Monday, November 03, 2003

Dixon firehouse proposed redevelopment

November 3, 2003

Rick Roach/The Reporter

Dixon city officials will have to decide if the cost of restoring the old firehouse is worth preserving the historic building constructed in 1929.

Dixon firehouse dilemma
Cost to renovate is cause for alarm

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Dixon's old firehouse - for sale or for rent?

The answer won't come easy for city officials, who face alarming costs connected with restoring 74 years of Dixon history woven by generations of firemen.

"There's a lot of history in all these walls," said Paul Siegel, a city building official, during a tour of the empty, cavernous building on North Jackson Street.

The Dixon Fire Department moved to a new station five years ago, leaving the 1929 building in the midst of the city's Redevelopment District, and permeated with asbestos, lead and structural deficiencies yet to be resolved.

The removal of asbestos and layer upon layer of lead-based paint - the biggest problem in the building - was finished last week, and materials were hauled to a Southern California hazardous waste site, Siegel said. The cost was about $90,000, he said.

The next steps would include demolishing part of the firehouse and building a "core" that would house an elevator, restrooms and mechanical systems essentially to prepare the structure for tenant improvements. The estimate for the work is $1.2 million, Siegel said.

"That's the big picture where we're headed - slowly," Siegel said. "Maybe we can keep its heritage but keep it functional. We're still in the ballpark of something reasonable."

One can only imagine the ballyhoo surrounding the 1929 completion of the fire station. It was built on the same site where the original firehouse stood in the days of horse-drawn apparatus, Siegel said.

Remnants of the next seven decades can be found around the firehouse. A rusted rooster is perched atop the original weather vane, looking westward. A circa 1940s icebox is built into an upstairs wall where firemen had barbecues.

In 1930, a Dixon firefighter named Ernie engraved his name and pressed his shield into the drying cement of a sidewalk alongside the building. So did Watsie Kilkenny, H.G. Jansen and others whose names today are barely distinguishable.

But the mood today is more somber as officials wrestle with the sentimental and financial dilemma of the firehouse, said Mayor Mary Ann Courville.

"We have to be very careful that we don't invest so much money in the building that we would never be able to recoup our costs, whether we keep it or sell it," Courville said.

The Dixon Redevelopment Agency's 2003-04 fiscal year budget has about $4.2 million. The rehabilitation of the old firehouse is among many projects planned through the year 2009.

City Manager Warren Salmons has called for a special meeting of the Dixon Redevelopment Agency Nov. 10, when the agency will try to set some funding priorities for at least the next couple years, including a focus on the firehouse.

"Does the agency want to target this building for investment of several hundred thousand dollars more to bring it to a point where it can be reused?" Salmons said.

A reuse study commissioned in 1999 by the Dixon City Council sitting as the Dixon Redevelopment Agency provided a cursory evaluation of design and reuse possibilities, which highlight offices and a restaurant. The agency recently looked at three drawings of floor plans and elevations of what the firehouse would look like with storefront entry doors, windows and awnings.

"Even if we sold the building, we'd still want a design for the new owner to follow," Siegel said.

The building is actually four buildings that firemen mended together through the years. They used the building to the very limit that was possible, Siegel said.

Scheduled to be saved is the original, 1929 three-bay building done by a craftsman of the era who used handbuilt trusses. That's what the city is truly interested in saving, Siegel said. And its structural integrity is sound, he said. Also to be saved is a 1968 addition of masonry block.

In 1969, a rear portion was added. Set to be demolished is a narrow section built in 1948 or 1949 by volunteers who used lumber from an old barn.

"They did stuff all through the years, adding things," Siegel said. "It's like Winchester Mystery House."

The finished project would bring the firehouse to 12,000 square feet, Siegel said. The most exciting part about the building is the view from an upstairs balcony. One can look out at the historical United Methodist Church, the multimodal station and a dirt lot where a park is planned.

"The connection here is going to be real nice," Siegel said.

But there's no simple answer, he added.

"It is a lot of money, so the community has to think about it, for sure," he said. "We're just starting, really. It's a matter of introducing it and letting the public join in."

In the meantime, the future of the old firehouse is "iffy" Siegel said.

"We're just slowly proceeding until we can find a solution or a goal."

Barbara Smith can be reached at

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