A Look Back At ... Before The Nines

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By Charley Githler

Tompkins Weekly

The city is reviewing plans for a six-story apartment building that would replace The Nines – the fire station-turned restaurant and bar at 311 College Ave.

The 80-foot tall building proposed by Collegetown developer Todd Fox of Visum Development, and designed by Ithaca architect Jagat Sharma, would have 825-square-feet of retail space, five studio apartments on the first floor, and 45 apartments on the upper floors. As another piece of Ithaca history bows to progress, it’s appropriate to take a look at the story of Old Firehouse Number 9.

Familiar to thousands of local residents, The Nines has been a de facto gathering place in Collegetown for more than 100 years. While nobody can fault the sellers for exercising their rights as property owners, it is fitting and proper to note the passing of a structure that looms so large in the memories of so many people. It is not a grand structure, but its location in the heart of Collegetown makes it central to the story of the neighborhood. The home of scores of Cornell students over the decades, it has spent 60 years as a firehouse, and 45 years as a bar and a restaurant.

It’s a building that witnessed the honking horns and conga line World War I celebrations on College Avenue in November 1918. It also saw the blue and white clouds of police tear gas in May 1972, when anti-war protesters smashed several windows of the First National Bank and Trust Company on the corner of Dryden Road and College Avenue, and tried to set the building on fire with torches.

After Cornell opened for business in 1868, the demand for student housing close to campus spurred development in the Collegetown neighborhood. By 1889, there were 59 residences in Collegetown, and between 1904 and 1910, 20 new houses were built on College Avenue (called “Heustis Street” until 1909). The heyday of Collegetown boarding houses was during that period – roughly 1880-1915. (The first dormitory at Cornell didn’t open until 1914.)

Most of those structures, though, in the words of a Cornell historian, were “cheap, ugly and hazardous.” Fires had become a constant threat due to wooden construction, lack of running water in some buildings, and continued use of kerosene and gas lighting in most of the houses.

Though there were five fire alarm boxes on East Hill by the 1890s, the boxes could be operated only by designated keyholders, and all the firehouses were downtown. It took 20 (and more often 30) minutes to get fire equipment up the hill when fires occurred.

And so, in 1895, a group of 47 students and faculty established the Neriton Fire Company Number 9 in Collegetown. (The Cornellians in the fire company were making an allusion to the high spot on East Hill and the mountain Neriton overlooking ancient Ithaki in The Odyssey.)

The existing 311 College Ave. building was constructed in two phases. The rear section was built as a wooden structure with a bell tower, located on the south side of Dryden Road west of the College Avenue intersection in 1895, and when the station and site were deemed too small, it was moved by teams of horses to the rear of a vacant lot at 311 College Ave. in 1905. The front section, which is the three-story brick and stucco building that most recognize, was added and formally opened on Thursday, April 16, 1908.

That week, there was a pipe sale for discerning gentlemen at the smoke shop in Collegetown’s Sheldon Court. The defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, boasting the storied Tinker to Evers to Chance double play threat, beat Cincinnati on the road on that second day of the baseball season. And vaudevillian Eddie Foy was headlining downtown in Ithaca’s Lyceum Theatre.

The station was equipped with a Holloway Chemical Engine with twin 33-gallon tanks, a hose cart, and a 30-foot extension ladder. The fire equipment, as in all the Ithaca Fire Department firehouses at the time, was horse-drawn, and so two horses were on duty.

Back then, when new horses were acquired, they were broken in and trained in the downtown stations. One of the teams (named Bill and Mary) was transferred to Company 9 in 1906. When their first call came in to go north on College Avenue, they refused to pull the apparatus up the slight grade.

The fire department gradually started to replace horses with automotive equipment after about 1912. In due course, in 1916, an American LaFrance automobile pumper was purchased for the Neriton Fire Company Number 9, thanks to a $5,000 contribution from Cornell. It had been a display model at the San Francisco Pan American Exposition, and was thought to have more ‘spit and polish’ than the run of the mill machines off the production line. As fancy as it was, on January 24, 1925 it was unable to make its way up Dryden Road after a heavy snowfall, and the company was obliged to use the services of a citizen who still had a horse and sleigh to get its equipment to a fire on Cobb Street.

From the start, Cornellians stayed in rooms in the firehouse. By all accounts, it was a convivial atmosphere, redolent of cigar smoke and full of good-natured joshing. A large card game was the main event of each week. (One of the students who lived in the brand new firehouse when it opened was architecture student and champion wrestler William Hull Botsford, who later went down with the Titanic.)

The students involved in this arrangement were known as “bunkers.” In return for a free place to live while in Ithaca, they were expected to go out on all calls that occurred while they were in the building. Their function in the Ithaca Fire Department was actually quite important, and the bunker program was a critical component of the volunteer program until it was discontinued in the mid-2000s.

With changing needs, equipment and the deterioration of the structure over the following decades, in the 1960s the City of Ithaca decided that the best approach to modernizing their emergency services was to build an entirely new Fire Station Number 9 immediately next door, opening the new firehouse in 1968.

Local restauranteur Michael Turback bought the vacant brick building in 1971 at auction for $40,000. He envisioned an establishment on the first floor that would fill the void of the recently-departed Zinck’s, which had closed in February 1967, with shops and retail space upstairs. When the bar first opened in 1974, a fire engine was still parked along the wall. Patrons were free to climb on the engine. In time, the engine was moved to the center and a wooden bar was built around it.

In the 1970s, the drinking age was 18 and the Nines was immediately popular with Cornell undergraduates. Filled to capacity on Friday and Saturday nights during the academic year, it was primarily a bar. With specials like “Wild Turkey Night,” the atmosphere could be decidedly raucous.

Ultimately, the shops upstairs didn’t pan out and the first iteration of The Nines struggled, perhaps in the face of a rising drinking age. Turback sold the building to Harold Schultz and Mark Kielmann, who opened a revamped and somewhat more staid version of The Nines in 1980, and Kielmann has run the place ever since. In the ensuing 37 years, little has changed in the formula that has made The Nines successful: Good food, live music, exposed brick walls and wooden ceilings.

If The Nines could be said to be synonymous with one dish, it would be its deep-dish pizza. Live music is also an integral part of The Nines, and Sunday nights are reserved for an acoustically-oriented open mic night. Given its location, The Nines naturally still attracts a predominantly college crowd, but it has certainly been an established part of the larger Ithaca community for decades.

Although the former No. 9 fire station is well-recognized in the neighborhood and more than a century old, the building is not a designated historic landmark. The economics of such a prime location make its replacement almost inevitable.

It’s not a done deal yet, though – The Nines remains open for business. It’s good to remember that Collegetown has never been a static neighborhood. Collegetown now is not the Collegetown of the 1970s. Nor was the 1970s neighborhood the same as it was in the 1920s. Still, as the vestiges of the past are replaced with apartment buildings, there’s time yet to visit a place steeped in the echoes of days gone by.

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