Hooks, bells, ticker tape machines, and fires -- the story of 25 Delaware Ave

25 Delaware Ave front 2018-March

By Justin Devendorf

Somewhere in the basement of a two-story building in the city of Albany, an electrical wire short circuits. This causes sparks to ignite, leading to a small fire. Within a few minutes, smoke billows out from the windows as the fire engulfs the building. Someone calls the fire department.

As onlookers begin to gather outside the blaze wondering what, if anything, they can do, in the distance the sound of emergency sirens can be heard, getting louder as it draws closer to the scene of the fire. An Albany Fire Department fire truck pulls up to the building, firefighters quickly work to extinguish the fire, as well as rescue anyone who might be trapped inside.

This scenario has played out countless times in the long history of the Albany Fire Department. And for almost half a century, those calls for service came in through a system of telegraphs, hooks, call boxes, and ticker tape -- into a small building at 25 Delaware Ave.

Fire at the theatre

The Albany Fire Department was organized on June 1, 1867. The AFD now operates eight separate firehouses throughout the city and consists of over 260 firefighters and administrative staff. It responds to 22,000-23,000 calls for service every year.

The first location for the AFD's alarm station was on South Pearl Street on the top floor of the Albany Theatre, a five-story building that spanned an area of half a block. According to the February 19, 1847 issue of the Albany Argus, the Albany Theatre building was built in 1825 and was according to the Argus reportedly "at a time, one of the most elegant theatres in the United States." The Albany Theatre opened its doors on May 18, 1825 to what the Argus said was a "full and fashionable house" with a performance of the play Laugh When You Can and performances by local musicians.

South Pearl  between  state and beaver with Howard st at corner  1891  albany ny
The Albany Theatre was on South Pearl near Beaver Street. / via the Albany Group Archive

The Albany Theatre also played host to some very influential people. On July 1, 1825, a few months after opening, the Marquis de Lafayette attended an evening show at the theatre. Lafayette was a French military officer who helped train soldiers during the American Revolution and was close friends with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, among many others. According to the Albany Argus, when Lafayette arrived at the theatre the manager greeted him at the front door with a lighted candle in each hand as he escorted Lafayette to his seat, a gesture done only for "very illustrious and distinguished visitors."

On Saturday January 6th, 1894 however, the Albany Theatre suffered a devastating fire that completely destroyed the entire building. The New York Times issue for that day states that the fire began in a dressing room off stage at noon and within fifteen minutes the entire building was "a roaring furnace."

When the AFD responded to the scene, it became clear that the fire would spread to neighboring buildings causing further damage unless contained. The NYT reported that the entire fire alarm system run by the AFD -- which was housed in the building -- was "rendered useless."

No injuries were reported but the fire caused an estimated $125,000 in damage. (Roughly $3.6 million in 2017 dollars.) According to the January 8, 1894 issue of the Albany Times Union, thousands of people came out to see the ruins of the Albany Theatre in the days following the fire.

In light of the damage sustained to its fire alarm station, the AFD sought to learn from the disaster and plan for a way to reduce the risk of such a key service getting knocked again. The solution was to isolate the fire alarm station from surrounding buildings as a way to fire-proof it.

The location the AFD selected for their next fire alarm station was on Delaware Avenue just south of Lark Street.

Hooks, bells and ticker tape machines

25 Delaware Ave front angle 2018-March

Opened in 1917, the Central Alarm Fire Station of the AFD was isolated from any other nearby buildings and came equipped with storage batteries that provided electricity for the building and the vital equipment inside.

The facility was built by well-known local builder Morris Ryder in the Dutch Revival style, which Albany Architecture notes was "in the spirit of" the Marcus Reynolds-designed fire station farther up Delaware. And for the next fifty years the building served as the main alarm station for AFD.

25 Delaware Ave front closeup 2018-March

Unlike the radio systems of today, the dispatchers of the Central Fire Alarm Station had an elaborate system of hooks, bells and ticker tape machines that made up their emergency response system.

Wes Weeden, a dispatcher with the Albany Fire Department for 33 years, explained the process to me. The hooks were referenced to hooks that could be pulled inside the red fire alarm street boxes spread around the city. When someone pulled the hook inside a box, it would send a signal to the Central Fire Alarm Station, where a bell would ring, alerting the dispatchers that a call for service was coming in. Then, a ticker tape machine would start to print out a series of numbers which would indicate what part of the city the call was coming from. From there, the dispatcher would need to look up the numbers that corresponded with its location in Albany, and then the dispatcher would have to relay the call for service to the nearest fire station.

Photos from the Albany Firefighters Museum website shows the inside of the Central Alarm Fire Station during the late 1930s and clearly depict the alarm equipment.

Later years

25 Delaware Ave rear 2018-March

The Central Fire Alarm Station continued to serve as the primary alarm station for the AFD until 1967.

Almost a decade later, in 1976, it was converted into the Louise Corning Senior Citizens Center, named after the mother of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd. It served that role until 2011 when it was closed due to structural issues related to an addition tacked onto the back of the building.

The addition has since been demolished. And at one point almost a decade ago there was a redevelopment plan floated for the surrounding area that would have involved the demolition of the 1917 building as well. In 2015 Historic Albany Foundation included it on its list of endangered historic resources.

25 Delaware Ave wide 2018-March

Today the building is owned by the Albany Community Development Agency. It's vacant. And it's listed for sale.

Thank you to Ed Verhoff, an 11.5 year veteran of the AFD and vice president of Albany Permanent Professional Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 2007.

Justin Devendorf is a resident of the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany. He currently goes to Albany Law School and created the Photozofalbany Instagram page, where he shares the history and beauty of New York State's capital city and the surrounding region one post at a time.


The agent isn't exactly marketing it very heavily... THe listing still has pictures and information assuming the large addition is still there. lol.
Tough to redevelop that building in that location I would think.

Great to know the story behind this beautiful building! Hopefully the realtor steps up the marketing. I think it's a great location, access to so much. NY Preservation Conference is in Albany April 26-28 so maybe an opportunity to show it off.

Thank you. I was unaware of its history.

The AFD Museum website says they are looking for a historical, firefighting related building to house the future museum. Seems like a perfect fit despite the associated hurdles involved.

Thanks! Love these interesting stories. This one especially, my husband was an Albany Firefighter (Captain) for 31 years.

Albany Landlord, I agree the location is tough to develop in general, but certainly not impossible. Let's hope the agent steps up his game!

JulieA, please do show it off!! It is a hidden gem on the Albany historical scene and I think people would enjoy seeing it!

Janet Dwyer Stutzman, thank you for the kind words! Appreciate you taking the time to read it :)

Hudson R, I agree! This would be a perfect location for the AFD museum.

June Thorpe, thank you! appreciate the support and keep reading more AOA posts from me in the future!

It would be great to turn it into the AFD Museum!

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