In a city where, as the joke goes, any waiter may also be an actor, there’s no reason a venerable fire station can’t become a restaurant.
And in a city that swings the wrecking ball into its own past with gleeful regularity, maybe that’s the only way an obsolete firehouse can survive.
Before Engine Co. No. 28 became a place with fires inside -- in the broiler and the popular Cajun-style crab cakes -- it was the workday home of firefighters.
The Renaissance Revival building -- with twin archways, green Italian tiles and ornamental terra-cotta cartouches depicting a firefighter’s helmet and tools of the trade -- was practically on the outskirts of Los Angeles in 1912, when it was built in the middle of a neighborhood of stately Victorian homes and boardinghouses. Today, it’s surrounded by high-rises and is a national historic landmark.
As downtown developed in the 1920s, the 7th Street electric trolley shuttled firefighters to and from work as it took local residents to department stores such as the Broadway, Bullock’s, Robinson’s and the May Co. -- where comedian Jack Benny met his future wife, Mary, over the men’s hosiery counter.
Engine Co. No. 28 opened July 15, 1913, when Dalmatians routinely rode shotgun on fire engines. At $60,000, it was the city’s most expensive fire station. The original horse stalls -- which were never used -- were soon remodeled into a handball court.
Los Angeles’ newly elected mayor, Henry R. Rose, and its fire chief, Archy Eley, helped to christen the station. Its two motor-driven firetrucks -- a pumping engine and a chemical-and-hose wagon -- were the envy of firefighters at older stations, which still used horse-drawn equipment.
A dozen firefighters, including Eley and his family, moved in and waited for action. Their first call came 10 days later: a fire on West 11th Street, where the Harbor Freeway now crosses. It took 20 minutes to extinguish the blaze. No one was hurt.
They weren’t all so easy. On Sept. 17, 1913, a 350-gallon gasoline tanker truck exploded outside the station, at 7th and Figueroa streets. A dozen firefighters slid down the firehouse’s three brass poles to battle the blaze.
Before they could finish cleaning up that mess, fires broke out at two other downtown addresses. No. 28’s crew was summoned to join hundreds more firefighters and volunteers. By the end of the day, 19 buildings had been gutted or destroyed, and 22 people had been injured. One of the gutted structures was the three-story Leonide Hotel at 5th and Main streets, where faulty wiring had sparked one of the blazes.
The fires strained the city’s water supply, requiring 75 million gallons to extinguish. This was just seven weeks before the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened; those 75 million gallons constituted twice as much as the city used in a typical day.
The Fire Department called it the “busiest day in the history of the department.”
But when they weren’t battling conflagrations, most firefighters thought they had the coolest job in town, especially when they tested the hydrants at 7th and Broadway. Every Sunday morning, they opened the valves and let the water flow.
In the alley behind the station -- called Lebanon Street -- bored firefighters played stickball with rats, some as large as small cats.
“The men painted black semicircles on the curbs, then poured water down the drainpipes, surprising the rats that took up residence there, flushing them out. As they ran for the semicircles seeking escape, firefighters waited with sticks and brooms, killing them,” recalled Steve Manning, an attorney and son of former Fire Chief Donald O. Manning.
Other testosterone infusions involved painting the stairwell banister more often than needed and “forgetting” to put up “Wet Paint” signs -- thus catching buddies off guard. And firefighters competed to see who could slide down the brass fire pole the fastest, betting on the outcome. Winnings were paid in ice cream.
The station had one top “graduate”: Donald Manning, who began his 40-year career as a rookie at Engine Co. No. 28. He retired as fire chief in 1995.
“Over the years, the station’s top third floor, [which was] built specifically for the fire chief and his family ... was used for the Relief Assn. and the credit union,” Donald Manning recalled in an interview.
The station was a hub of social activity, with firefighters across the city paying visits. “Firetrucks stopped by on a regular basis,” the elder Manning said. “The men took pride in showing it off to rookies.
“In the basement, the Fire Department band practiced while firefighters practiced marksmanship on a makeshift shooting range prior to the opening of hunting season.”
On July 16, 1966, No. 28’s firefighters rushed across the street to the Statler Hilton Hotel (now the Wilshire Grand Hotel and Centre). Police Chief William H. Parker had collapsed just after receiving an award and a standing ovation from 1,000 Marine Corps veterans. Firefighters administered CPR, but Parker died of a heart attack.
On Dec. 10, 1967, No. 28’s crew hurried two blocks to the landmark Richfield Building, where black terra-cotta walls and vertical gold stripes rose to a steel tower symbolizing the “black gold” of the oil industry.
There, where the letters R-I-C-H-F-I-E-L-D appeared in lights, an electrical fire had broken out.
“The blaze could be seen across the city,” Donald Manning said.
No one was hurt and the tower was saved, but the building was torn down a few years later.
For most Angelenos, the sight of fire engines peeling out of the station’s dual doorways was thrilling, unless it was their house that was burning.
But for the guests at the Statler, it was another matter. Beginning in 1950, hotel guests began complaining about the fire bells and sirens clanging and keening at all hours. By 1969, Engine Co. No. 28’s crew had answered its final call. The credit union and Relief Assn. remained until 1971, when the building was padlocked.
As new high-rises went up around it, the firehouse deteriorated. The city put it on the auction block twice; there were no takers. Finally, in 1983, a preservation partnership took it off the city’s hands for $850,000 and began to recycle it into a chic eatery.
After a five-year battle, nearly $6 million, 53 zoning code variances and countless bouts with bureaucrats, Engine Co. No. 28 opened as a restaurant. It includes 18-foot-high pressed-tin ceilings, red brick floors, ceramic Dalmatians, clubby mahogany booths and one nonfunctioning brass pole -- which no one is allowed to use.
“At our dedication ceremony in January 1989, we invited 180 old-time firefighters who had worked at Engine Co. No. 28,” said civic leader Linda Griego, a partner in the restaurant. “It was a great time. They ... crowded together to share old stories, recipes and a meal.”
But there are two Engine Co. No. 28s now, which can be confusing. Some customers say that when they call information for the restaurant’s phone number, the operator asks if it’s an emergency for Fire Station 28, which is in the Porter Ranch area of the San Fernando Valley.
“When the fire station was retired,” Griego said, “they didn’t retire the number.”