In 1978, Jon Alpert was out walking a colleague’s dog across from his loft at the intersection of Lafayette and White Streets. He stopped for the dog to do his business in front of a firehouse that had been abandoned eight years earlier, and noticed an auction sign on the door. There was a name and a number to call.
Entirely by accident, Alpert had found the future home of what in time would become the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) at 87 Lafayette. “I didn’t even know it existed,” he laughed. “It was only because of this dog.”
Alpert and Keiko Tsuno had just started the center, operated out of their loft. With the demand they were getting from eager youth wanting to rent film equipment, they needed to move their newborn company to a more practical space. The firehouse’s high ceilings would allow their television studio’s lights and air-conditioning to be a proper distance from the ground.
Now, more than 40 years later, DCTV has become an educational media arts center and work studio space for artists and filmmakers. In 1994, it became the first interactive television studio. Dozens of films have been produced on its watch, 16 of which have won Emmy awards.
Aside from a small wooden sign on the front door with the words “Downtown Community TV Center” lettered in gold, the exterior of the firehouse looks much like it did when the building was first completed in 1896. It’s typical of the work of architect Napoleon Le Brun and has the feel of a 16th-century Gothic church. The roof has castle-like charm with gargoyles that passersby might miss if they don’t look up, and spires that shoot upwards from its four corners.
The interior, however, has been totally transformed. Classrooms and a large event hall now take up the second floor, regularly filled with high school and college students eager to learn the art of filming. There are just a few traces of the old firehouse: A hose rack still sits on the mezzanine level and a fire pole is visible on the first floor. The large, and unused garage doors outside and its window rims still shine bright red.
The firehouse was built on what was once Collect Pond, or “Kolk” Pond as the Dutch named it when New York was New Amsterdam. It spanned about eight acres of the area and was a popular 18th century gathering spot, a water source for the city, and the location of several tanneries, which surrounded it. Before the city drained the pond in 1808, the impoverished used it as a squat and others found it convenient for dumping ashes, old crockery, and even dead horses.
Between 1810 and 1820, the city filled in the surrounding marshy area and drained it with a canal, the namesake of Canal Street. Collect Pond soon was no more. In 1838, the city put the first “Tombs Prison” on the site.
It was not long after the building of the prison, in the mid-1800s, that preliminary work began to move City Hall and other municipal buildings to the area. As workmen began to drill into the ground, they ran into unexpected problems: “The drills encounter the springs of the old Collect and water comes gushing up as if the fountains of the deep had come loose.” As a New York Times article explained years later, it turned out that the pond had not actually been drained. It had only been submerged. Nonetheless, development of the site continued.
Near the end of the 19th century, Engine Company 31 lost its firehouse at 116 Leonard Street when the New York Life Insurance Company bought it to expand its own building, located adjacently at 346 Broadway. The Fire Department commissioned Le Brun and his architectural firm to design a new building at 87 Lafayette, just two blocks north of their Leonard Street location. Le Brun was much admired at the time and known for his designs of several Gothic-style churches in Philadelphia and New York. He also drew the plans for the Masonic Temple on West 23rd Street. After Le Brun’s death, his firm designed what was then known as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower, though you may know it as the clock tower with the tall spire at Madison Square Park.
By 1897, the new firehouse at 87 Lafayette was ready for Engine Company 31, which would operate from the facility for over 70 years. Landmark status granted to the building in 1966 described its “special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.” It also said the building “demonstrates that the City recognized that it could create structures that rivaled the finest architecture on Fifth Avenue, both as the architectural grace and use of fine materials.” Some time after the engine company moved out of the building in 1970, and later disbanded in 1972, the firehouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But it was also about to sink. In 1970, the last year the engine company was still on the premises, the foundation was sinking further and further into the mud. “The firehouse was basically standing on nothing,” Alpert explained. Still, the property was desirable and the city reclaimed it after the engine company moved out. There were a number of potential takers, among them a dance group, a local YMCA, a Chinese-American senior citizens center, and later, Alpert and Tsuno.
The building was sold at auction to the Chinatown Service Center in early 1975, but was foreclosed on just a year later and subsequently repossessed by the city. In 1978, not long after Alpert stumbled upon the firehouse, he and Tsuno moved the center out of their loft and into the firehouse, paying $500 per month in rent to the city.
Alpert and Tsuno wanted to buy the space badly but didn’t have the money. That’s when the Vice President of the New York Public Development Corporation (now called the New York Economic Development Corporation) came to their rescue in the form of Margaret Guarino. Alpert recounts that after Guarino came to the firehouse to visit the center in the early 1980s, she was impressed by the quality of their classes and the lending arrangements they made for allowing young people to use their cameras and other equipment. She strongly encouraged the city to sell the building to Alpert and Tsuno. “She basically single handedly was the one who enabled us to buy the building from the city,” Alpert said. “She saved us.”
Alpert and Tsuno were well aware of the building’s swampy troubles and accepted the city’s condition that they take responsibility for its complete renovation. In order to afford the building, they split the cost of $400,000 with the Chinese-American Planning Council, which became joint owner when they were finally able to buy it in 1983. The reconstruction and renovation cost a fortune. Alpert said the city estimated the cost would be $100,000; other sources say the city projected a cost of $650,000. But the project wound up costing $800,000 and it took several years to complete. “We had to dig way, way down until we found solid rock and put our new structure on top of that rock,” Alpert recalled.
Gradually, after doing the foundation work, Alpert and Tsuno would renovate the space as funding trickled in. But the infrastructure problems didn’t end. Between the time of Thomas Wang’s ownership of the building and Alpert’s, an artist tenant retaliated against his eviction by causing excessive damage to the water pipes. “Unknown to us, he stuffed these fire poles down the train pipes on the roof,” Alpert remembered. “So eventually the drain pipes stilted up and the building flooded.”
None of this, however, has stopped the Downtown Community Television Center from becoming widely known in the arts and media world in New York. It shares the space with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, an advocacy group founded in 1993 to push for legislative action to reduce gun violence.
The Center hosts dozens of events throughout the year for organizations in need of space. Last May, the Muslim Writers’ Collective hosted its bimonthly open mic along with a film screening for independent Muslim-American filmmakers. The center also hosts screenings of its own students’ films, and has events dedicated entirely to filmmakers of color. In December, it screened documentaries such as the acclaimed Citizenfour and Nefertiti’s Daughters.
As the center accommodates more students and expands its services, the 30-plus-year renovation goes on. Alpert and Tsuno have a plan to set up a lower level theater for daily screenings of documentaries. “One day we hope we can also use it for programming,” Alpert said, “but right now, it’s just a big basement.”
A group of young New Yorkers who participated in one of the Center’s workshops last year compiled their work into a documentary, Our Cameras, Our Stories, broadcast by PBS. Alpert spoke to Broadway World about the youth who filmed, edited, and produced the piece. “Their voices are no less valid than the adults in our world,” he said. “This program gives the youth of New York a voice and we see no reason why it can’t serve as a pilot program for young people all over the world.”