Living in retooled warehouses, factories, and firehouses has become de rigueur in Hudson County, where these abundant structures are the last word in historic charm and industrial chic.
We’ve looked at renovations in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne. The transformation of the Maidenform Factory into Silk Lofts may be the most obvious example in Bayonne.
A couple of restored firehouses in Jersey City have caught our attention, and now we have the 34th Street firehouse, built in 1883, which was scooped up by the perfect buyer: a guy who’s into architecture, photography, and mechanics.
He’s Christian Garibaldi, a Scotch Plains native, who went from rebuilding engines for Ferraris, Maseratis, and Porsches to architectural and aerial photography.
He was in his late 30s when he started to think about buying a house. “I wasn’t going to buy a split-level Cape in the suburbs,” he says. “I wanted something unique, interesting, and industrial.”
He’d been searching the commercial sites when he came upon the 5,000-square-foot firehouse for $350,000.
This was in 2011. Within six months he had the keys and moved in almost immediately. Seven years later, he’s nowhere near done. His slow and loving restoration means that every detail will be authentic and historically correct.
“I plan to give it the respect it deserves,” he says, “to preserve its originality and heritage as what it was and what it stood for.”
To accomplish that, he will have to “undo a lot of the haphazard, more modern things that the city may have done to the building in later years when it was serving as a firehouse,” he says. “The original bones of the building, brickwork, woodwork, and tin ceiling were hidden behind layers of ugly paint colors. It may have been painted numerous times.”
But, he says, “I have no intention of erasing its history. I’m not a developer looking to convert it into lofts or condos.”
More Than Brick and Mortar
Though not a Bayonne native, Christian knew that he wasn’t just buying a building; he was buying into a community. “Though I didn’t grow up here, I knew Bayonne was family-oriented,” he says. “I knew I was purchasing a pretty pillar of the community. The firemen knew their neighbors and played stickball with the kids.”
Christian approached the project like a suitor asking for a woman’s hand in marriage. “I knew I was under the watchful eye of the people in the community,” he says. “I always wanted to make sure that they knew first and foremost that my intentions were pure and noble. I wasn’t coming into it as an investment to turn a profit and erase what it stood for.”
When it comes to food, he’s definitely embraced the community. He loves the sausage and pepper bread at Altamura Bakery, the nearby polish delis, the healthy offerings at Andrews Café, and Judicke’s Bakery, just down the street.
But more than anything, he loves the firefighters of Company 5 who had made the 34th Street station their home.
He made a point of visiting them at their temporary trailer on MOTBY. When he first walked in, he says there was “a hushed silence across the room.”
One firefighter drew him aside, saying he shouldn’t take it personally, but the men were heartbroken when they lost the home that had been there for 135 years. But soon, they became good friends, coming back to the firehouse to answer Christian’s questions about all the gizmos in the place and to admire his handiwork. They were awed by the beautiful woodwork on their restored lockers, which now have pride of place in Christian’s bedroom.
Early on a sultry summer morning, Christian gives me the grand tour. The façade is the same, with fine brickwork and cornices. He’s proud of a wagon with plants that seem to be thriving out front. The garage area where the fire engines once were parked hasn’t changed much. Christian loves working on details, such as the lockers, fire poles, firebox, meters, fuse boxes, alarms, brass, and radiators.
Upstairs, the kitchen and bedroom have a raw, untouched beauty. The scraped walls have their own abstract aesthetic. If you love the way it looks now, maybe you don’t want to see the building transformed. Imagining the perfectly restored structure, you might already feel nostalgia for the way it was.
Whenever he’s done, Bayonne Magazine will be back to admire his finished home. But the thought crosses my mind that maybe Christian is happy with his beloved firehouse just the way it is.
And that’s fine, too.—BLP