Monday, August 12, 2013

Fire Station Chic

    We are accustomed to seeing Modern architecture in places like down towns, college campus, or maybe even beside old major highways, but sometimes we find them in places that we least expect it. This is the case with this week's building. It is North Little Rock Fire Station No. 6. It sits at the intersection of Camp Robinson Road and Schaer Street in Levy, a small section of North Little Rock. Levy has never been a well-to-do area of North Little Rock. At its founding in 1892, Levy served mainly at a resting point for merchants going to Little Rock because they did not charge the high "over-night" fee that many Little Rock purveyors did. Levy was eventually annexed to North Little Rock in 1946. Levy had always been a blue collar area but when the construction of Interstate 40 cut it off from a great deal of North Little Rock, it took a turn for the worse. Levy is now an area of high crime and low employment. Things are starting to improve there but they are still not great. It is in this setting, in the shadow of the Interstate 40 overpass that we find this Modern beauty.
     The 1960's saw a great deal of building in North Little Rock. The established neighborhoods of Lakewood and Sherwood were significantly expanded and populations were steadily rising. It was during this time that many public service buildings were constructed. Fire Station No. 6 was among them. Fire Station No. 6 was designed by local architect Raymond Branton in 1964. Branton is also the architect for the former Sylvan Hills Country Clubhouse, now called the Greens at North Hills. While Branton's design for the fire station is not the high Mies-ian or Corbusier-ian Modern that we have been looking at, it is still unquestionably Modern and shows a great deal of innovation.
Structural Framework

     First lets look at the classically Modern elements of the design. Most notably we have the white concrete structure-work that frames the building. This idea of having the structure of the building exposed and apparent was one of the base principles of Modernism. We also have the flat roof of the Modern movement on this building as well as a complete lack of any unnecessary ornamentation. The entire composition of the exterior is all geometric massing, exposed structure, and floating planes. An interesting element here that we have seen in other Modern buildings, such as the Lee House No. 2 in New Canaan, CT, is the material massings. The center of the building is all glass on both front and back, almost like a glass box that was slid in between two masonry boxes. This creates a striking contrast between the middle and sides. The sides only have glass on the upper half of the eastern and western ends. This type of material massing is very similarly in the Lee House No. 2. It serves to separate the public from the private spaces, in this case the truck and equipment areas from the living quarters and offices.

Lee House No. 2 by John Black Lee in New Canaan, CT (1956)
     Now lets discuss the innovations and unique aspects of this building. First lets look at the material between the structural framework. We see that the infill between the framework columns and beams is concrete block. Now this may look like these concrete block walls are structural, but they are not. We know this because the joints between the blocks line up from top to bottom. This creates a lot of weakness in the walls, and should they have actually been supporting the structure, there would be significant cracking and breaking. The likely justification for the concrete blocks is for fire safety. It only makes sense to make a fire station fire proof. Another interesting and slightly innovative element to the fire station is the doors for the central bay. They are glass garage doors. These had only been used in one other building prior to this in the state. Dietrich Neyland used them in his design for the Arkansas Arts Center's first addition to provide lots of light and easy ventilation for the studio spaces. Branton is probably using them more for their stylish qualities rather than functional  here, but they complete the composition, so they are just as valid, and only marginally less innovative.
Glass Bay Door 
     The lesson that we should take away from Fire Station No. 6 is that Modern buildings can be anywhere and everywhere. They were functional as all types of buildings and where built in all sorts of areas. While the light of Levy's glory may be very dim, this Modern masterpiece shines bright all on its own.

For more information on the Lee House No.2, please refer to the following link:

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