Sage and Coombe
FDNY Marine Company 9
392 Front Street
Staten Island, New York
The City of New York Fire Department’s glossy Marine Company 9 firehouse sits at the base of a concrete pier jutting from the northeastern side of Staten Island into the murky waves of New York Harbor. When Sage and Coombe Architects designed the new structure, they didn’t envision its door opening onto a foot and a half of water, the firefighters cut off from dry land and in danger of being pummeled by the 500-ton, state-of-the-art fireboat moored near the building’s side. But in the early hours of October 30, mere months after its opening, Hurricane Sandy threatened to transform the company’s greatest asset into a treacherous liability.
In the post-9/11 era, it made sense to build a $24-million firehouse on an exposed concrete pier. When lower Manhattan’s water system was knocked out by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, fireboats were the only means of pumping water to fight the flames. At that time, Marine Company 9 was housed in a former animal shelter shed so far from its fireboat that firefighters had to ride bikes down to the pier, making their response time frustratingly slow. “It was an important part of meeting the standards of modern security and firefighting to be able to be right next to the boat,” says architect Jennifer Sage, visiting the firehouse several weeks after Hurricane Sandy. “For us the boat was key.”
In photographs, the firehouse can look awkward: a bright red rectangle sitting atop a smaller white one, with the front wall dominated by a red garage door. But seeing the building in context, perched beside its fireboat on Staten Island’s Homeport Pier, one understands that the building and boat are partners in a playfully executed duet.
One of the country’s most technologically advanced fireboats, the $27-million Fire Fighter II is roughly as large as the firehouse it serves. The color schemes of the boat and building are inverted so that the red hull and white cabin of the Fire Fighter II are contrasted with the firehouse’s white ground floor and bright red top floor.
The visual chaos of the boat’s accoutrements—water cannons, hoses, railings, and antennae—is answered by the orthogonal simplicity of the firehouse’s aluminum panels, windows, and concrete block. The building’s interior is a cleanly ordered space, designed as an antidote to the stress and fast-paced nature of work on the water. If the fireboat is a space of action, then the firehouse is a place for firefighters to unwind. A lobby accessed from the pier leads into a common area and a large kitchen outfitted with commercial-grade appliances. Sage points out that the firehouse is, after all, a home. “The reality is that the use is fairly residential,” she says. “The crew has to live here for half a week when they’re on duty and they really take control of this space. We even made an area out back so they could barbeque.”
The second floor houses private spaces—a gym, Captain’s quarters, a dormitory—but is perhaps more notable for its exquisite views. A north-facing picture window on the landing looks over the watery expanse of the bay and the glittering peaks of the city beyond. Opposite, a floor-to-ceiling window provides a full view of the fireboat and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Along with the green roof, the windows also make Marine 9 a model for sustainable fire department facilities, providing passive heating, ventilation, and daylight.
Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy, Sage could see few remnants of the harrowing storm—either in the firehouse or in the view from its windows. She was surprised to learn just how high the boat had risen during the storm surge: the main deck, which is normally at the height of the pier, was level with the firehouse’s second floor. Marine 9 lieutenant Joe DiLorenzo feared that the boat might be pushed onto the pier itself. Strong winds were already tilting the cabin perilously close to the building and the waters continued to rise.
That night, the carefully constructed relationship between boat and building came harrowingly close to ruin. But as Sandy raged, the firefighters of Marine 9 did what they do best. The hurricane was too strong to take the boat into the harbor for safety, so the crew maneuvered its bow onto a nearby piling, a massive wooden column protruding out of the water. The column served as a fulcrum on which they could use the motor to pivot the boat’s stern away from the building.
“We did that for about an hour till the water started to recede, and then we brought it back,” DiLorenzo says. Did he notice the dark Manhattan skyline? “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t looking at anything. I was more concerned about the fireboat than anything else. And it crashing into the firehouse.”