Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hot property: A former firehouse in Jersey City

by Jennifer Weiss/The Star-Ledger
Wednesday February 20, 2008, 3:16 PM

Freeman furnished this room on the home's first floor with a sofa and chair she picked up at a local Salvation Army. At her Sweet 16 bash in December, a mammoth room on Jayne Freeman's first floor was transformed into a dance hall. Two local DJs provided the beats. A disco ball, rigged up to a ceiling fan, tossed lights onto stone floors, white tin walls and the revelers in between.

The party spilled into an adjoining room, the garage where Freeman normally keeps her orange Honda. More than a century ago, when the building was a firehouse, this is where they kept the horse-drawn steam engine.

It was unusual for Freeman to host a big party in the firehouse (that's what she calls her place: the firehouse). Normally, she has people over in smaller numbers. One night, she'll have friends and their children over for dinner; the next, she'll host a play date for her daughters, who are 5 and 7.

Freeman wasn't turning 16, by the way. The theme was just for fun. The party was a chance for her to celebrate her birthday and share the firehouse, her home of almost two years, with friends and people from her neighborhood in Jersey City. If it's possible to fall for a building, Freeman has.

"It's the energy of this place that I love," Freeman says. "I love its history, its aesthetic, its location. It's just truly beautiful. Sometimes, I feel like I'm living in Versailles."
Freeman, a single mom, is the host of "Mamarama," a public-access TV show on parenting. She has been living in the firehouse as a caretaker; Andrea and Russell Read of Brooks, Maine, are its owners.

Freeman in the doorway of the firehouse.The Reads lived in the firehouse for nearly a decade, moving in with their two children in 1997. A third child, Jack, was born later.

The firehouse already had been converted to a home by the time the Reads looked at it. After their first tour, "We just knew that at least we had to try to get it," Andrea says. She and her husband had made an offer on a brownstone in town, but changed their minds and bought the firehouse, paying about $320,000.

The alcove she and her daughters use as a reading nook."When we actually got it, I remember thinking for several weeks that I was just dreaming, that I didn't actually get to live in a place like that, because I'd never lived in a place that was so unusual," says Andrea, who grew up on a farm in Iberia, a tiny village in Ohio. "It was great for us."

The building comes with lovely historic details, including antique sconces, bedroom doors that say "Office of the Battalion Chief" and "Captain" and an original cast-iron spiral staircase that links the first and second floors (no fire pole, though -- that was taken out before the Reads moved in). Ira Rubin, archivist for the Jersey City Fire Department, says local historic firehouses have spiral staircases because they take up less space than vertical staircases and couldn't be accessed by horses. In the years in which the department relied on them, horses were boarded in a space at the back of the house.

The Freeman's eat-in kitchen.Rubin estimates that the Reads' firehouse was built within two years of 1855. Back then, it was the home of Jackson Engine Company 5; it became the quarters of Engine Company 3 in 1871, after the fire department reorganized. Engine Company 3 closed in 1961. The building became a residence in 1981, according to the Jersey City Tax Assessor's Office.

When they moved in, the Reads put in a new kitchen and redid the children's bedrooms. There were no closets in the master bedroom, so they added a row of new closets from Ikea.
Andrea says it took a while to figure out how to arrange furniture in a way that made sense -- the house has only three rooms with doors, not counting the bathrooms. The rest of it is wide open. She and her husband added a Steinway grand piano and a kitchen island to the large, open space on the second floor, which helped to define a living room and kitchen. They used storage pieces to make up for a lack of closets.

Freeman stands outside on the terrace that connects to the master bedroom. The glass structure is a skylight.The firehouse's open layout encouraged the Reads to entertain. "It always felt like a really big community sort of place, so it ended up functioning that way," Andrea says. "There were a lot of big, impromptu social gatherings with our friends and family. It kind of lends itself to that."

When the Reads moved out, they put the house on the market for $2 million, according to Andrea, and eventually lowered the asking price to $1.8 million. The offers that came in seemed low, Andrea says. So, they decided to hold onto the firehouse.

One of the home's bathrooms.Enter Freeman, who met Russell at the Garden Preschool Cooperative, their children's school. Both served on the board. Freeman was looking for a new place to live, and the Reads agreed she could stay in the firehouse and look after it for them.
When they moved their furniture out, Freeman made some changes that suited her decorating style. She added a thrift store couch and chair on the first floor and bought a new bed. She brought in a secondhand kitchen table and chairs, a set she now feels looks too "modern" for the space.

On the whole, Freeman resisted filling the firehouse with stuff. "I was kind of devastated when (Andrea) moved her stuff out," she admits. "Then I embraced the zen emptiness of the space."
JERRY MCCREA/THE STAR-LEDGERAmong Freeman's favorite parts of the firehouse are the second-floor alcove (a good place to play, read and take naps), the large, TV-free living room on the second floor (a good place to hula hoop, do gymnastics and dance) and the terrace (in the summer, a good place to barbecue and enjoy the "explosion of petunias" she plants.)

She says the framework of the place is so tied to its history "that it sort of permeates everything, in a way. I never forget that this place was a firehouse originally."

The Reads, whose new home is a 250-acre farm in Maine, are the founders of Newforest Institute, a nonprofit that works to foster relationships between people and the land on which they live. Andrea, the organization's executive director, hopes to open a branch of Newforest in Jersey City and have the firehouse serve as both its office and a community gathering space.

The master bedroom.Freeman knows she'll have to move out of the firehouse at some point, and that makes life there bittersweet. She's not sure how her next home will compare.

"Where will I go from here?" Freeman says. "How will I ever top this?"