TCAN serves the MetroWest region by increasing opportunities to experience, participate in, and learn about the arts.
To this end, TCAN strives to present arts programs of the highest standard that are available to everyone.
TCAN dedicates its resources to providing community access to diverse arts programs, reducing barriers to attendance, and building appreciation through arts education.
The Historic Firehouse
“FIRE!” An urgent cry echoes through the dimly lit streets of Natick, Massachusetts early Monday morning on January 13, 1874 – before invention of the automobile or the telephone, and less than 9 years following the end of the Civil War. Natick’s local shoemaker Henry Wilson serves in the White House as Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant. On this fateful morning before sunrise, Natick’s worst tragedy was about to unfold.
A Night of Tragedy
Intense heat waves rise from flames 25 feet high, destroying 18 business blocks, two shoe factories, the Town Hall, Natick’s only fire engine house and the Congregational Church, as well as many private homes. Much of Natick’s population lived in this downtown area and were awakened by the shouting, the confusion in the streets. On the corner of Summer and Main, Natick’s understaffed and poorly equipped Fire Department bravely fought the blaze, supported by fire companies from South Natick, Ashland, Framingham, Newton and Boston.
In spite of their heroic efforts, by 7:00 AM – a short four hours after the fire was discovered – the downtown area was sadly and completely destroyed. The tragic loss was greater in proportion to the town’s wealth than either the Boston or Chicago fires. Natick’s downtown area lay in ashes. Though Natick was fortunate to have lost no lives in the fire of 1874, the townspeople of Natick were left in bitter shock and devastation. Somehow they found the strength to begin rebuilding the town’s commercial center – starting with the town selectmen’s approval of funding for construction of a new Firehouse.
1875 – A New Beginning
Twelve months later, Natick’s new Central Fire Station was completed on Summer Street in 1875 and opened with grand ceremony on the same city block where the great fire was first discovered. Its four massive doors opened to large storage bays where horse-drawn fire carriages stood waiting under large leather harnesses, which were lowered onto the waiting horses at the sound of the new fire bell. The state-of-the-art facilities rejuvenated Natick’s firemen, inspiring their championship performance at the National Hook and Ladder competition in 1891 and winning Natick the proud title of “Home of Champions.”
120 Years Later: The Ravages of Time
As years passed, horse-drawn fire carriages were replaced by motorized fire engines. New facilities were built. After serving the Town of Natick for over 120 years, the aging Central Fire Station fell into disrepair. By the early 1990s, the fire station itself became a fire hazard as exposed asbestos, a leaky roof, and an old and obsolete electrical system rendered the building unusable as a fire station. In spite of its historic past, some Town leaders proposed the sale of the building for office space, even suggesting demolition to provide a parking lot for downtown businesses.
2003 – Rebirth As Natick’s Art Center
A group of concerned Natick citizens had other ideas. After successfully launching TCAN in a rented storefront beginning in 1997, they proposed to purchase and restore the old Central Fire Station as a larger, more permanent home for the organization. They hoped to provide a venue for regional and national musicians, theatre groups, painters and artisans to share their work and enrich the cultural fabric of the MetroWest area. In April 2001, the Town of Natick sold the Central Fire Station property to TCAN, with the express purpose of creating a facility dedicated to the arts. The plan would save the Firehouse, preserving this historical Natick landmark as a community treasure. Through the hard work and contributions of thousands of volunteers, sponsors and contributors, The Center for Arts in Natick opened its new venue in 2003, providing a 290-seat performance space, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems and the Summer Street Gallery for visual arts.
Present Day – The Center For Arts in Natick (TCAN)
The performance stage now hosts over 300 performances, movie screenings and classes annually, while providing local artists in Natick and surrounding communities with frequent performance opportunities. Most importantly, TCAN brings people together to share all forms of artistic expression. The Central Fire House in Natick remains a memorial to the dedicated people who rebuilt Natick in 1875, and, as The Center for Arts in Natick, it now stands as a tribute to those who combined their efforts to restore the Summer Street Firehouse as a center of community life in Natick.
In October 2005, the Firehouse and TCAN were recognized by the Massachusetts Historical Commission with a Preservation Award for the restoration and creative reuse of this treasured building. Noted highlights of the firehouse restoration included reconstruction of the original hose-drying tower, replacement of the historic cupola, restoration of windows and masonry, a new roof, and the return of the modified two double-bay entrances to the original four arched bays, complete with fully-functioning wood doors. The cost of the project was about $2.2 million, funded in part by contributions raised through TCAN’s capital campaign. Many of these contributors are recognized as members of TCAN’s Founders Circle of major donors.
In the fall of 2016, a second capital campaign provided $1.7 million to renovate the second floor of the firehouse as a digital cinema venue and performance space. The project allows the entire facility to be used for arts programs, increasing attendance to over 30,000 patrons each year. By the end of 2019, the campaign had achieved its goal to retire the remaining debt from the 2003 restoration.
Our thanks to the Natick Historical Society and Museum for use of their archives and assistance in preparing this article. Visit the Museum at 58 Eliot Street in South Natick, next to the South Natick Dam.