Creating Places: City fails to douse fire with Station 9

Monday, July 7, 2008 at 3:11am
The design of the Nashville Fire Department’s Station 9 on Rutledge Hill was hampered by a tight budget and topographical constraints. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

It’s a recent Tuesday morning in our ever-changing city, warm but with a soothing light breeze.

Most Nashvillians are conscientiously toiling at work, building things, making key business decisions, providing goods and services and contributing to the community.

Conversely, this self-employed writer is strolling through SoBro’s Rutledge Hill district, leisurely sipping a Crema iced coffee and walking the perimeters of two recently opened Nashville Fire Department buildings to glean info for this column, oddly attempting to contribute to the aforementioned community.

The NFD Administration Building — checked out while sobering up by wolfing down steak and eggs at the Hermitage Café — is handsome and urban.

Incorporating both smooth and textured brick of two dark colors, the building’s walls also offer square and rectangle windows symmetrically aligned. Metal window frames, awnings, railings and roofing play boldly off the brick and glass, with concrete flourishes nicely defining the windows.

The entrance addresses both the Hermitage Avenue/Middleton Street intersection and a surface parking lot with sleek lighting hardware.

Well done.

In contrast, Station 9 (bordered by Second and Third avenues and fronting Lea Street) is painfully utilitarian and bland — its form, materials and sweeping concrete pavement driveway suggesting a suburban retail strip center that happens to accommodate fire engines.

Flaws? The building’s east side sits perilously below Second Avenue. With five truck bays, Station 9 is, by necessity, low-slung, which exaggerates a massive asphalt roof. Single lines of a color-contrasting brick run horizontally, further intensifying the structure’s flatness. A windowless wall towers over Third Avenue. Various exposed and partially concealed mechanical elements fail to lend what could have been a “cool industrial architecture vibe.”

Metro Real Property Services and NFD officials approved the two buildings’ designs. So why the jarring differences?

Hart Freeland Roberts created the admin building and nailed it. But with a $6 million budget, a primo site overlooking Rolling Mill Hill and a building not geared toward massive vehicles, HFR had it easy.

Not so for the Nashville office of McFarlin, Huitt, Panvini, Inc. (MHP), the architect of record for the 15,000-square-foot Station 9. MHP and Cincinnati-based Cole + Russell Architects (which performed the site layout and building design) grappled with brutal topography and the practical realities of truck storage. On a modest $3.5 million budget — which nixed a decorative tower and arts plaza that could have provided visual pop — the design challenges were daunting.

No doubt, MHP is capable. The firm skillfully delivered quality additions to NFD’s historic Holly Street and 21st Avenue stations. And its work with the Nashville Public Library’s Pruitt Branch and Nashville State Community College’s Sundquist Center has been commendable.

So Station 9 could have been more attractive, regardless of the challenges.

For proof, visit Riskin Associates Architecture Inc.’s Web site to view Santa Fe, N.M., Fire Department’s contemporary Station No. 8, a 10,200-square foot hall designed and built for only $2.16 million and that opened in 2006.

William Williams is a citizen observer of Nashville’s manmade environment. Contact him at bill37206@yahoo.com

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