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Fire Hall to Become Ultimate Man Cave

Construction continues on transforming a historic site into one man's dream abode.

Mon July 22, 2013 - National Edition
SHAUN BYRON - The Flint Journal

LINDEN, Mich. (AP) - Gavin Smith was ready to trade his view of Lake Fenton for his own Fortress of Solitude.

“I was done with living on the lake and told my Realtor, ’Find me the ultimate man cave.’” said Smith, a photographer who shoots everything from weddings to the Detroit Lions. “I didn’t know what it was going to be. An old garage. An old warehouse.

“I wanted to make something into the ultimate man cave.”

It was two hours after that phone call his real estate agent called him back to say she had found his “mantuary,” according to The Flint Journal.

Smith is now the owner of Linden’s historic fire hall and is in the midst of turning the building’s three floors into his studio and home that will eventually include a deck on the roof.

Built in 1909 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has also served as the city’s police department, library, and was most recently a dance studio, according to city officials.

It’s also home to plenty of legends, such rumors that a cache of Prohibition-era booze was once stored in the basement and a former structure on the property had played a role in the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing the South during the 1800s.

Smith said he has spent the last few months talking to contractors and doing work in his free time to create his ultimate man castle.

He closed on the building in late November and moved in last March once some work had been completed on the living area in the top floor.

Smith admits it’s been more work than he originally anticipated, but is enjoying the chance to make something uniquely his own.

“I’m a little dangerous-handy,” he said laughing. “I’m only so good, but I’m having fun.

“When the construction guys get here, I annoy them because I like to have my hands in everything. So, in between clients, I’m sanding doors. I’m painting walls. I’m starting to learn how to plumb, electrical.”

The plan is to use the basement floor where the fire truck was housed as a garage for Smith’s sports car. He’s going to have a glass wall on the interior of the garage that will be etched with a racing stripe as well as a picture of firefighters from a historical photograph.

The ground floor will serve as the space for his photography studio and offices. Its brick walls are lined with various examples of his work, including photographs of Detroit sports stars and various pieces of memorabilia.

The top floor is being used as a flat. Smith plans to knock out a wall that separates the kitchen area from the living space, opening it up.

“I’m the kind of person who does it once and does it right, so we are pulling up every board that is rotted, pulling up anything that needs to go or be replaced,” he said.

Smith is also attempting to save as much of the original look to the building as possible, ripping out carpeting to get down to the wood floors, which will be sanded and refinished.

He’s keeping the boiler and has torn out drywall that covered some of the brick walls.

“You can tell everyone that has been here has just kind of nickeled and dimed it back together and just made it, barely,” he said.

Since the building is historic and registered as such, Smith has to abide by certain guidelines.

Owners are notified when they pull permits for construction on buildings if the site is considered historic and that they must go before the Linden Historic District Commission to get approval for work.

Since the fire hall is registered, the guidelines for renovations and restoration are mandated by the federal government. This means Smith has to retain as much of the original character of the structure as possible.

None of which bothers him.

While the wood floors will be sanded, he said the old oil stains will be untouched, giving the place character.

Retaining the history of a structure like the fire hall is important to saving the community’s history, according to David Kincaid, president of the Linden Mills Historical Society.

Kincaid, who is married to Linden Mills Historical Society Museum Curator Barbara Kindcaid, gives walking tours of the historical sites in the community.

While it’s not the oldest structure in town, the fire hall is certainly one of the community’s jewels, he said.

Linden’s fire department started out as a volunteer bucket brigade, with 13 members.

“When they got the fire truck, they were going to park it in the first floor, but it was wooden and they were afraid it would crash through the floor,” he said. “So they built a ramp and started parking them in the basement.”

By the 1930s, the fire department had left the building and the fire hall went on to serve various other purposes, he said.

Smith said he’d like to get artifacts from that time to display in the building, but they’ve been difficult to come by.

Linden’s Fire Department has given him the bell that sat outside of the building and an original ladder, but much it has been picked over, he said, adding reclaimed wood from a family cherry farm in Traverse City is being used to add to the renovations.

The dance company that had outgrown the building left a year and a half ago and several people had approached the city with ideas of how the fire hall could be reused, Mayor David Lossing said.

“We had site plans for that to be turned into a brew pub, but they couldn’t make the floor space work with all the equipment needed,” he said.

Smith has been careful to not alter the building and the work he has done, such as replacing the front windows, has been very tasteful, Lossing said.

“He’s been helping to recruit some other folks into the city and we’ve been talking to a couple of other folks that are looking to buy some of the other buildings,” he said. “It takes that kind of spark to re-energize the town.”

The main floor where the studio is located is 90 percent done and Smith said he is hoping to have the basement walkout completed by the end of August.

“Probably start on the roof late fall, or early next year,” he said.”We want to do a whole outdoor sitting area.”

The fire hall has also allowed Smith to add more of his own character to his studios, which he leased space for in Fenton and Grand Blanc.

“Being able to bring my business and have my home up above, it’s awesome and horrible at the same time,” he joked. “My clients can always find me; my employees can always find me.

“It’s really hard to get away from work, but I absolutely love what I do.”

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