Every day Jim Morphesis drove past Engine Co. 17. Every day he had the same thought: "I wish I had a space in that firehouse." Five years of wishful thinking had passed and he was about to be forced out of his loft-ready-to-turn-condo when he spied a "For Rent" sign flapping against the brick façade. "I'm an artist; you have just got to rent me this space," he told the owner.
Today, Morphesis calls the upstairs firefighters' dormitory home. The firehouse on South Santa Fe Avenue was built in 1927 as a replacement for its 1905 namesake on East Seventh Street, demolished to make way for a bridge over the Los Angeles River. By the time Morphesis moved into the stately building, the second floor had been converted into two loft-like apartments, and the first floor into commercial space. The decorative tin ceiling was gone, as were the brass poles the firefighters used to slide down to the fire engines, with patches in the worn wood floor near the kitchen and front door marking where the poles once stood.
Morphesis began putting his imprint on the structure by removing the long wall that bisected his apartment and adding four walls to create a studio/gallery. He kept the original north-facing windows--ideal for a painter, he says--but covered the southern windows to gain more wall space.
The one extravagance in the otherwise minimal dwelling is the spacious firemen's bathroom, which sports two showers and a claw-and-ball-foot tub. "It's bigger than some New York apartments," says the artist, who loves the original white octagonal tile floor.
He admits to a near-obsessive desire to inhabit older buildings with character such as L.A.'s Desmond's department store, his former atelier. "I know it sounds corny," Morphesis says, "but there are life-and-death issues that have been dealt with within these old brick walls. . . . It's palpable. I like putting my mark on an old space and becoming part of its history."