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Firehouse fresh start

July 25, 2007|By Michael Miller

NEWPORT BEACH — A piece of local history sits in the window at Balboa Island's newest boutique, so small and so colorless that it almost disappears amid the bright array of summer clothes.

The undated black-and-white picture shows the old Balboa Island firehouse and police station, probably sometime in the 1930s, with an antiquated fire truck and police car surrounded by eight uniformed officers. The window display is a source of pride for the local firefighters, who sometimes wave and honk when they drive by the store.

They aren't just acknowledging the picture, however. They're also saying hello to their former home.

Fresh Produce, a sportswear retailer for women and children, opened this month in the building that housed the Balboa Island firehouse for 63 years.

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The firehouse closed in 1994, in part due to seismic problems and in part because modern fire trucks were getting too large to fit through the door. Now, after a series of renovations by store owners Deanna Frieze and Charlie Rohrer, the Balboa landmark is up and running again.

"The business owners have brought me gifts," said Frieze, Rohrer's fiancee, who oversees all Fresh Produce stores in Southern California. "People are so glad that something has finally happened with this building."

For a while, it seemed to many as though nothing ever would. The station, which opened in 1931, went on the city's auction block in the early 1990s and was bought by a husband and wife who tried unsuccessfully to convert it into a restaurant.

The Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society attempted to purchase the firehouse in 1999, but failed to raise enough funds.

A little more than a year ago, Frieze and Rohrer contacted the property owners and laid out plans for modernization.

The couple eventually leased the building and retrofitted it, adding interior walls and replacing steel, but they also sought to preserve the flavor of the firehouse.

In place of the old garage door where the fire trucks once exited, the couple installed a similar one with glass paneling for customers to see through.

Rohrer, a custom home builder who also runs an art gallery in Laguna Beach, had a delicate task in creating the Fresh Produce store: following his artistic muse while keeping the community's interest in mind.

"By doing the glass garage door and keeping the building intact, we were able to preserve the integrity of the old firehouse, which was important not only to the owners but to the city," he said.

While the customers pack Fresh Produce, Balboa Island's firefighters reside down the block in the new firehouse that the city built in 1994. Some of them remember working in the old one — staying in the cramped living quarters, repainting the sides of the door frame after the trucks dinged them time and again.

"It's nice that it's not a vacant building anymore," Capt. Terry Hoiland said. "They did a nice job."


  • MICHAEL MILLER may be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

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