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Artist brings dream to life at old Tampa Heights fire station

The firehouse was built in 1925 and decommissioned in the 1980s. It has also been an office building.
The firehouse was built in 1925 and decommissioned in the 1980s. It has also been an office building.
Published Apr. 12, 2016

TAMPA HEIGHTS — The lookout tower rises above Florida Avenue, dwarfing the Metropolitan Ministries building to its right and the YMCA to its left.

Nearly 100 years ago, this tower was used to watch over the city. A decade ago it sat empty. In the coming months, it will become artist Dominique Martinez's den.

"It's funny; when I was little I always wanted a tower on my house," said the metal sculptor.

In 2007, Martinez bought Fire Station No. 5 with a dream of turning the empty shell just north of downtown into his residence and gallery. In the coming weeks, those dreams will finally become a reality. Martinez plans to open the gallery, which will feature the work of local artists as well as more famous names such as Matisse, at the end of April.

Martinez runs Rustic Steel Creations near the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and N Highland Avenue. His work can be found throughout the bay area. Clients include the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ulele, Epicurean and Busch Gardens, to name a few. He has also created his steel sculptures for clients in New York, Orlando and the British Virgin Islands.

When he first saw the fire station nine years ago, Martinez fell in love with the building's history.

Built in 1925, the 6,500-square-foot building served as the neighborhood's fire station until it was decommissioned in the 1980s. It served a few stints as an office building, and then sat mostly empty.

In 2007, the city requested proposals to give the abandoned building a new purpose. Martinez's pitch to turn it into a home and gallery beat out more than a dozen others, he said.

He got it for $300,000, plus the donation of a piece of art to the city.

"I wanted to make it my home," he said. "But I didn't want to close off the building to the general public because it's part of the city's history."

It was in rough shape back in 2007. It needed a new roof and new electrical, plumbing and sewer lines. There was no mold, a good thing, but also no AC.

During the renovation, Martinez tried to bring back as much original detail as possible. The old roof trusses became his living room floor. He re-exposed the building's brick walls. He uncovered hidden archways.

"Nothing went to waste. I tried to salvage, save or restore everything I could," he said. "It was quite a task"

And quite a cost. Martinez doesn't want to give out exact renovation figures. "It's not something I like to think about," he said.

Many companies contributed services and products pro bono. A good thing since the economy crashed soon after he closed. Any funding he had secured for renovating the historic building disappeared.

His lenders told him: "good luck."

Martinez was able to secure some smaller loans. Over the past nine years, he also put a lot of sweat equity into the building. Progress has ramped up in the past few months, with Martinez devoting 14 hours a day to renovations.

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Members of the Preservation Roundtable, a subgroup of the nonprofit Tampa Preservation Inc., toured the firehouse recently.

"This project is one of the most exciting I've seen," said member and architectural historian Mary McCahon. "He has done a fabulous job on the whole building, breathing new life and use into it."

McCahon, a longtime resident of Tampa Heights, said the project will be a "game changer" for the neighborhood.

"Projects like this and Ulele spotlight Tampa Heights, its history and its potential," she said.

Martinez had hoped to open by the end of 2015. Then the end of January. Now, delivery delays have pushed things back to April.

It's okay, he wants to do it right.

The firehouse serves as the gateway to Tampa Heights, he says. Promoting the neighborhood, which was the city's first suburb, has always been a mission of his.

You can find his artwork throughout the area. The metal scorpion near the new Hidden Springs Ale Works on N Franklin Street? That's him. The rhino near the Tampa Heights Community Garden? Him again.

Now the firehouse will give him another chance to draw attention to the area.

"I can't wait to open the doors to the general public. I can't wait to see the faces of the firemen that worked in the building," he said. "I can't wait to display this hidden gem that's been literally buried for so long."

Contact Helen Anne Travis at hillsnews@tampabay.com.