Harold Niven has lived across the street from the FireHouse Arts and Events Center for almost 20 years.

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Long enough, that is to say, to have watched it transform from a working fire station to the cafe and performing arts space it is today.

“I don’t come over every day,” Niven says. “Honestly, I really don’t…but a lot.”

From the time the building was purchased in 2002 – with a goal of creating a community gathering space with an eye toward supporting the performing arts – through changing hands again last year, the former firehouse has never lost sight of that original vision.

The cafe inside the FireHouse gathers an eclectic and faithful group of patrons. The modest cafe includes a wood-burning fireplace and views into the performance space where people can often watch dancers rehearse and community members take class. Photo courtesy: FireHouse Arts and Events Center

From 1927 until 2001, the building was a fire station for the Fairhaven community. After decommissioning it in 2001, the city began taking bids from the community for new owners.

Many ideas were tossed around, Niven says, including a woodworking studio and tearing it down completely.

In 2002, the city accepted a bid from the Christman family to turn the firehouse into a community arts space.

“That’s what the city wanted to hear,” says Teresa Dalton, current owner of the building.

The FireHouse was a Fairhaven working fire station for many decades. Photo courtesy: FireHouse Arts and Events Center

For almost 15 years, Matt Christman and his wife, Alona, crafted and managed the space to offer small performing arts groups a place to perform and give the community access to affordable performances.

That was the basis of their whole bid to the city, says Dalton – to make a performing arts space and keep it affordable for small performing arts groups. And they stayed true to their word. 

“That’s what I’m trying to do, too,” Dalton says.

Dalton purchased the building from the Christman family in April 2018. She lives just up the street from the FireHouse, and before purchasing the building was a frequent customer at the cafe.

The FireHouse Arts and Events Center is located on Harris Avenue in Fairhaven. It opened in 2002 to provide an affordable performing arts space to small dance and theater companies. Photo credit: Frederica Kolwey

“If you come here on a regular basis, you see the same people all the time,” Dalton says. “Everybody has their shift. It literally is like Cheers – everybody comes at a certain time, and then they leave, and the next shift comes in. The same faces, the same people every day. And I just love that aspect of it.”

In 2018, Dalton had just sold the two commercial properties she owned in Fairhaven and wasn’t looking to buy anything new. After learning more about the FireHouse and everything it offers, she changed her mind.

“It just seemed like somebody needed to buy it and maintain it like it was,” Dalton says.

Photo courtesy: FireHouse Arts and Events Center

But in the three years since the FireHouse had gone on the market, the rate with which they booked performers had dropped off, she says. And since there was some uncertainty as to whether the performing arts space would remain, companies were hesitant to book shows too far in advance.

Over the past year, Dalton has worked hard to build business back up and get the FireHouse back on people’s radar.

To that end, she’s implementing some changes. The FireHouse will soon serve beer and wine, and they are working on constructing an outdoor seating area in the back of the building, where people can eat and drink. The cafe will probably extend its hours into the evening, and the beer and wine will be available to patrons before, after and during the intermission of performances.

The Sycamore tree that sits behind the center was planted in 1982 by one of the firemen who worked there at the time. The owner of the FireHouse plans to add an outdoor seating area in between the tree and the building. Photo credit: Frederica Kolwey

They’re also purchasing a new sign for the exterior of the building.

“The FireHouse is back,” Dalton says. “And we’re here to stay.”

Inside, the character of community connection remains strong.

Most Sunday mornings, Harold Niven and a group of friends meet at the FireHouse cafe to spend time together. The cafe is more frequently inhabited by people engaged in conversation, rather than behind a laptop.

Perhaps part of the cafe’s character comes from the building’s design.

Harold points behind me to the glass doors revealing the performance space.

Harold Niven sits in his house across the street from the FireHouse Arts and Events Center. Niven is a Bellingham artist and community activist. He made public comment to the City of Bellingham on behalf of the Christman family’s bid to create the center in 2002. Photo credit: Frederica Kolwey

“One of the magical things about this place that I haven’t seen very many places on the planet is – I mean, turn around and look through the door there,” he says. “You’re seeing process. You’re seeing people rehearse. For the most part, it’s a lively place, and it helps that you can get a cookie for a dollar.”

The cafe includes a prominent wood fireplace, which often burns warmly during the winter. Its kitchen is as modest as any residential kitchen. The baristas do the dishes by hand and dry them in a rack next to the sink.

There’s also a window behind the barista counter from which passing customers can order without dismounting their bicycle. It adds another level of comradery to the space, conjuring images of a neighbor stopping over, leaning their elbow on your kitchen window and checking in or sharing the news of the day.

“Is this your living room, Harold?” a friend asks over coffee and a Sudoku puzzle.

“Well,” he says. “It’s more than just my living room.”

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