Fired up for renovation • Men working to save ex-firehouse

DATE: 1994

Camden– “You’re standing in what’s going to be..a loft efficiency apartment,: architect Gaver Nichols says.

The walls of the former firehouse at Front and Linden streets are stripped to the bricks. Icy wind slices through empty window frames.

But the views of the Philadelphia skyline and the great blue arc of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge are magnificent. As he describes what this landmark hunk of Camden history can become, Nichols seems to warm the frigid room with enthusiasm.

“We’re going to put in hardwood floors, very rich materials…we’re going to be as historically acurate as possible,” he says. “I think if you have a vision in life, you should follow it.

For more than four years, Nichols has been trying to turn his version of apartments, offices and (Possibly) a restaurant into reality at the old Engine Company 6 firehouse. He wants to make the building a showcase of both his talents and what he describes as Camden’s breathtaking redevelopment potential.

But previous owners of had high hopes for the 87-year-old structure too. And Nichols has found the going tough and slow

Take the condition of the building itself. Used by firefighters as recently as the late 1970s –and as a backdrop for a movie after that – it had degenerated into a rotting mess when Nichols bought it in 1988.

“I was up on the roof, patching it… basically, it was taped together,” says Nichols, who is 38 and lives in Alexandria, Va. “All the old rooms where the firmen slept had been vandalized. There was total debris everywhere… there was a foot and a half of bird droppings at the base of the tower.”

Last summer, in partnership with the contractor Edward “Ted” Lenhart, he began working on the building in earnest. A slate roof went on. Exterior brickwork was cleaned and repaired. Ornate cornices were fabricated out of sheet-metal and put in place on the tower.

“We had a guy manufacture 125 feet of cornice in an exact architectural replica of the original,” says Lenhart, 28.

The contractor, who seems secdond only to Nichols in his zest for the project, has moved to Camden from Northern Virginia to work on the firehouse and to establish his business in the city.

“We’re not here to make a quick buck,” he says. “You’ve got to have heart to invest in Camden.”

Evidently, he and Nichols aren’t the only ones who have taken Engine 6 to heart. City firefighters often stop by to check on the progress of the restoration.

The exterior renovations are about finished, and the apartment could be ready by March, Nichols says. In the absence of tenants for commercial space – there have been discussions, but no takers yet – the rest will take at least another year, he adds.

The wait will be worth it, Nichols says.

“I feel like I’m a caretaker… I’m a custodian of amajor building, and I’m just trying to give back to the neighboorhood what i can,” he says. “A lot of people who live here have been fighting the battle.

“Camden is going to happen,” he declares. “You’ve just got to be patient.”

“Firehouse/87-year-old building getting facelift”

Big plans: Builder Edward Lenhart (left) and architect Gaver Nichols look at restoration plans for the 87-year-old former firehouse at Front and Linden streets in Camden.