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‘The People’s Firehouse': Community compassion sparks renovation of beloved Engine 50

The freshly painted "People's Firehouse," Engine 50, has been at 34 Winthrop Street in Charlestown since 1853.
The freshly painted "People's Firehouse," Engine 50, has been at 34 Winthrop Street in Charlestown since 1853.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

If it weren’t for its freshly painted red doors, Engine 50 in Charlestown might be mistaken as just another brownstone. That’s fitting, because the station long known as “The People’s Firehouse” is as central to the community as a church or grocery.

“People say you’re as strong as your foundation,” Boston Fire Department Captain Guy Cammarata said. “The foundation of this firehouse is built on top of this community. We would not be here today if it weren’t for Charlestown.”

While Cammarata, a former firefighter in the Air Force, surveyed the station’s recent renovations Thursday — a $3.8 million project that took two-and-a-half years — he could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the modernized space and his gratitude for the community’s support that made it possible.

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Before the project, the city had planned to relocate Engine 50. Residents, who have a history of standing up for the station, spoke against the idea at a neighborhood meeting, Cammarata said.

“It was the citizens around here, that live here, that grew up here, that did not take lightly to the suggestion of moving the fire house instead of redoing it,” he said.

Along with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn directed the renovations to benefit the firefighters’ health. Finn described the three-zone plan within the building, intended to curb cancer rates by limiting firefighters’ exposure to toxins.

“One is the hot zone, which is the first floor where the apparatus and the industrial washers for the gear are. It has a separate ventilation system,” Finn said. “Then you come up to the neutral zone. Then you come up into the cold zone, with all clean air.”

Engine 50 is the first fire station in Boston with the three-zone design, he said.

Black soot used to taint the walls and ceiling of the first floor, thick enough to mask the underlying paint. Exhaust used to float into the nearby kitchen when firetrucks rolled in, subtly blanketing firefighters’ food and appliances. Bunker gear was covered with years worth of residue from fires, containing toxins that firefighters were exposed to every detail.

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Since October, when Engine 50 firefighters returned to 34 Winthrop St. after their stay at nearby Engine 32, pristine white walls surround the fire trucks. The kitchen is tucked away safely on the third floor, with a new ventilation system to prevent exhaust from rising. After details, washer-extractors remove harmful chemicals, such as benzene, from bunker gear while firefighters take steam showers.

“If you have a dirty face, you’re in trouble, because cancer is just so prevalent in our job now,” Boston fire spokesman Brian Alkins said. “It’s all coming full circle, that what we learned back then, 30 years ago, is not okay.”

Renovations include an expanded first-floor wall to make it easier for fire trucks to exit, updated bunk rooms, a new area for receiving calls, a lounge area adjacent to the kitchen, and an updated workout center. The station was “very antiquated” before the updates, Cammarata said. However, they decided to keep the station’s original wood floors to complement its traditional second-floor fire pole.

The building became a firehouse in 1853, a year after it was bought by the city of Charlestown for $3,402. Multiple public services called it home before Engine 50 arrived in 1918. It has remained there since.

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In 1981, when the city tried to shut down the station amid financial struggles, neighbors staged sit-ins and protests for a month, even handcuffing themselves to the fire truck. Cammarata still keeps in touch with the man who sparked the protests, Sal Giarratani. He is listed in his phone contacts as “Engine 50 Savior."

“The relationship that this fire house has had through the years with this community is unbelievable,” Finn said.

As the only Boston fire station connected to its neighbors structurally, Engine 50 has a unique bond with the Charlestown community. When the kitchen was on the first floor, neighbors — from a local priest to Bruins center David Krejci to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey — would stop by for a morning cup of coffee.

“We’re all one big family here,” Cammarata said. “It’s like the friendly neighborhood house.”

When the weather’s warm, firefighters relax outside and socialize with passersby.

“See the dog walkers? Everybody knows to come by the firehouse for the treats,” Cammarata said, peeking out a red door window. “Everyone knows this is the doggy rest stop.”

Some of the same people who supported the station decades ago have relatives who are on the crew today, Cammarata said. Of the 19 firefighters, most are Charlestown natives. The crew treats every member of the community like family, he added. Often, they literally are.

“The majority of the guys grew up and lived in the projects here. They rose up, went to the military, bettered themselves, and they all got on the fire department," he said. "It’s unbelievable.”

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Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.