History of ‘Old’ Sparkill Firehouse

BY JAMIE KEMPTON

The old Sparkill firehouse on Union Street served for six decades as a bastion of public safety and hub of civic life in this close-knit Orangetown hamlet. Today, as the Union Arts Center, the building is poised to reclaim its role as a focal point and community gathering place for Sparkill’s residents and their neighbors.

The history of the grand old structure – including a nearly 30-year stint hosting a spiritually inspired craft cooperative – will be celebrated and its latter-day uses chronicled at an exhibit titled “Sparkill’s Union Street Firehouse – Past, Present and Future,” on Saturday, Oct. 20, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Union Arts Center, 2 Union Street. The event, sponsored by the Sparkill History Project, is free and open to the public.

The building was a livery stable and carriage house in the late 1800s before its conversion to a firehouse in the early 1900s. The John Paulding Engine Company No. 1 of Sparkill was founded in 1901, named after the American patriot who helped capture British spy John Andre during the Revolutionary War. Paulding thus played a key role in preserving the American fortress at West Point and foiling the plans of Andre and his co-conspirator, American General Benedict Arnold.

At the turn of the 20th century Sparkill grew rapidly and the need for a skilled firefighting unit intensified after the St. Agnes Convent and Orphanage burned in 1899, killing four people and threatening the lives of many others. Volunteer fire companies had been established in neighboring communities in Piermont, Nyack and Tappan by then and Sparkill soon followed suit, starting with a single hand-powered, horse-drawn pumper.

By 1910 the company occupied the former carriage house owned by the estate of David Kipp, a prominent Sparkill grocer. His son Wesley sold the property to the fire company for “the magnificent sum” of $600 in 1912, the same year Paulding Engine Co. was incorporated. By 1914 the building had been upgraded to accommodate a new motor hose truck.

Over the years the firehouse became a prized venue for a wide range of community events such as dances, weddings, minstrel shows and vaudeville entertainment, and the company additionally sponsored carnivals, fairs, picnics and other social events. The firefighters also spread their good will beyond local borders. In 1906, Paulding Engine Co. organized a circus to benefit the victims of the devastating San Francisco earthquake.

In 1970 the fire company moved to its current quarters on Route 340, on property donated to the Sparkill-Palisades Fire District by Minetto Brothers, a local building contractor. Several short-lived businesses occupied the old firehouse over the next 12 years – including dress assembly and manufacturing, toy and statue manufacturing, an environmental testing lab and a vitamin store – before a group known as the Firehouse Craftsmen acquired the building as a collectively owned studio.

The Craftsmen studied craft in relation to self-knowledge. On the ground-level floor they practiced assorted arts and crafts such as fabric design, fine woodworking, weaving, ceramics, stained glass work and toy design. The airy upper floor was reserved for more contemplative pursuits such as yoga-like “movement” exercises meant to heighten self-awareness and vitality. The Craftsmen subscribed to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, who founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France and inspired followers to later establish the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York.

After the Craftsmen departed in 2011, the building underwent an auspicious restoration by new owner Simon Basner of Piermont, who has created Union Arts Center as a community hearth and outlet for creative expression through art, music, theater, dance, yoga and other activities.

For more information on the Firehouse exhibit, contact Larry Vail at 845-642-5044 or sparkillny@gmail.com. Or visit www.sparkillhistory.org or www.unionartscenter.com.