(A version of this column was originally published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 8, 2019.)
At the core of a firehouse is anticipation: the possibility that the crew could spring into action at any time.
That anticipation at 117 Water St. in Torrington last flared into purpose on in June of 1980, when the engines answered their final calls from the firehouse completed in 1901.
It served as storage for the new firehouse, built next door. Designated a historic building on the National Register of Historic Places, it served as a museum during the 1990s, then languished for more than 20 years until a father and son team from Bristol decided it would make a great spot for a brewery.
Now more than thirsty wanna-be hipsters like me are rooting for Bad Dog Brewing at the Old Firehouse to succeed when they open, perhaps this fall. With hopes that it will improve Torrington’s downtown economic situation and remain true to its historic roots, there’s a lot riding on a software engineer and his 21-year-old son, the head brewer.
The two-story Romanesque Revival-style building, designed by Charles S. Palmer, was built in an era when the fire engines were pulled by horses, who waited in stalls behind the building.
The first floor was primarily for offices and a gear room, and the spot where the horses, and later trucks, would head out. There were more offices on the second floor, along with furnished social rooms, a parlor, a reading room, and living quarters.
It was a while before the firehouse had its own kitchen, explained retired Torrington Fire Capt. Joseph McElroy, who served after the old firehouse was discontinued. McElroy served as the president of the Northwest Connecticut Firefighting Museum of Torrington, an organization that lasted seven years, until 1997. He said he’s fought to keep the building from being torn down in the past, and is happy that a brewery will give it new life.
“There’s a lot of character in the building,” he said.
Its firefighters faced arguably their biggest challenge with the Gavlick Fire in July 1973. The Torrington factory complex was tremendously destructive, but firefighters from Torrington and surrounding towns kept it from spreading.
Architect Joe Alicata, who has been working on the restoration of the building with building owner J.R. Laliberte of Watertown for more than 10 years, said he was impressed with the original masonry done on the building.
“This has a lot of challenges to it, while still keeping its character,” said Alicata, who remembers visiting the firehouse as a child in the early 1960s. “As a part of history, it’s worthy of preserving… It’s the history of the town and sort of a museum itself.”
Rebuilding a legacy
On a recent roasting morning, Christopher Tkac (pronounced “tack”), gave me a tour of the building, which is still more old firehouse than brewery. In nice weather, patrons will be able to enter through two of the three bay doors, and they’ll likely encounter an imposing 1939 Seagrave fire truck, with its lights on.
After a seating area, one bar will be toward the back of the first floor, probably with about 10 taps: five continuous and five rotating seasonal.
On the second floor, which like the first boasts about 5,000 square feet of space, there will be more space to mingle, along with private rooms.
The 21-year-old started brewing beer before he could legally drink it, with his Father’s Day present to his dad two years ago.
Their brewing together felt like a continuation of a bond that started when the younger Tkac was in scouts.
Christopher has experience in retail food management and has brewed on a similar, but smaller, version of the 2-barrel brewhouse with which he plans to brew up to three times a day. He’s also brewed at Shebeen Brewing in Wolcott, he said.
“Everyone’s making beer,” he said. “You sort of have to offer more.”
Choosing a spot
After looking at several surrounding towns, the Tkacs’ said that Torrington was particularly welcoming, with a meeting with the mayor and economic development team set up in a few days.
Christopher said working with the city has been easily. “Everyone is super excited about this coming here,” he said. “I really want to offer them a great experience they’re going to love. They were so welcoming to me that I just want to give back to the town to make it great, like the people are.”
Zoned as part of the “downtown district,” Bad Dog Brewing has gone through city approvals, so now it’s up to the reconstruction to bring the building up to code.
A father’s support
The elder Tkac, 52-year-old Matthew, said the brewery adventure may have come about quickly, but he and his son are fully on board in this new setting.
“It’s an old firehouse, and we are trying to keep that firehouse feel,” Matthew said, pointing out that he and his son are turning some of the old rafters into tables.
“I’m used to dealing with companies, but dealing with individual customers is new, and that’s where my son comes in,” Matthew said. “Plus, he understands the process (of making beer). He is really into it. He’s found his passion with beer. He can’t learn enough. He soaks it up.”
Until next time, sip well.