By Teresa B. Lachin, Ph.D.
Solid and substantial, the RVFD has occupied a prominent site on Hungerford Drive since its 1966 dedication. Popularly known as “The Big House” or “The Rock,” RVFD is Rockville’s flagship station, responding to thousands of calls each year throughout the City. Completed during Rockville’s urban renewal era, RVFD was built to serve the needs of the postwar population boom and was designed to meet the standards of modern design, firehouse construction and firefighting technologies.
Firefighting in Rockville originated in 1806, with the purchase of a hand-drawn water barrel. By 1900, Rockville’s fire department was staffed by volunteers, including a cadre of African American residents supervised by deputy sheriff George Meads. A disastrous fire in 1921 spurred efforts to upgrade the antiquated system, resulting in the completion in 1925 of a new firehouse on Perry Street. Constructed of brick, the two-story facility sported a fashionable Art Deco cornice and 4 arched openings with folding panel doors. The first floor housed meeting and engine rooms; office spaces on the second story provided rental income.
By the 1960s, Rockville had outgrown the outmoded facility. The population boom fueled postwar development, driving the need for a new firehouse. Modern construction methods and improvements in firefighting technology revolutionized firehouse design throughout the country, driven by the imperative for speedy emergency response. A civic and institutional structure, the modern firehouse was also designed to provide comfortable living quarters for professional and volunteer staff and to accommodate heavy-duty firefighting and communications equipment and storage facilities. Accessibility, function-based plans, and open versatile spaces were among the modern design criteria. Sited strategically on a major roadway – Hungerford Drive – the new station featured square drive-through bays with roll-up doors to ensure rapid response time and to provide overhead clearance for maneuvering large fire engines and ladders. Built at a cost of $416,000, the RVFD was described as “ready to roll in ten seconds.”
Modernism was integral to architect Donald Coupard’s rectilinear design, which was planned “to blend in with the [City’s]… mid-city urban renewal project.” Coupard, whose work included Rockville City Hall (1960) and an International Style office building for attorney Edwin Brown (1959), wrapped the exterior of the RVFD in panels of concrete with recessed brick insets, piercing the mass with a variety of modernist window types. The flat roof and crisp horizontal lines were punctuated by a siren tower along the western façade; brick fencing along the south perimeter offered privacy for a garden patio. An emblem of civic readiness, the RVFD signaled an era of modern urbanity, public safety, and community planning.
Not surprisingly, the RVFD has long since outgrown the 1966 building. Current plans call for a $5 million renovation for technological improvements and a Victorian-style exterior to match the neo-traditionalism of Town Center. If completed, this represents yet another loss of a well-designed modernist building in Rockville and a deepening disconnect with the City’s recent past – a vitally important era in local history. Peerless encourages the RVFD to retain the architectural character and historicity of its 1966 flagship station while continuing to ensure public safety and innovation.