Plans to restore and reuse a gorgeous old fire station on Skid Row have been in the works for more than two decades. Finally, city engineering staffers are reporting that work could begin as soon as early next year.
In February, rehabilitation on Fire Station No. 23 is set to begin, setting the stage for the landmark’s transformation into an art center, project manager Neil Drucker told the city’s cultural heritage commission on Thursday.
Asbestos and lead paint will be stripped from the building, located between Winston and Fifth streets, just east of Los Angeles Street, then the build-out, helmed by design team Brooks+Scarpa, will get underway.
Once complete, the arts center will be operated by the city’s cultural affairs department and offer visual and performing arts classes to children ages three to 17.
Fire Station No. 23 opened in 1910, when fire engines were essentially water trucks pulled by horses. It cost more than $50,000 to build—a great expense that was no doubt because of its luxurious features.
On the ground floor, the building is bedecked with imported Italian tiles and pressed tin ceiling tiles. A captain’s quarters is finished with mahogany woodwork, a marble fireplace, and wood-frame windows.
Many of those opulent elements will be incorporated into the arts center.
A new addition would be a “gateway” structure on the ground floor. The gate would be covered in glass tiles that have a pixelated picture of firefighters in front of the station at the turn of the century.
The reuse of the fire station for a children’s art center has faced opposition from some members of the Skid Row community.
General Jeff Page, a Skid Row activist who chairs the Skid Row Neighborhood Council Formation Committee, charging that there are few children in Skid Row who would benefit from the project.
He also says he worries it would be aimed at children across Downtown, which has grown much wealthier in the two decades since the project was first proposed.
“If this is for other kids, that’s not what Proposition K was about. It was for underserved kids,” General Jeff said, referencing the city proposition that is helping fund the restoration project and other projects for children in LA.
He wants to see the center be open to Skid Row adults, as well.
But Drucker says that while the arts center is intended to serve Skid Row, it was approved as a project for Downtown, “not just Skid Row.” The only way to change the project’s description and use now would be a citywide election.
While plans to restore the fire station for the art center are moving forward, the property is more or less in a shambles today. Decades of deferred maintenance and preservation have made it largely unsafe to enter.
“Each year this building has been subject to vandalism, rain damage, and other deterioration,” Drucker said.
The slow and steady decline began in 1960, when the fire company for which the station was built relocated to a new station at Seventh and San Julian streets. Fire Station No. 23 was named a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 1966, but plans for its future were unclear.
A 1979 Los Angeles Times article spoke about an effort to revive the station as a museum. The Times cited a fire department report that found though the building had been neglected (and regularly broken into) over the years, it was still in a “remarkable state of preservation” and would require little work to be restored.
But the years went by without any forward movement toward conversion. Ownership of the station was transferred to the fire department, then to the city.
Along the way, the station was used as a filming location for 1980s classics like Ghostbusters and Big Trouble in Little China. Much of the money from shoots around this time got tangled up in a complex scheme instead of going toward rehabilitation of the property.
Today, building conditions are such that the city recently turned away Netflix, which wanted to film in the station, because of concerns about the failing roof and asbestos and lead paint.
Drucker said on Thursday that he’s pushing the city’s consultants and project team to move the rehabilitation forward as quickly as possible.
“We know that each day that goes by, the likelihood of additional break-ins and other damage is very high,” he said.
Updated at 5:35 p.m. 11/26 with criticism from Skid Row’s General Jeff Page.