Sneak peek inside Sunderland’s Fire Station development ahead of its opening date

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After lying derelict for more than two decades, The Fire Station off High Street West is rising from the ashes to become a restaurant, dance and drama studios and heritage centre.

On my last visit inside the former station in summer 2014, we had to step over gaping holes in floors and staircases, avoid the areas of rot from decades of weathering and dodge skeletons of pigeons and rats, the building’s only occupants since it put out its last fire in 1992.

Ongoing work at Old Fire Station
Director Helen Green and site manager Stewart Barraclough

Ongoing work at Old Fire Station Director Helen Green and site manager Stewart Barraclough

But even then, it still retained its sense of history: the distinctive arches which would once frame the fire engines, the Edwardian tiling, the burning torch motifs to the exterior of the building, and even the names of firefighters on the pegs for their uniforms.

Fast forward three years and those nuggets of local history are the cornerstone of the building’s £3million transformation.

For the past year, around 40 builders a day from Keepmoat, working to a design by conservation architect Peter Nugent from Ainsworth Spark Associates, have been breathing new life into The Fire Station in time for its grand opening on November 23.

The build has not been without its challenges, as site manager James McCourt explained on a tour of the building work.

Ongoing work at The Fire Station

Ongoing work at The Fire Station

“It’s been one of the most challenging building jobs I’ve worked on,” he explained. “In terms of the engineering aspect, retaining the facade of the old building with the level of demolition that’s gone on inside has been very challenging and has caused some delays. But it’s been delays for the right reason.”

He added: “Another interesting aspect is that we know this area was bombed heavily during WWII so we had to have a UXO survey (unexploded ordinance survey) completed by specialists as we had to take hidden ordinance into consideration, which again is quite unusual. Fortunately, they didn’t find anything.”

Owners Mac Trust’s burning ambition for The Fire Station is for it to be the focal point for the emerging cultural quarter in this corner of the city. Earlier phases of the quarter have seen the acquisition of the neighbouring Dun Cow pub and former Londonderry, now The Peacock, which have been painstakingly restored.

And, once The Fire Station is up and running, work will soon begin on the creation of a new £8.2m auditorium for music, dance and drama on land, currently used as a carpark, adjacent to the station. Arts Council England has awarded £6million towards the cost of the work, which will begin later this year and be finished in 2019.

The room which will be a multi-purpose performance art space

The room which will be a multi-purpose performance art space

The Fire Station’s director Helen Green said the quarter is all starting to take shape.

She said: “It changes every day I come in and once the work begins on the auditorium, we’ll have a cohesive view of the venue as a whole. Performance artists will be able to practice in the studios here and then people can see those productions in the mid-scale auditorium next door.”

Speaking about the history of The Fire Station, which was built in 1907, she said: “This is partly a Heritage Lottery-funded project and it was very important for us to retain as much history as possible. It was built around the same time as The Peacock and The Dun Cow. It’s not quite as beautiful as those buildings, as it was a functional, utilitarian building, but it’s still a very interesting space. We’ve visited other former fire stations in the UK and, one in Quebec, that have been turned into performance arts centres. They seem to lend themselves to it because of the open space.”

She added: “It’s a building that holds a lot of memories for a lot of people. We’ve been holding site tours and a lot of those have been attended by former firefighters who once worked here. One gentleman said his 97-year-old mum was one of the first female firefighters to have ever worked here, so we’re really interested in talking to her.

Ongoing work at Old Fire Station
Director Helen Green

Ongoing work at Old Fire Station Director Helen Green

“They’ve also told us their memories of the station, such as leaning out of the upstairs windows and whistling at girls walking past.”

Although some historical elements of The Fire Station could be saved, others such as the brass pole were long gone years ago. Instead, the restaurant and bar on the ground floor, which once housed the engines, will feature the pole from Fulwell Fire Station which closed when the new community station in Marley Pots was built.

It will be a focal point of the new bar, which will be operated by Pub Culture Ltd who run the Dun Cow and The Peacock, with plans also in place for a micro-brewery.

Upstairs, the former mess room is well on the way to becoming a dance studio for Dance City, complete with sprung floor, which will host children’s and adult’s classes.

Opposite, to the rear of the first floor, there will be a smaller space for small-scale performance art and spoken word projects, which can also be used as a rehearsal space.

Upstairs again, on the second floor, there will be a heritage centre which will house exhibitions. The first, fittingly, will focus on the history of the fire service in the city, featuring artefacts such as an old scorched helmet and images from the bombing of Binns department store in 1941, to keep the embers of history burning brightly.

The ground floor will be a restaurant and bar

The ground floor will be a restaurant and bar

Names of former Firefighters still on the walls of the station

Names of former Firefighters still on the walls of the station

Ongoing work at Old Fire Station

Ongoing work at Old Fire Station

The first floor Dance City studios

The first floor Dance City studios

The room on the second floor which will house the heritage centre

The room on the second floor which will house the heritage centre