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John VanPelt lives in the old Central Fire Station Downtown. He bought the 111-year-old structure in January. It has been used as a residence for more than 15 years, although it has been vacant the past several years. The firehouse was built in 1903 a...
Jax Daily Record Friday, May. 2, 201412:00 PM EST

Man who lives in old fire station may have coolest house Downtown


John VanPelt bought a house. At least that’s how he frames it.

But it’s no model-home suburban-type spread. It’s the 111-year-old former Central Fire Station at Adams and Ocean streets, with a huge garage on the ground floor and equally huge living quarters on the top floor with views of the Downtown urban core.

VanPelt says he wonders why everyone else seems curious about the purchase, made Jan. 21. “A guy bought a house,” he says. “Film at 11.”

But the self-described introvert knows why.

First, he bought a site of historic significance. The fire station was one of the first structures built after the 1901 fire that destroyed Downtown.

Second, the building isn’t in a residential enclave. It’s at 39 E. Adams St., the northwest corner of two major Downtown thoroughfares, capping a row of buildings that range from the popular Burrito Gallery and Indochine restaurants to vacant structures with no signs of occupancy. Busy northbound Ocean Street is to the immediate east.

Third, the building had been remodeled as a residence, but has been vacant for about four years, piquing the interest of Downtown regulars about what would become of it.

Fourth, his purchase — property records show he paid $600,000 for the building — is another signal of revival in the area. Across Adams Street sits the former Haydon Burns Public Library under renovation into the Jessie Ball duPont Center for nonprofits.

And fifth, VanPelt knows there is potential there, although he doesn’t have specific plans.

“It’s neat,” he says. “I’ve walked past it 18,000 times.”

He knew it was on the market, but with the building having been vacant, he wasn’t sure what shape it was in.

“I disregarded it. You think, ‘a converted old firehouse?’ You wouldn’t think of this,” he says, indicating the second-floor sunny, tiled garden room with a music center and office on one side, a huge great room, kitchen and dining area on the other and two bedroom suites to the back. It’s brightened by numerous skylights and vaulted ceilings.

A fireplace is centered in the great room on an elevated, corner stage that VanPelt quickly explains is an “inglenook,” which is a chimney corner. He also had been corrected when he first saw it.

VanPelt, 50, was familiar with Downtown. He already owned some units at Churchwell Lofts a few blocks away on Bay Street, and lived in one. Another loft unit was part of a property swap with the seller in the firehouse purchase.

Property records show a deed transferred the day of the sale from VanPelt to Ben Baggett for a Churchwell Lofts condo valued at $250,000, which prices the sale of the Central Fire Station building at $350,000. The Duval County Property Appraiser assesses the building’s value at $287,088 for tax purposes.

Downtown was convenient because the base for his hobby of restoring cars is on the Westside and his 14-year-old son attends the Episcopal School of Jacksonville east across the St. Johns River.

VanPelt figured Downtown was a central location. The New Jersey native had lived in other Jacksonville neighborhoods since arriving in 1992.

“Downtown? Why not?” he says.

VanPelt prefers not to talk about himself, but shared some background. He started his career with AT&T and did well, transferring to Lake Mary, near Orlando, in 1990 and soon after to Jacksonville.

He leased an apartment, sight unseen, off Southside Boulevard and he soon found a different place in Riverside/Avondale. “I much prefer ‘funky,’” he says.

He met his wife, also with AT&T, and they had a son, who was just 3 when his mother died. During his wife’s illness, VanPelt left corporate America and, with the backing of good investments, pursued his hobby of buying, restoring and customizing cars with some friends.

Another friend is area Mellow Mushroom owner John Valentino. The school bus, Volkswagen bus and fire trucks in three Mellow Mushroom restaurants were customized by VanPelt.

He calls working with Valentino “fun stuff. Really, really fun stuff.”

“People who are creative and know what they’re doing are fun to work with,” he said.

When VanPelt began considering investing in the Central Fire Station, he talked with a friend about a business there. He also looked at a few other Downtown buildings.

“I wanted something vibey,” he says. He is “exploring converting to mixed use, but there are no plans at the moment.”

Oliver Barakat, chairman of the Downtown Investment Authority, said the firehouse is “one of the cooler buildings Downtown and I’d love to see the ground floor activated with a retail concept.”

The fire station’s first floor is about 5,000 square feet of garage space, while the second floor is the same size for the living quarters. VanPelt’s fine with keeping the building as a home for him, his teenage son and his 4-year-old son from a second marriage.

Still, it can be a weird place, he says. If the garage door is open, people wander in with cameras, sometimes climbing the stairway to the second-floor household. They mistakenly think it’s a fire station and open for a tour.

VanPelt said Baggett obviously invested significantly in upgrading the space, judging by the design and the quality of the interior work.

Building permits show that more than $110,000 has been spent on renovations and foundation repairs since 1996.

As for what’s next, VanPelt talks about administrative and regulatory issues he faces if he wants to develop the property with a commercial side.

“It works for me as a house, but I wish somebody Downtown would understand why every other building is a ‘dead eye,’” he says, referring to the many vacancies along streets that also feature offices, stores, restaurants and lounges.

VanPelt says he runs into institutional resistance to some development attempts and he urges more “deeds, not words” toward Downtown’s progress, wondering about the psyche of “you can’t” rather than “how can we do it?”

“Jacksonville is long on vision but short on action,” he said. “But that’s changing.”

He is clear that he believes the city has a bright future.

“People don’t appreciate this place,” he said, explaining that many in Jacksonville are long-term residents and don’t have the vision of seeing the city with “fresh eyes.”

“It’s awesome. I love this city. I with everyone here had had the chance to live somewhere else. You would love this place,” he said.

He’s also optimistic for his site.

“I made a big bet on this building. In 10 years, Jacksonville will be amazing.”

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