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Located at 2358 S. Whipple St., the former Little Village firehouse will have performance and studio spaces, an indoor garden made from an old spiral staircase and disco balls.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? Former Little Village firehouse

The National Museum of Mexican Art plans to turn this long-vacant structure into the Yollocalli youth arts center.

In Little Village, an old fire station has stood empty and unused since its modern replacement opened three blocks away in 2011.

The building finally heads toward a new use as a youth arts center filled with performance and studio spaces, an indoor garden made from an old spiral staircase and disco balls.

“Lots of disco balls,” said Vanessa Sanchez, the director of Yollocalli Arts Reach, a program of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.

Yollocalli, which means “House of the Heart” in the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, is adding this facility to its longtime home in the Little Village Boys and Girls Club.

The museum bought the mothballed fire station from the city for $1 and is starting a $2 million rehab of the building at 2358 S. Whipple St. and plans to open it in early 2025.

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The building has sat vacant since 2011.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

The disco balls, Sanchez said, were one of the features that youth members of Yollocalli asked for. It’s intended to be their “third space,” along with home and school or work, where they’ll not only come to learn and practice the arts, but just to socialize or to sit with their laptops and use the WiFi.

Disco balls won’t be the only thing shining in the space. On the first floor, where the fire engines used to be housed, white-glazed tile lines the walls and tin on the ceiling, both of which will gleam again when they’re cleaned up after 13 years of vacancy.

The design of the interior, by Wallin Gomez Architects, will keep those and other vintage features while adding brightly colored interior walls and furniture. Civic Projects Architecture is designing the program space in the building. The project’s total cost with equipment and furnishings will be about $3.5 million, Sanchez said.

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An interior rendering for the planned Yollocalli Arts Reach.

Courtesy of Gilbane

WBEZ’s Reset hasn’t been able to determine who was the architect of the firehouse. After this article was published, Deborah Mercer, a Chicago architectural history researcher, found that the building, which at the time it was built had a different address, was designed by architect C.F. Hermann. Around the same time he did the Little Village design, Hermann also designed fire stations on Chicago Avenue near the Water Tower and on South Michigan Avenue. The first is still operating, and the second is now a restaurant.

Some of the old bits of the building will get repurposed. A spiral staircase to the firefighters’ second-floor dorm space will be taken out of use and turned into an indoor garden. The two big red firehouse doors on the front of the building will be replaced with glass to bring in more light. One of the two will be the entrance to the facility.

Five original fire poles were already removed. That’s too bad, because they could have been a reminder that the fire pole was invented in Chicago by Black firefighters in the 1870s. But there would be safety issues if they were intact.

The Yollocalli buildout includes installing two new staircases to the second floor, where the firefighters slept while on duty. The old wooden lockers, metal cots and linoleum floor are intact but will be replaced with studios, a ceramics kiln and other new features.

The exterior of the firehouse, Sanchez said, will remain largely as is other than the glass replacement for the red doors. The ornamental copper cornice across the top, which aged to green, will be restored and the brick and limestone façade cleaned up.

Built in 1907, the firehouse is right out of its era, with the safety brick walls and tin ceiling inside, a stately look outside and its location on an interior street in a residential neighborhood. While that seems awkward now — its replacement was built on busier and more accessible Kedzie Avenue three blocks west — it was common at the time.

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The red brick doors will be replaced with glass to allow in more light.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

Several other former fire stations on inner streets have been put to new uses. They include one in Edgewater that’s now an event venue and at least three that have been made into houses in Chicago Lawn, Lincoln Square and North Center.

Scattered around the city are historical firehouses that have been repurposed. In the South Loop, one became a restaurant. The historical society in Edgewater is housed in an old firehouse and so is a Rogers Park-based filmmakers group.

The Beverly neighborhood has one of the most intriguing examples: The old 95th Street firehouse is now a hat factory.

There are others that were put out of service years ago and remain unused, including one on Indiana Avenue in Park Manor and one on Lipps Avenue in Jefferson Park that was going to become a taproom. The plan died in 2022, according to Block Club Chicago.

The Little Village firehouse also saw a past plan for reuse fizzle out. In 2019, the building was the focus of one group that was vying for the Chicago Prize, a $10 million neighborhood development prize from the family foundation of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and her husband.

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The walls will gleam with white tiles when the youth arts center is complete.

Courtesy of Gilbane

They wanted to remake the fire station as a commercial kitchen used by the operators of food carts and managed by a worker-led cooperative. The plan would also have included a retail shop, an urban farm and a large-scale composting operation.

The foundation chose a project in Auburn Gresham instead, leaving the Little Village firehouse empty for another five years before Yollocalli bought it from the city.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.

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