The 12 Firehouses of Christmas
From 1948–1950, San Francisco fire stations went crazy with an annual Christmas decoration contest. Here are Woody's top dozen.
Christmas will not give up the ghost (of past, present, or future). I read that 169 holiday movies are being released just this year, cluttering up our apps and airwaves from the Hallmark Channel to Netflix to Wobbi. (I made up that last one, I think.)
I’m sure people have studied this, but I think the United States of America really tilted into Christmas season overdrive in World War II and the years just after. The horrors of war and the desire to celebrate its end coincided with “advances” in advertising and consumerism. Our society leaned into Christmas. Suddenly everywhere it was “sorry non-Christian folks, sorry division of church and state, here’s a manger scene in Union Square park with city-owned sheep.”
Yes, the city used to own sheep. Another story...
In over-the-top Christmas spirit, from 1948 to 1950, San Francisco’s fire stations tried to out-tinsel and out-giant-Santa each other in a decorating contest, which many local Baby Boomers still remember fondly. Families would drive out and tour the stations at night. Muni comped fares so kids could bus around to ogle and snag free candy. You can read more about the contest here.
Alfred Stettler, who worked for the Department of Fire Prevention, documented most of the stations in those three years of competition. Thanks to Robert and Marilyn Katzman, who saved and digitized his slides, I have had the pleasure of examining all 180 of his shots. Before I reveal my favorite dozen, let’s show how boring this could have been by picking on poor defunct Engine Company 37 at 2501 25th Street:
This is what all the fire stations might have resorted to: manger scene, shepherds, heavenly choir… yawn. The 1948 clothing of the folks in the lower right is more interesting. The men of Engine 37 did better with a Santa’s workshop display in 1949:
The kiddies at the fence obviously liked this one. But still, not top shelf. So now I offer up a dozen better ones, my favorites, my 12 Firehouses of Christmas™, so certain to be a beloved tradition that I’ve trademarked it. (Note: I have not.)
Engine Company 28, (1814 Stockton Street), 1948
While firehouse-as-big-chimney is fairly common over the three years of competition, Engine Company 28 did it very well. Giant andirons in garage openings, Giant Santa with moving eyes (bonus points for fire helmet), and bendy-limbed elves crawling everywhere. This is great and disturbing—a perfect combination. No wonder it won the overall competition that year.
Engine Company 4, (676 Howard Street), 1948
Chimneys, stockings, candles… all pretty prosaic and a shame to hide the Gothic facade of the firehouse. But the roof treatment is what puts this on the list. Why does Santa have a question mark above him and why are those fire goblins taunting him?
Many of us wrestle with existential questions in the holiday season. Kudos to Engine Co. 4 for tackling such thorny philosophical matters head on.
Engine Company 6, (356 7th Street), 1949
Number one: I am a fan of giant Santas. Number two: the artwork is top-notch on those big old Christmas cards. Someone at the station must have had a graphic artist in the family.
Engine Company 11, (1632 Oakdale Avenue), 1948
The Bay View crew really got busy the first year of competition. There’s a lot going on here and most of it would draw cease-and-desist letters from the Disney corporation. Snow White and the seven dwarves, Mickey Mouse, and Santa riding a camel with the Three Kings? Well, ok, sure...
Engine Company 35, (36 Bluxome Street, now Station 8), 1949
Trust me, there’s a firehouse under there somewhere. I have to rank this in the top dozen just for the nod to San Francisco history, as the Parker House was one of the city’s first hotels. Check out the life-sized team pulling the early-days fire rig. I just hope there weren’t any real emergencies South of Market, since how the heck did the trucks get out?
Engine Company 12, (115 Drumm Street), 1949
This one likely wasn’t a favorite of the children, but, again, I appreciate the historical flavor: a scene from Bret Harte’s Gold Rush story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” pops out of a big book. Reading is fun-damental!
Truck Company 2, (1340 Powell Street), 1950
See, now you know Truck 2 is in Chinatown. Lanterns, Chinese characters, a dragon... Yes, the dragon looks like a banana slug, but “A” for effort and local flavor.
Engine Company 13, (1458 Valencia Street), 1950
A daring redirection away from Christmas commercialism to focus on New Year’s Eve. Simplicity, artistry, and mystery: we all want to know what’s behind those upper doors in the clock!
Engine Company 20, (2251 Greenwich St., now Station 16), 1950
There may be some 1950s popular culture reference I am missing here, but “The Thing” theme, with a gallery of grotesque faces on a wall of tinsel, is so bizarre I think it could be top 12 in any era.
Engine Company 33, (117 Broad Street), 1950
Old 33 has to make any list of mine because the Katzmans owned and stewarded it for decades and the building is still in pretty good condition. But the decorations also win points for historical topicality: a television ornament when TVs were new and amazing. Oh, and a Santa the size of an Edsel.
Truck Company 12, (1757 Waller Street), 1949
Giant present. I can’t decide if this is masterfully tasteful or kind of lazy. I suppose the former, based on the upper window pop-out of gifts and a card to “Mr. and Mrs. San Francisco.”
Engine Company 28, (1814 Stockton Street), 1950
Man, these guys are good. They broke away from the commonplace chimney treatment of 1948, which kicked off our dozen, and created a whole Italian opera scene in appreciation of their North Beach location. The touring tots of 1950 got to see Café Momus recreated from Puccini’s La Bohème, complete with “a babe,” “a poet,” and “a politician.” Buone Feste!
Wish the firehouses still did this? Your holiday wish is granted. The contest was revived last year and is on right now.