Originally a pioneer town in the Nebraska Territory, by the 1890s Saratoga became a leafy suburban neighborhood with a busy commercial district, streetcar lines shooting all around and a busy railway keeping its industrial district thriving. All of this required protection from fires and other calamities, and the two fire stations at 2202-04 and 2204-06 Ames Avenue in the Saratoga neighborhood got the job done.
A Station for the Suburbs
The idea of building a fire station in the Saratoga neighborhood first came up in 1907 when the city council heard a proposal for $30,000 in bonds to “construct an engine house in the territory between Florence Boulevard and North 27th Street, north of Boyd Street.” The building was designed in 1909 by Walter T. Misener and William E. Stockham, whose joint architecture firm had a short run.
Saratoga became home to Omaha Fire Department Station #15 in 1910 when the new station was built. A two-story brick building, it housed two engines and nine firefighters, along with a chief. It was an engine house for two companies. For more than four decades, the building also housed polling stations during elections as well. The station was home to Hook and Ladder Company #5, including six new horses to pull two trucks (aka wagons!).
Battling evolving conditions throughout North Omaha, the firefighters in this station routinely covered East Omaha, Kountze Place, Collier Place and Monmouth Park, Bedford Place and the entire Saratoga neighborhood. Before 1920, they used horse-drawn wagon trucks customized with fire equipment. Firefighters in North Omaha struggled to reach the tops of 4-story homes because of rickety ladder systems, and they had to haul their water to the fires because there weren’t water mains throughout the city yet. After 1920 most of their vehicles were gasoline-powered, but struggles were still common, including flooding, fighting and lifesaving. In most of their range, streets were paved by 1920. However, there were still a lot of unpaved roads in East Omaha and even parts of North Omaha, and they sometimes struggled to do their work because of this.
The station donated liberally to the family of a firefighter who died in a warehouse fire in 1920. In 1924, a home in East Omaha burned to the ground when firefighting trucks from Engine House #15 got stuck in the muddy streets and couldn’t reach the house.
The station made the news in 1930 when a stray pig wandered in front of the building and was caught by the chief, whose name was Con Starr. The newspaper reported they planned to make the 6-month old pig into sausage and eat it.
Located kitty corner to the Omaha and Council Bluffs Streetcar Barn at 24th and Ames, there were also a few collisions between firetrucks and streetcars. Firefighters were thrown off their trucks in these battles, and in 1935 one fireman was hurt badly after a collision.
During a rabies outbreak in 1947, the station vaccinated more than 200 dogs as part of an outreach campaign.
Building in the Art Moderne Style
The city’s fire department expanded in 1930, and the headquarters for the north battalion moved from 22nd and Lake to Station 15.
In 1938, the Works Progress Administration built a new fire station at North 22nd and Ames. Early in his long career, architect Leo J. Dworak designed the building under contract with the government. Without explaining how it was done, the newspaper reported the old station was demolished at the new one was built. Designed in the Art Modern style, it is one of the few examples of this approach to design left in Omaha today. The building was part of a fire station replacement program that was part of the Carter Lake WPA activities. Finished in 1938, there was another station built by the project at North 40th and Nicholas Streets that was demolished in the 1960s.
In 1957, the City of Omaha Fire Department officially integrated Station #15 by reassigning African American firefighters Maurice Borders and Edward Martin from the segregation station at North 22nd and Lake Streets. This move was greeted positively by the Omaha Star, but later stories reported the firefighters were poorly received by their white peers with frequent targets of racial comments and scorn, as well as actions that undermined their effectiveness. Black firefighters were routinely assigned to stay at firetrucks while white fighters went into homes to inspect the situation. That eventually ended, but it took decades for racism to be addressed within the department.
In 1978, the Omaha Fire Department announced they were replacing the station with a new building at North 34th and Ames Avenue. Reportedly in “the worse condition of any,” the station had broken water mains and regularly flooded. After sitting empty for two years, in 1980, the Omaha Star uncovered City of Omaha plans to open a community center in the fire department. However, they didn’t do that and the building continued standing empty.
A Fire Station No More
The Omaha Fire Department abandoned the station permanently in 1983. After being used as a fire truck maintenance facility for the city for a few years, a series of burglaries that year gave the department impetus to leave.
Afterward, the station became home to Habitat for Humanity’s construction supplies for more than two decades and today it still stands and houses Dino’s Storage.
While it is one of the last Art Modern style buildings in Omaha, the building is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has not been designated a Omaha Landmark by the city’s Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. There are no memorial plaques or historical recognition of the building’s significance.
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- “Black Firefighters” with research compiled by Sabrina F., Courtney S. and Bri’Anne W. for Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible Project