Retired firefighter rekindles old station's history at new restaurant
Former Fire Station No. 1 renovated into fire-fighter themed establishment
There are a lot of memories housed at 8131 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. Some are touching, some are harrowing, some haven't left the building's walls.
But in talking to the firefighters who have been stationed at Silver Spring Fire Station No. 1 in the 91 years it stood until its closing in 2006, the common theme of camaraderie and brotherhood shines through.
"The best years of my career were there, and a lot of guys will say that," said retired Lt. Ed Hall, 51, who worked at Fire Station No. 1 for six of his 31 years as a firefighter.
In 2006, when the building was vacated and the property owner, the Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department, looked to sell the land, the physical remnants of Hall's best years were in jeopardy.
"We were very worried it would be sold and torn down," Hall said.
But of the more than 100 bidders for the property, the winning bid ensured that as much of Fire Station No. 1 would be preserved as possible, even if fire hoses would be replaced by beer taps and alarms replaced by live music. And this week the newest incarnation of 8131 Georgia Ave. will open, as Fire Station One Restaurant and Brewing Co., a firefighter-themed bar and restaurant that preserved most of the old fire-station building and the memories held within.
"This is a place where [Washington], D.C.-area firefighters can call home," said retired Capt. Jeremy Gruber, 45, who worked on-and-off for 20 years out of Fire Station No. 1 in Silver Spring and became owner of the building after his $2.5 million winning bid in 2006. "We want this place to be the community's place and carry on the tradition of giving."
Last week, Gruber hosted about 100 retired Montgomery County firefighters who affectionately refer to themselves as The Proud Old Timers for an event celebrating the opening of his restaurant. Because of an early-week downpour, parts of the restaurant's roof and interior was not yet completed so the Thursday event was moved across the street to the sleek new Montgomery County Government Fire Station 1 at 8110 Georgia Ave.
The Proud Old Timers, who flew in from as far as Houston for the event, started eight years ago when retired Lt. Jim LaMay started an e-mail chain with a few other firefighters he had worked with at the Silver Spring station. The list expanded, in large part to the tight-knit nature of the firefighter community, and now includes about 360 members who hold events a few times per year.
"You leave the fire service, it doesn't leave you," said LaMay, 65, who started his career in 1967 at Fire Station No. 1, moved to Fire Station No. 19 on Seminary Road in Silver Spring 25 years later and retired in 2000. "... You eat, you sleep and you spend time together. You become dependent on each other."
LaMay hopes Gruber's restaurant will become a hang-out for both current and retired firefighters. Gruber said he will hold free emergency-services training at the restaurant and fundraisers and happy hours for firefighters, beginning in early June with a fundraiser for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The restaurant will feature a hostess stand and pizza oven designed as a fire truck and an outdoor patio on Georgia Avenue where responding fire trucks used to exit the station.
The bar will serve beer from Silver Spring-based Hook and Ladder Brewing Company, which was founded by brothers Matt and Rich Fleischer, the latter of whom was a volunteer firefighter in Bethesda. The Fleischers were originally co-owners with Gruber but six months ago dropped out of Fire Station One because "the economics didn't make sense," Rich Fleischer said in a phone interview Monday.
Gruber hopes some of the firefighter-related features will attract a general public that is anxious for more attractions in south Silver Spring, but for the Proud Old Timers, it's the history of the building that will draw them.
The station was originally built in 1915 by the state as an armory for the National Guard. The Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department was also formed at about the same time and out of necessity, after a house on Silver Spring Avenue burned in the fall of 1914 and the Silver Spring Post Office burned on May 5, 1915. The first automobile fire truck with solid rubber tires was purchased in 1919. Prior to that, a horse pulled a water tank.
At the Old-Timers event, former firefighters at the station traded tales of bravery and argued over the biggest fires the station has seen. There was the three-alarm fire in 1974 when the Silver Restaurant burned down; or the train derailment on Lyttonsville Road in 1996; or the three-alarm fire at Georgian Towers in 1979.
Hall remembers the fire at the World Building, adjacent to the old Fire Station No. 1 building, in the early 1990s. The fire was so close to the station that a firefighter saw smoke coming out of the building when he arrived for a shift and ran inside to report it. Hall estimated the fire reached upwards of 800 or 900 degrees and required more than 150 firefighters to put out.
"You've been through so much stuff together," Hall said. "It's the world's greatest job."
Fire Station One will hold its soft opening to the general public this week with a grand opening to follow June 6. The restaurant is located at 8131 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring.