A look back at San Rafael's 100-year-old firehouse before demolition

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- One look at the old brick building on the corner of 5th and C Streets in San Rafael, and you know its function.

There are two big doors, a bell, a flag pole.

They practically scream, "Fire Station!" They have done so for 100 years.

"It's weird seeing it empty. Kind of eerie," said Battalion Chief Jeff Rowan. He first lived and worked out of Station 51 in 1984, back when he joined the department. "This is a special place for all of us."

PHOTOS: San Rafael's 100-year-old firehouse
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San Rafael's 100-year-old firehouse is set to be demolished. Take a look back at its history with these pictures.

Time has slowly worn down the edifice. When cracks appeared after the Napa Valley earthquake in 2014, they sealed Station 51's fate. The building is now just a hollow echo of itself, with cobwebs filling in the gaps. This, its 100th year, will be Station 51's last before it falls to a wrecking ball.

"I think it's important to preserve history," said Fire Chief Christopher Gray. "It is not that much work or expense to pay homage to the past as we go forward."

When Station 51 opened in 1917, horses, not engines, delivered men and equipment to fires. Much has changed, since then, though the nature of firefighters has not.

"A hundred years from now people may not know what a fire station looked like," said Laura Ackley, an architectural historian the department hired to help them decide what to integrate into the new Public Safety Center, which will also serve as home for San Rafael's Police Department. Laura gets more than a little wonky when appreciating the old building. "It's a excellent example of vernacular architecture of a classic American fire station from the 20th century."

There is the bell which used to call volunteers, who may have been drinking in nearby watering holes.

There is the flagpole, repurposed from the mast of a large schooner.

The department will also save wrought iron railing which spells out SRFD.

Inside, they will keep the solid brass fire pole, complete with an eagle on top.

"Men could get to the bottom in two seconds," Rowan told us.

"And you?" I asked.

"In later years, I took the spiral staircase," he said.

They'll be keeping that, as well.

When a building spends 100 years in service, you can find details of its history almost anywhere. I was struck by written words. They're all over a glass window in the machine shop, where a mechanic scribbled notes when he didn't have a piece of paper.

We found more words in lockers, upstairs. Fire fighters used pencils to sign their names and commemorate years of service, memorable events, and in one case, December 7, 1941. The markings look as fresh as yesterday. "The Bone was here," proclaims one such autograph dated August 3, 1974.

Clearly, San Rafael's Station 51 represents more than a sum of parts. It's people, their artifacts, and a bridge linking the past, the present, and future.
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