. As a Senior Design project, the objective was to provide students with an opportunity to successfully complete a major, semester-long assignment integrating skills learned in both disciplines.
Andrew Stephens, a social sciences major at the time, remembers the project warmly. "Parts of the structure looked like they hadn't changed at all since 1883, and it was very easy to imagine a Michigan Mining School lecture in the second floor's main hall."
"The interior walls were all plastered," Stephens recalled, "with wainscoting that went up to about chest level. The framing of the interior walls was done without the use of sawn lumber—behind the plaster and lath, we could see rough-cut yellow-pine logs acting as studs."
The group's final report suggested a number of options to the University and city for the building's re-use. In addition to possible office space for the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation Smart-Zone or a showcase space for Enterprise and Senior Design projects, the large open spaces could also work as lounge space for off-campus students, the group concluded.
Index forward three years, and it turns out that the last option appears to have been the ticket for the building's rebirth. Although the University was unable to arrange funding for a rehab project, a group of local entrepreneurs have stepped in. Earlier this year, Michigan Tech sold the historic building to partners Jon Julien and brothers Adam and Thomas Yeoman.
"We had been talking for some time about starting a downtown venue that would be able to cater to a more diverse set of acts," said Julien. Aware of the Senior Design report, they saw an opportunity to use the building to connect the campus to the historic downtown district. "We think it will be neat to combine a kind of ‘off-campus union hall' with a nightclub theme for the evenings."
Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz agrees that it is an ideal collaboration. "When Jon, Adam, and Thomas came along with a plan to renovate the fire hall for the benefit of Michigan Tech students, it seemed like a practical way to restore the building and provide additional student gathering space in the downtown area."
Renovations are well under way, and the building should reopen before the start of classes. During the day, the building will offer quiet areas for study, while at night, new sound and lighting systems will create an intimate venue for performances. Refreshments will be available, with dry zones to cater to students of varying ages.
Leder is pleased to see his students' work inform the project, too. "Senior Design provides an ideal opportunity for student teams to undertake projects that provide a service to their University community," says Leder.
"Often we focus on topics that would be difficult or seemingly impossible to fund. Renovation and adaptive reuse of the Houghton Fire Hall is an excellent example. It's gratifying when concept development work becomes a first step leading to a project that actually gets built."
Or, when an important artifact of University history is rehabilitated for use by a new generation of Michigan Tech students.