Looking very much like it might be part of the architectural heritage of Harvard University, the campus of which surrounds this historic structure on all sides, is the Headquarters of the City of Cambridge Fire Department. It also serves as the base of operations for Engine Company 1, Ladder Company 1 and Rescue Company 1 of the city’s resources. There are a total of seven other fire department stations throughout Cambridge.
Known among firefighters as The Big House, the grand structure at 491 Broadway in central Old Cambridge sits just a stone’s throw from both Harvard Yard and Harvard’s grand polychromed Gothic Memorial Hall. Just ahead of the vehicular forecourt of The Big House, the streets of Broadway and Cambridge converge and merge to burrow beneath the plaza bearing hundreds of students and faculty traversing from Harvard Yard to the northern parts of campus, before surfacing once again a few hundred yards to the west to meet the central greensward of Cambridge Commons.
The Fire Headquarters building is an articulated three-story mass of Georgian architecture, rendered in soft red brick. Its central portion rises the full three levels, and is capped by a richly ornamented pediment and gabled roof. The two symmetrical flanking wings rise only two stories, finishing at stone balustrades. Light stone banding and the detailing of medallions, keystones, brackets and strongly vertical white-framed multi-pane windows complete the composition. The structure’s handsome western elevation faces the paved forecourt of parking and vehicle maneuvering space, with access to both Broadway and Cambridge Street.
Cambridge was first incorporated as a City in 1846 (over 200 years after the founding of the University that created the community’s reason for being). Over the following fifty years, the organization of community government had proceeded past volunteer fire brigades to a full-fledged fire department, operating out of several locations throughout the city. By 1912, the Cambridge fire house had become the department’s premier facility, and the logical choice for its headquarters of operation.