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NEWBURYPORT | Created in 1991 with the hope of luring tourists to the downtown and of creating a haven for the city's vast art community, the Firehouse Center for the Arts today lures thousands | from around the corner or as far away as the other side of the world| to its 195-seat theater.
From its origin as a market house built in the aftermath of the great fire of 1811 to its role as the city's central fire station for more than a century, the building remains a center of activity for the city.
But the fate of the building, revered for its architecture and prime spot on the waterfront, wasn't so clear on June 14, 1979. On that day, the fire department moved from the central station into its new location at Greenleaf and Fulton streets, leaving the historic building vacant and the city with a big decision.
Some powerful people in town, including the mayor, advocated making it part of a hotel. But others, including a passionate group of residents, felt it should be used for the community.
"We wanted to see development of the Firehouse," said Chris Welch, a member of the committee that worked to keep it open to the community. "We just didn't want it to be private commercial development."
To make it happen, residents had to sway the leaders of city government.
Courting a hotel
Hoping to find a new purpose for the historical gem when the fire department moved out, City Council formed a committee to study alternative uses for the old building. The group met eight times over the course of a month.
In its final report, the panel issued a number of suggestions: use the ground floor as a way to attract customers, add to the existing commercial base downtown, make use of the unique characteristics of the building and be open on a year-round schedule rather than seasonal. The upper floors could be used a restaurant or offices.
The council's subcommittee noted that the firehouse is "a keystone" for the successful completion of the revitalized downtown.
But Mayor Dick Sullivan had different ideas.
Sullivan hoped to lease the building to a developer so it could still own, control and collect rent and taxes on the building, but the costs of renovation would be paid by the developer. The project would complete the development of the waterfront, ensure more than 300 jobs, provide rent and taxes and include a public park, Sullivan said in a statement in August 1983.
The City Council backed the mayor's plan and agreed to lease the old central fire station to David Borden and Robert Kenney, who were hoping to build a waterfront hotel.
Angered by the decision, a small group of local officials and citizens formed what they called the Firehouse Committee with the goal of making sure that didn't happen.
The citizens wanted the right to answer the question of what should happen to the firehouse themselves. While the council and mayor believed it was within the power of Sullivan to sign the lease, the Firehouse Committee disagreed and said the public should get a say. They wanted the council to put the question before voters as a referendum in the 1983 city election, which would give the public the right to say what should happen to the firehouse. The choices in the referendum were to lease the building to a developer for the waterfront plan or to turn the firehouse into a community/cultural center.
Administration officials tried to keep the question off the ballot, but the Firehouse Committee got enough signatures on a referendum petition -- more than 1,000 -- to force a vote.
The Firehouse Committee and the city went to court to determine whether the lease was valid and whether it was subject to a referendum.
The state Supreme Judicial Court in June 1984 ruled that the lease was indeed subject to a referendum and that the City Council must either rescind it or allow it to be put to a vote. The council rescinded the lease.
With that, the two sides sat down to come to an agreement that was acceptable for both the city and the committee.
"We had won the suit and were anxious to establish that we wanted something to happen," Welch said.
When the lawsuit ended, Welch said, the project became a "cooperative venture."
"It was no longer adversarial," Welch said. "There was nothing adversarial after that point. The product turned out to be something that everybody could get behind."
In June 1985, two proposals were submitted to the City Council. One was offered by downtown property owner Roger Foster. The other was given by the nonprofit Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities, a group affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce.
Accepted by the council, the society's long-range plan included putting a restaurant in the building, adding a visitors center, office space, community areas and public restrooms. A possible senior center was at first included in the plan, but ultimately, the firehouse wasn't big enough to house it. A restaurant was critical to the proposal as a way to bring in money.
"We wanted it to remain with the community," Peter Kelly, a member of the society and treasurer of the board of directors of the Firehouse Center for the Arts. "We had a vision that it could do more for the community as a cultural center, as a civic center. It was developed for the community, that's important to note. It's a place for the community."
Even with broad community support, there were obstacles to success. The restaurant was the key to financial success for the Firehouse Center, but the first eatery in the building closed abruptly and without warning after only a few months in operation. The second tenant, Ciro's Italian Ristorante, was successful for a number of years, but ran into financial trouble and was evicted in May 2003. The current dining establishment, Not Your Average Joe's, has been in the Firehouse since June 2004.
Over the years, the Firehouse has hosted several citywide events -- it's the location of the upcoming mayoral debate and has been the site of past debates and political forums.
"We stepped in, and said, 'We'd like to take it over," Kelly said. "We lived up to our commitment with the city to develop the funds to do it."
The rehabilitated Firehouse Center for the Arts opened in 1991. It offered a gallery, second-floor function room, a theater and a restaurant. Quickly, professional shows, lectures, concerts and programs began coming to the site, although the crowds that viewed them weren't always very large.
"(To have) a 30- to 40-member audience, we thought it was fantastic," Kimm Wilkinson, the box office/production manager. "To get 100 in the house ... we were so excited."
Sixteen years later, things are very different. The Firehouse's reputation has gradually grown, as has its membership -- it has 400 members.
Last year, 20,000 people came through the center's doors, said Smith, about 5,000 of them youth involved in the theater education programs of schools from Maine, Gloucester and Manchester.
With diverse programming, the theater attracts diverse audiences, said Executive Director Gregory Smith, from kids to senior citizens, but still caters to the community. He estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the audience comes from within a 20-mile radius of Newburyport.
To Smith, the group's goal of creating a cultural and community center has been met.
"I believe it has more than succeeded in that," Smith said.
The Firehouse through the years
Below is a timeline detailing the evolution of the Firehouse in Market Square:
1795 -- Lord Timothy Dexter first proposes a market house for the downtown, saying he would build it at his own expense. In September of that year, the town formed a committee that designated the land as public use
1822 -- Town Meeting votes to build a market house in the aftermath of the Newburyport fire in 1811 that devastated the downtown
1823 -- The town of Newburyport uses it as a market house
1864 -- The food stalls on the first floor are removed in order to house fire engines. The building is the fire station in Newburyport with the second floor housing groups and activities as well as social and political gatherings
1868 -- The building is used solely as a fire station
1972 -- The firehouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places
1979 -- The fire department moves into a new station on Greenleaf Street, leaving the building empty
1991 -- The Firehouse Center for the Arts opens and the rehabbed building won an award for architecture from the American Institute of Architects
2007 -- The Firehouse continues to be managed by the Society for the Development of Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit group
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