Carrie Rengers

A quick trip to Devil’s Row and a slow ride back to the office gave fire to an idea

Wichita developer has big plans for former fire station

Bruce Rowley is overseeing a project that will transform a former fire engine station into a multi-use shared office space. The building, at 501 S. Topeka, was used as a fire engine station from 1930 until 1984.
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Bruce Rowley is overseeing a project that will transform a former fire engine station into a multi-use shared office space. The building, at 501 S. Topeka, was used as a fire engine station from 1930 until 1984.

Marketer Bruce Rowley was rushing to lunch at what he calls Devil’s Row — the row of fast food chains near Kellogg and Broadway — when he was notified a meeting was canceled, so he took his time going back to the office.

“I was driving more slowly than usual, and I looked over and I thought, I wonder what’s going on in that old fire station?”

Fast forward almost two years, and what’s going on is Rowley is about to pull permits and begin construction to simultaneously preserve Fire Engine Station No. 2, which was built in 1930 at 500 S. Topeka, and transform it into something called FireWorx, an office and co-working space.

“We were just plummeting into the Depression . . . when they built this,” Rowley says.

Yet the architecture is stunning.

“It still takes my breath away a little bit to come through this area,” Rowley says of a landing next to two-story windows overlooking downtown.

With approximately 17-foot-tall ceilings that allowed for fire trucks, architect Stan Shelden of Shelden Architecture says “there’s a really unusual volume of space that now we get to do some fun things with.”

As much as children might think a fire station is cool, Shelden says “multiply that factor” for architects.

He says the station “was just designed with a lot of . . . pizazz from that era.”

“It’s not just a real plain-Jane deal.”

Shelden is taking most of the large garage doors from the 15,500-square-foot building and bringing them indoors to use as walls in the co-working space on the first floor.

One on the east side of the building will remain as an opening onto a patio. The rest will be replaced with more energy-efficient windows made to look like garage doors.

“Bruce challenged us,” Shelden says of getting inventive with what is there. “Bruce is a creative little whippersnapper.”

Even for those who don’t remember the building as a fire station — it became a maintenance facility in 1954 — Shelden says he wants “people to walk in and reminisce” about what it used to be.

“We want to honor the building as best we can.”

That includes highlighting the half dozen or so poles that firefighters used to slide down.

Rowley says when he tells anyone about his FireWorx plans, the chief question always is about the poles.

“Every single time.”

Visitors to the space regularly ask to slide down the couple that remain.

“Then we go upstairs . . . and you look down. ‘Ah, no way.’ It’s 30 feet to a hard concrete floor.”

The holes will have see-through covers and lighting to highlight them.

With help from the Kansas Firefighters Museum, Rowley obtained original hand-drawn blueprints for the building.

“They’re just damn cool. It’s like a huge stack of IKEA instructions for how to build a fire station,” he says. “That has made the design process a lot easier.”

He plans a small restaurant on the first floor where the fire chief’s office once was. There will be a walk-up counter for people at the co-working space and a small amount of seating in a room to the side for anyone else coming to the building.

Upstairs, there will be five office spaces of almost 900 square feet to almost 1,900 square feet.

In February, Rowley acquired a 23,000-square-foot parking lot to the north of the former station, which is on the southeast corner of Lewis and Topeka. He says part of it will be for parking, but there’s also room for a potential retail building on the site.

For both FireWorx and that lot, which Jack DeBoer used to own, Rowley says everyone he dealt with at the formerly city-owned building and the lot wanted to make sure his intended uses fit with downtown’s overall master plan.

“The site is a catalyst site from the original downtown plans,” he says.

It’s just off of Kellogg.

“We have the opportunity to improve the view and the perception of people entering our city.”

Rowley says nearby Waterman is going to increasingly become a throughway between the new baseball park in Delano and what’s happening downtown with the arena, Union Station and the Spaghetti Works District among other things. The former fire station is central to it all.

“All this development is pushing toward this area and connecting the dots.”

Ink Construction is the FireWorx contractor and will have the $1.4 million renovated building ready by the end of this year.

“To build a brand-new building that felt that cool would cost a fortune,” Shelden says.

He says it’s not only that the building is a “phenomenal” structure of cast concrete, brick and stone.

Shelden says it’s also about what re-energizing an amazing space can do.

“It should be an inventive, creative, entrepreneurial, inspiring, fun kind of space.”

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