The stunning restoration of the Port Kells Fire Station
Surrey firefighters have spent the past two years working on an unusual project. In a grassroots effort of historic preservation and placemaking, they’ve given Port Kells #7 Fire Hall a new lease on life.
The building was constructed 1923 as an agricultural hall. After a few different leaseholders, the District of Surrey took it over for use as a firehall in 1947. The large main floor space, which had been so useful to the Farmers Institute, was used to house fire trucks for a volunteer fire fighting force. In the 1960s, an addition was designed to provide space to the larger trucks of the era.
In the year 2000, the Fire Hall was placed on the Surrey Heritage Register. In 2016, it was decommissioned. The building’s Heritage status preserved the site but didn’t provide it with a purpose. The Surrey Firefighters Union, Local 1271, was looking for a building to house their offices. As executive Saverio Lattanzio said, “the stars and moons aligned” to allow Fire Hall #7 to become a solution. Renovating the Hall would give the union a home and provide space to the larger community.
Surrey City Council approved the proposed heritage revitalization plans for the building. Off-duty firefighters stepped up to do the hard work necessary for the renovations. They contributed time, mechanical know-how, and muscle power: from structural work to refinishing and artistic projects. The strength built from wearing heavy fire gear was useful for the heavy work. Teams installed the heavy brushed-steel countertop at the bar and placed the I-beam supports through the main hall. The restoration crew also reached out to the community, who donated time and supplies to various projects around the hall.
In working together on the project, the firefighters of 1271 became historic preservationists. Ironically, they were sometimes frustrated in their wishes to showcase historical elements by the fire code. A wood wall they’d hoped to show had to be hidden behind drywall. Still, they maintained and protected the structure, and carefully curated historic elements throughout the building.
Station 1271 is also successful placemaking. It is already a vibrant and active center for Surrey firefighters. The space is also available for rental or charitable event use, an adjunct space to the community center next door. The creation of the space reflects the use: the union pulled together a wide swath of the community in order to create space.
The result is something they’re rightly proud of.
Reliance Foundry’s connection to the Surrey Fire Hall preservation project came through a connection to Kevin Zinger, a distinguished fire fighter with a long tenure at the Surrey fire department. He began his career with fire services in 1988. In the three years he was training, studying, and preparing for his dream job, he worked at Reliance.
While Brad was charging furnaces at the old foundry site, Zinger worked as a machine molder and then as a carpenter. Brian and Barry knew he wouldn’t be around forever, but he was a good employee during his stint. In preparation for his fire fighter application, he’d gotten good first aid training, which made him a valuable attendant on the floor. For his part, the work at Reliance kept him in shape, ready for the exams. The foundry floor also meant he wasn’t scared of heat.
“It was hotter work in the foundry,” Zinger recalled, “since the furnaces were always running.”
Of course, Zinger lost touch with Reliance over the years. Then, in 2015, he visited Surrey Fire Hall #9, which lies just to the east of Reliance’s Surrey warehouse. He was surprised to see the sign outside the building announcing his previous employer. Zinger decided to check it out. He climbed the fence between the two properties, figuring he’d see if any of the old crew were still around.
Many had moved on, but not all: Len remembered Zinger right away. They spent a little time, getting caught up and talking about mutual friends and memories. It was the serendipity of this meeting that brought Reliance to Zinger’s mind a few years later, when the Surrey Fire Hall preservation was underway.
Fire Hall #7 was on Surrey’s list of historical buildings in part for the façade. Extant agricultural halls are rare, and the long history as a fire station made the site even more important to the region. One requirement to the renovation was that the three original doors to the firehall must be kept. However, the design for the space meant these doors would be sealed. The firefighters needed something to prevent people from mistaking them for real doors, and to protect the building’s historical artifacts from smash-and-grab invasion. Reliance donated steel pipe for permanent bollards and R-7591 decorative bollards in ductile iron to help protect the site.
“When I first got in touch with Reliance I was thinking regular steel posts, so these were a nice upgrade. Having these bollards contributes to the overall historic look and feel of the building.”
A historic renovation
Like most major renovation projects, the historic preservation of the Port Kells fire hall ran over budget. Yet costs were kept in check by generous volunteerism. Time and supplies came from many members of the Surrey community, with the lion’s share of the work coming from the firefighters themselves. Zinger estimates that off-duty and retired firefighters did 95% of the work of construction. Zinger himself spent three hundred days volunteering on the project.
The result is a museum-quality space. Several historical fire trucks are kept on site. These can be moved should the space be needed in the hall. They are often out to be present at events or parades, providing a slice of the community’s history.
The hall also contains the chemical sprinklers and re-breathing systems of previous eras on display. The old fire-suppressant systems are made of attractive glass or brass and hang near the kitchen. They are curious artifacts that offer a steampunk aesthetic.
Pictures of the firehall through the years, and portraits of the area’s firefighters spread around the room. “We wanted the space to reflect the fire hall history, but not be overwhelming,” said Zinger. “It’s not just firefighters who will use the space.”
Creating authentic spaces—historic preservation and placemaking
It is important to everyone involved in Station 1271 that it’s not a museum, but part of a living community. Throughout the site, firefighters have gifted art and objects to make the hall inviting and interesting. Some are whimsical, some functional; all are sources of pride for those who contributed them.
The original brass firepole now has a polished wood table constructed around it, at a height for leaning against while talking with friends. The repurposing was done by threading a thick cross-section of a tree down over the pole. Tempered glass in the floor above makes it possible to see the full stretch of the firepole, spanning the two floors of the hall.
Over the back stairs hangs a Canadian flag made from a decommissioned firehose and couplings, created and donated by Jen Dale. Ms. Dale is an active firefighter who wanted to give something back to the squad—her second family. Another firefighter created a stool with a based shaped like a fire hydrant, made from cherry red PVC.
These unique artistic touches arose organically from the firefighters’ commitment to the project. These touches are the type often reflected as “creative placemaking” in strategic planning documents. Here, they add to the unique pride-of-place that defines Station 1271.
In the short time while we were there looking at the space, three firefighters, a mix of active and retired, stopped in—they were driving by, and saw the front gates open. Each had been involved in the redesign and construction.
“We’re just figuring out how we’re going to use the building,” Zinger said. “But it’s already a gathering place. Upstairs there’s space to watch a game together, have a beer. Retired firefighters can message each other and have a central place to meet, instead of going to their old fire halls where they might only know one or two people.”
The union office takes up a room in the building. In their new digs, the union has been able to offer the space to a larger network. A recently hosted pension seminar day saw union members coming from across the lower mainland. The building also already hosts a weekly first responders training session. The firefighters’ charity work also has a home base in the building. The dedication and enthusiasm harnessed to build the hall is evident in this work. One major outreach is buying and distributing food to Surrey schools, so that no child goes hungry at school.
The hall is next to the Port Kells community hall and in this way is already booking up as an event space. People can rent a little bit of history, while hosting weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations. Permanent dedicated park space at the back of the hall gives the space a pastoral setting, feeling like a little retreat from the everyday.
In urban planning and sustainability, historic preservation and placemaking are not often explicitly related. Placemaking honors current cultural spaces. Historic preservation protects what is traditional. At Port Kells Fire Hall #7, a group of committed firefighters have managed to pull together an inspiring example of both, by honoring history while building a hub for the future.